In truly bringing Kashmiri literary tradition on to the international scene, the eminent poet Agha Shahid Ali could be seen as a prime example. He was certainly one of the first true voices from Kashmir who produced fine poetry in English. Among the various literary narratives published in the recent years, many important works of fiction which have caught readers’ attention worldwide are Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator and The Book of Gold Leaves, Shahnaz Bashir’s The Half Mother and The Scattered Souls, Siddhartha Gigoo’s The Garden of Solitude and Mehr, and Nitasha Kaul’s Residue, to mention a few. Memoirs like Sudha Koul’s The Tiger Ladies and Basharat Peer’s The Curfewed Night are other literary feats. Poets like Subhash Kak, K.L. Chowdhari, Lalita Pandit and Mohammad Zahid are also being increasingly recognised in the literary circles. All these writers mainly write in English as they yearn for a global audience to hear and read the narrations which tell the stories of their experience of a very complex lived reality. In many ways, these writings indicate the beginning of the phase of Kashmiri English writing tradition.
It has to be said that contemporary Kashmiri English writing seems to have been more significantly influenced by the specific historical conditions pertaining to the conflict than the writings in other languages. This is in no way to demean the artistic or literary features in these writings which have retained the literary purity amidst all the topicality. On the contrary, it supposedly suggests a general historical reality wherein a literary culture is born and bred among certain specific historical and material conditions—conflict and violence in this case. Besides these poets and writers, many other young people are taking to different artistic expression like poetry, music, painting and graphic arts to express their profound angst at the existing conditions of the conflict. In significant ways, these writings provide witness to many profound issues like identity, justice, struggle, and oppression which are usually absent in the mainstream narratives on/of Kashmir. In doing so, these writings provide an alternative and heterogeneous account of a reality that seems to counter the view of the mainstream discourses that neglect very basic and yet very important facets of Kashmir’s reality and experience.
In their own ways, the new generation of Kashmiri writers reflect on the situation of the Kashmir of early 1990s, when Kashmiris took up arms against Indian rule and ushered in the era of a full-fledged militancy. Agha Shahid Ali with his poetry collections The Country without a Post Office and Rooms are Never Finished can be regarded as the first modern chronicler of Kashmir’s current pain. Agha Shahid describes the calamity of the 1990s in the following words:
Summer 1992 — when for two years Death had turned
Every day in Kashmir into some family's Karbala.
This is the immediate historical backdrop against which the writings of our new writers are set as they endeavour to explore these realities by reflecting the perspectives of the people who face siege and repression from all sides. These new narratives can be seen as historiographies which sensitively bring to fore many unknown or unexpressed dimensions of the Kashmir conflict, thereby drawing attention to a long-neglected human story. Though the texts, under mention, grow out of a specific and critical historical reality, they convey a multiplicity of versions and facets that armed conflict in Kashmir has stimulated. This cannot be categorised as merely a “literature of protest” or “literature of propaganda” as some self-assuming critics would lead us to believe. The sensitive reflection of profound dimensions of human condition at a certain point is the real characteristic of literature.
Through the art of fiction, these writers have attempted to give an outlet to the suppressed aspirations and collective memories of violence and loss of home. In their narratives, memory, identity and time play a very significant role. Finally, these works also show how literature can intervene to challenge the contorted truths of power structures in the contemporary world. The idea of loss brought about by the memory becomes the new metaphorical ingredient of this type of literature. Out of its specific set of circumstances, it tries to develop a new aesthetic out of the elements of a lost joy and the current moments of suffering. For instance, in his poem “Exile”, Subhash Kak writes:
Memories get hazy
even recounting doesn't help
I need to look at pictures
or listen to music to remember
and sometimes walking through narrow lanes of my town
a sudden perfume escaping from a window
halts my steps and I am transported
to my childhood years.
