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Tales of pain: Kashmir and its storytellers

Monday, February 5, 2018
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Murtaza Shibli

Mohammad Zahid in his collection of poems ‘The Pheromone Trail’ (2013) offers a brilliant insight into his world. Being a Kashmiri brought up amidst the region’s political strife and unending violence. his verses reflect his experiences and the torment of his soul.

Many of his rhymes’ titles are very suggestive, such as: ‘Dark Children’, ‘Death is my playmate’, ‘Red Shadows’, ‘Songs of Silence’, ‘The Line of Control’ and ‘The Stray Bullet’. He brilliantly captures the illusion of fantasies that has enamoured Kashmiris and charmed their politics of impossibilities:

Of late some dreams haunt the sleep/As ruins by some obstinate ghosts/Through the cobwebbed crevices who peep/And flicker like shadows around lampposts. (Deceiving Dreams)

The torment of Kashmir’s division through the forced but artificial Line of Control, is etched deep into our psyche as a nation driven asunder by the arbitrary action of two competing nation states. Zahid sees this bifurcation of ancestral land and the violence it engenders as a terrible detriment:

A loud bang blows off his limb …/That Tiffin-sized box is a landmine/Sown across the barbed line/That slices the heart of the land/He once roamed across freely. (The Line of Control)

Historically, Kashmiris have internalised their pain and any cathartic expression has remained confined to local consumption through limited recitations of long elegies – often narrated in oppressive, long and dark nights of winter – to Ladi Shah, malodorous and sardonic renditions about the daily life which evoked instant but momentary appreciation. For the outsiders, Kashmir’s pain was either ignored or mediated through the writings of the outsiders, often nonchalantly or through skilful but ambivalent verbiage dressed up as impartiality to breed insularity.

This changed when Agha Shahid Ali published his seminal volume of poetry, ‘The Country without a Post Office’ (1997), which gathered a wider international acclaim. Using the medium of poetry in English, Ali reached a vast audience, a feat no other Kashmiri had achieved hitherto. Through his acclaim, he rescued the agency of Kashmiris from meek victims to skilful storytellers who knocked at the world’s conscience to showcase their struggle for freedom and its attendant challenges from their perspective and passion.

A decade later, this was followed by Basharat Peer’s well-publicised novel, ‘Curfewed Night’. Although Peer did not live in Kashmir for long enough to experience the extensiveness of the occupation, state brutality, pro-freedom insurgency and its inherent fratricidal tendencies, his memoir remains outstanding in capturing the dread of life with exquisite detail. Peer rescues the indigenous account of Kashmir that had otherwise been drowned under the weight of the high-pitched politically exigent narratives of India and Pakistan. These official storylines are bereft of any active or involved input about Kashmiris beyond the statistical data of those slain because of the warring armies and their proxies. The publication provoked a new stream of Kashmiri writers to build and support the colloquial narrative to reach the wider world that is beyond the confines of the Kashmir valley, where the stories of occupation and its ensuing brutality often get buried unceremoniously and in unmarked graves at unvisited places.

Peer’s success, both as a storyteller and his ability to generate unparalleled international publicity, filled Kashmiri writers with optimism to communicate their experiences, hopes and fears with the outside world. Although there were some books of import published earlier – such as noted Kashmiri journalist Iftikhar Geelani’s prison journal, ‘My Days in Prison’, (2005); London-based academic and activist Nitasha Kaul’s novel, ‘Residue’, (2009), or Kashmiri pro-freedom activist Zamurad Habib’s prison diary, ‘Prisoner No 100: The story of my ordeal in an Indian prison’, (2009) – they lacked the enthusiasm and excitement generated by ‘Curfewed Night’ and its galvanising impact on Kashmir’s new generation of authors.

Peer’s book was followed by ‘The Collaborator’, (2011), a debut novel by Mirza Waheed. The book captures the agony and helplessness of Kashmir in an intensely powerful and descriptive narrative. Its subject matter is so real and evocative that when Waheed did a public reading in Kashmir, he cried on stage, duly joined by the audience, reinforcing his mastery over words and relevance to the audience that they represented. Reviewing the book in the noted Indian weekly, Outlook, Shashi Tharoor, eminent Indian politician and writer, commented: “As a writer myself I found myself with much to admire and value in Mirza Waheed’s first novel, ‘The Collaborator’; but as an Indian politician I found it impossible not to feel profound discomfort with the political sympathies the work seeks to evoke.”

Waheed remains the best storyteller that Kashmir has produced. His influence to inspire new writers must be acknowledged and appreciated as he truly blazed the trail in Kashmiri fiction writing in English. Another novel, ‘The Half Widow’, (2012), by Shafi Ahmad, captures the agonising pain of the women whose spouses were made to disappear by the Indian army and who lie in wait for any news – good or bad. Shahnaz Bashir’s debut novel, ‘The Half Mother’, (2012), deals with the subject in a more skilled narrative, as the protagonist, Haleema, battles the indignities of her life as her husband and son are picked up by the army, only to be made to disappear in the void that the brutal occupation engenders.

In his second novel ‘The Book of Gold Leaves’, (2014), Mirza Waheed deals with love, romance and hope amid the macabre ‘mise en scène’ that is attuned to war and destruction. “While little tyrants plunder the mystic arcs of its bridges, while the occupier lays siege to it, the river has tender things to attend to – it has a love story to write.” Shafi Ahmad’s second novel, ‘Shadow Beyond Ghost Town’, (2014), weaves a cross-cultural love story with the ever-present tragedy of Nazir’s enforced disappearance. He is later discovered to have been buried in one of the unidentified graves in a faraway pastoral setting. Shahnaz Bashir’s latest book, ‘Scattered Souls’, (2017) weaves 13 heart-wrenching stories to present the unending cycle of pain and oppression that afflicts his world.

This literature that has become known as Kashmir’s resistance literature seeks to reclaim Kashmiri culture in direct opposition to the ‘Indian culture’ – an officially designated predatory monochrome that aims to subsume the Kashmiri identity to compromise its hereditary desire to break free. It is closely linked with the idea of liberation of Jammu and Kashmir, and makes for a strong case through a stoic representation for and on behalf of its people on the basis of a distinct socio-cultural identity and thinking. In the process, it appropriates the idioms of English language, testimony, storied memories and exilic perspective to construct a Kashmiri narrative that is locked in an unending cycle of resistance against the hegemonic Indian discourse that seeks to consistently vandalise, undermine and erase the Kashmiri identity.

The English language has empowered new Kashmiri writers to tell their tales with confidence and conviction and engage with political dispossession and brutalisation with vigour and wit, beyond the confines of the Kashmir valley and away from the prying eyes of the expansive soldierly wherewithal that occupies them physically with an aim to overwhelm their mindscapes as well.

Twitter: @murtaza_shibli