Book Review: A Civilisational Impasse
by Shreeya Thussu on 24 Aug 2016 26 Comments

The Last Queen of Kashmir, by Rakesh K. Kaul, is a portrait of 14th century Kashmir, a society that would certainly pride itself on its liberalism, spirituality and civilisation. Ironically, these are the very values that modern-day Kashmir seems devoid of. To a young Kashmiri, the society and its milieu, which the author marks out, appear to be the stuff of dreams, comprising of values and ideals that do not exist even in contemporary cultures.


That is precisely what draws readers, especially young Kashmiris, to the book. It takes us through a journey in time vicariously experiencing a culture that could be ours, but seems to have been lost.  I find it rather unfortunate that these very values and patriotism seem so esoteric to young Kashmiris that they might never experience them. But as the reader moves in a journey with the protagonist these values become living embodiments. For the writer it has been an overwhelming experience that I wish to imbibe these values and pass them on to the generations after me.


I bumped into the Queen by sheer coincidence, vacationing in India and shopping in a Delhi Mall. The glossy cover has its protagonist peeping into some forlorn recesses of time, her eyes with profound melancholia. I got hooked to the dangling dejhoor (the symbol of marriage); in an instant she was my mother, sister, grand-mom, an epitome of all those Kashmiri ladies who have always prized the ornament as the most precious possession ever. I was not born in Kashmir, or in any other part of India. I was born in a foreign land and am preparing for another journey to yet another land.


The book remained wrapped till one reached the make-shift home in a foreign land. It seems we are homeless wanderers with the entire world as a home; cherry picking from Kashmiri story-teller, Vishnu Sharma, we have a feel of “Vasudheva Kutumbakam”. This is just another part of my learning from The Queen.


Kaul traces the movements of Kota Rani, the Queen, from her days at Sharda Peeth till her final denouement, when she “removed her dejhoor …. Kumara had said that the long war would crest and then she would rise again as the greatest protector of dharma … and that she would even be bigger than the legend”.


Kota, The Last Queen of Kashmir, is an overwhelming story that is recommended reading for every Kashmiri, old and young. It’s not just another story, it’s a pilgrimage to Kashmir, to their culture and to a civilisation they have every reason to be proud of. Kota’s journey reinforces one’s my faith in dharma, which subtly carries the civilisational compendium of being an Indian, being a Kashmiri.


Kota Rani is the personification of the feminist virtues of Kashmiri society, and is educated at Sharada Peeth. Perhaps the only girl among a cluster of boys graduating to manhood, she outshines them all. The curriculum in Sharada Peeth was drastically different from that of our times. It was invested in the thinking and questioning of ideas much bigger than oneself – the core ideas of dharma, consciousness and spirituality - and how to integrate them into society. This is in sync with the history of Kashmir at the time, as recorded in the works of Kalhan and Jonaraja.


Throughout the journey of her life, Kota is seen consulting her learning and her teachers to help her with the problems she faces. This represents a highly evolved society wherein learning and education are a never ending process. Her education provided her with strong moral rectitude and an undying love for the Kashmiri people and culture, but this very idealism left her incapable of realising the gravity of the threats posed by Achala and Shah Mir.


Kota is seen inscribing on the last page of her diary: “My father had trained me to be watchful of the attacks from the enemy without, but we were not watchful of the inroads the enemy had made within”. Ironically, her first-class education failed to help her cope with a Kashmir rapidly diverging from the one she was taught about. That being said, Kota Rani’s education does provide her with a staunch will to preserve Kashmiri heritage - its values, lihaz (consideration) and unparalleled compassion - the very compassion that paves the way for its destruction. 


The author succeeds in creating the narrative of two Kashmirs that are face to face at a cataclysmic time; the year 1339 becomes symbolic of that moment when one Kashmir prevailed over another, started eroding the place of its millennia-long consciousness and pushed it into an exile.  The Devswami who is the Chancellor at Sharda Peeth, while facing the destructive onslaught of the aliens, says in his last address to the departing faculty and students “May the whole world be free of terror”.  He continues:


“Yodhas! You have to cope with a long war. You are the representatives of the Sharda Civilisation, which for three and a half millennium years gave unmatched progress to its people. The world around us is changing and in the foreseeable future there will be two kinds of Kashmiris. There would be those Kashmiris who would obsess about the body of Kashmir; and there will be those Kashmiris who at dawn will salute Kashmir and with intense focus concentrate on its Sharda Spirit.


“Those who are like rocks shall bind with the earth and fight for land, gold and other earthly treasures; and those who flow like River Vitasta will concern themselves with our civilisation … When you leave never forget that as teachers you have a responsibility to the humanity, which you have to fulfil. You have to teach those who seek freedom from bondage, how to realise truth versus ignorance, beauty versus hideous and bliss versus agitation”.


These appear to be very deliberate words. And the author appears to be eulogizing rather than describing. It appears that the author is juxtaposing the happenings of seven hundred years ago with the present Kashmir. Time seems to have stopped. It is a time warp, a civilisational impasse. And one can relate to this stagnation. Kashmir of yonder grandeur stands eroded and is a desert, frozen.


Looking again at Kota’s eyes on the glossy cover of the book, one senses the deep pain of the loss of Kashmiri ideals and values. Kota fought for an ideal, like so many of Kashmir’s strong women, as narrated by our mothers, for their belief in vasudhaiva kutumbakam.


Shah Mir is the antagonist. An immigrant from the fallen Persia, he is welcomed by the liberal Kashmiri society and rapidly rises up the ranks in the court. Instead of being grateful to the people who provided him with respect and stature, he turns on them to feed his own ambition. We see him gradually regress from a moderate Muslim to a proselytising beast who has his own daughter and son-in-law brutally murdered.

His character is important to the storyline and one can see parallels with our contemporary world. In a war-stricken world swarming with refugees and immigrants, there is a lot of suspicion in the air. Should the world be as warm and open as the Kashmir of yesteryears? This was the Kashmir of Shah Mir and the zealot fakir. But, it was also the Kashmir of Yaniv and Sogdian, immigrants who died protecting the land that had nurtured them. To conclude, the issue is not black and white, and only time will tell how events unfold. 


The author, Rakesh K. Kaul, has provided readers an opportunity, nay a pilgrimage, into the Kashmir of distant years, recreating its richness and inviting us to get drenched in its aroma. He has skilfully weaved the complex ethos of that era into a strong and engaging narrative. The Last Queen of Kashmir succeeds as an acknowledgement, a celebration, of an age long gone. 


Shreeya Thussu is student at Kuwait English School, Kuwait


The Last Queen of Kashmir

Rakesh K. Kaul

Harper Collins, 2016

ISBN: 9789351068037

E-ISBN: 9789351068044

Pages 432

Price: ?399.00/-

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