As the conflict and conflicting opinions, pertaining to Kashmir, continue to perpetuate each other, writing and research is likely to unfold new perspectives in the time to come. This can be stated with some certainty as it is now an established fact that narration or narratives—whether factual or fictional—do not describe reality in absolute terms only; rather, they attempt to present fresh perceptions and dimensions that offer new trajectories of reality. The writer of a work of literature does not aim at presenting historical facts in the same way that a historian does. Instead, he looks beyond facts to the spirit underlying those facts. This lends credence to the fact that an event, which might have a mere statistical importance for a historian or a journalist, could reveal many underlying angles of perception when presented in a work of fiction.
The narratives are mainly structured round and alternate between the present, “now”, and the past, “then”. The narratives do remember the Kashmir of the past in which the stream of life flowed smoothly, when militancy did not exist, and when life flowed along an even tenor. During the days of armed militancy, peace departed, and honour and security of life also took their leave. With their departure, a besieged people learnt to live under the shadow of the gun. The life and honour of people were at the mercy of the gun-toting armed forces and the militants. The sense of loss is especially made palpable through human loss that is defined and depicted in terms of killings, tortures, rapes, injuries, other forms of physical coercion, and even a huge displacement of a large section of population as portrayed in The Garden of Solitude.
All this brings to the fore the crux of the matter, that is, the issue of identity. In the context of the situation in Kashmir, the concept of identity is extremely crucial, complex and intriguing. Here, identity has multiple facets and also a differential composition; it operates also on many levels—the individual, collective, regional, and above all, religious. The complexity of the issue of identity becomes all too evident in the way events unfolded in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The aforementioned texts under study bring to prominence the fact that it would be fallacious to assume a homogenous conception of Kashmiri identity. In all these narratives, the protagonists seem to struggle for their identity at the individual level, but they find that it has a close bearing upon the larger collective identity.
For centuries, Kashmiri culture was defined by its plurality and scope for tolerant practices of diverse faiths and ideas that wove people together in harmony. This interfusion of distinctive practices of belief led to the articulation of a new cultural identity which came to be known as “Kashmiriyat”. Kashmiri Muslims, despite being the majority, found themselves at a disadvantageous position in contrast to the minority Pandits. This was because of the disproportionate division of socio-economic privileges that favoured the minority Pandits. The construct of Kashmiriyat was manipulated to overlook the growing political and economic demands of Kashmiris. With the outbreak of the armed uprising against the Indian state in late 1980s, the nature of discontent and resistance changed and Kashmiri Muslim aspirations aligned with the appeal to religious identity. To bring this out, Siddhartha Gigoo, in his novel, alludes to the “reinforcement of a new cultural identity.” Mirza Waheed, in The Collaborator and The Book of Gold Leaves, and Shahnaz Bashir in The Half Mother, also recount the surge of people’s religious passions with the onset of the armed movement. The new Kashmiri identity is thus shown to recast itself in religious terms, and this has put Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits at loggerheads and relations between them appear ambivalent as of now. Agha Shahid’s poem “Farewell”, which he refers to as a “plaintive love letter” from a Kashmiri Muslim to a Kashmiri Pandit evocatively, describes this tragic aspect:
At a certain point I lost track of you.
You needed me. You needed to perfect me:
In your absence you polished me into the Enemy.
Your history gets in the way of my memory.
I am everything you lost. Your perfect enemy.
Your memory gets in the way of my memory…
Lalita Pandit, another Kashmiri-American academician and poet, reveals this aspect in her poem “Anantnag” in these lines:
What of that? Now you are
A stranger, an enemy.
Children stare with
suspicion. They have learnt
to hate; they are afraid.
Hollow eyed ghosts
walk the streets.
The aforementioned Kashmiri literary narratives can be seen as gripping histories as well as forceful tales of the human predicament in locales marked by violent conflict. In almost all these expressions, personal narratives have been unearthed, processed through the literary imagination, and re-crafted as collective expressions. The creative imagination of these Kashmiri writers who write mainly in English is able to capture the different facets and perceptions of people caught in a situation marked by contestation and confrontation.
The writer is a blogger and a youth activist based in Kulgam, Jammu & Kashmir. Views are personal.
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