One of my favourite parts of Men and Dreams in the Dhauladhar is the description of an accident in the labour camps. One man is found dead, and the supervisors hurriedly plan to take him to a hospital and quickly cremate him. They don’t want the body back in the camp- it would only cause work to stop, and might create labour unrest. That one scene highlights once again how cheap the cost of a life is in India.
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The calculating, almost cold-hearted reaction to the death is so real and poignant. The calm way in which life just carries on is unsettling. The author too does not really linger on this death, by the time you have absorbed what has happened, it’s another day, another chapter in the life of the characters.
What you can expect
Men and Dreams in the Dhauladhar by Kochery C. Shibu (published by Niyogi Books) is a story of people who come from different parts of the country to the labour site of a hydel power project in the Himalayas. Some have left their families behind in search of a safe life, and some are alone and have nothing to go back to. Khusru, a boy from Kashmir, is there on a dangerous mission; Nanda is there to escape from the danger at home.
Shibu takes his time to build the worlds and backstories of each of his characters. We learn about Nanda’s mother and her life in Finland as a student. We learn how Khusru grows up and of the life, Rafiq had lived and lost before he came to the camp.
He goes to great pains to highlight the changing terrain and the effect of modernity on life in the ranges. Construction companies are being set up, and an entire lifestyle and community getting destroyed.
In doing so, he admirably addresses global concerns like the impact of modern technology on nature, through one individual and through a family. A lot of issues seem to be esoteric and academic, but it’s important to show exactly how these issues affect regular people and the author does a great job of that.
And yet, Men and Dreams in the Dhauladhar gives a feeling of trying to straddle too many things in one go. The language is simple but the narrative is really loose and several parts are difficult to read. The descriptions are long and intense and it takes a long time for the author to get to the point.
There are too many characters and it’s difficult to keep track of all of them. In fact, the first 100 pages just seem like character sketches of one new character after another. The worst part is half of these characters don’t even seem important to the larger plot, so it’s strange that the author would spend so much time building them up.
The writing is also quite stoic, listing people’s stories like a list of incidents, and devoid of emotion. This makes it difficult for the reader to show any real empathy for any of them. This disconnect and lack of emotional investment in the characters are what makes the book disappointing because the book is definitely more character than plot-driven.
There were definitely moments in the Men and Dreams in the Dhauladhar that were engaging and well-written, and I felt the worst for those passages because they were let down by a loose plot and narrative. Some of the scenes will stay with me, and because I will try to build a life and a world for the characters on my own, and I will wonder what could have happened to them, in other scenarios and settings.