Kashmir’s fiction guild is a parallel universe frequented by a bunch of wordsmiths lacking good publishers and wide readership. But that doesn’t stop them from meeting and fuelling the literary mood in the valley.
WEARING a light cotton shirt tucked into beige trousers, Ghulam Nabi Bhat made it to the interview seven minutes before schedule on a balmy summer day in Srinagar.
He led us into a small but populated room which seemed like a cave, hidden from the pandemonium outside on the main road. Many heads turned upon his arrival, some knees straightened to greet him, and a few lips curved on seeing him.
Here, he was known as Shahid: the writer of compelling short stories, the teller of heartrending accounts, and a man whose legacy of work commanded respect.
As he walked and navigated through the room by aisles made by the chairs’ arrangement, his comrades, dressed in formals, gripping sheets of paper, pointed him to an empty seat and commenced their meeting immediately.
From stories of valiant heroes to those of poor peasants who spoke truth to power, the people in the room recited from their notes, reimagined snippets of history that touched every theme imaginable to a mind bred in existing state of affairs.
Unknown to many and unfairly unsung, the people at the meeting were the collective of the creative writers of Kashmir.
As the participants of the gathering, they took their turns to speak.
Adil Ashraf’s ghazals left listeners in an intellectual maze of his own construct; Noor Shah’s stories on sexuality strangely stirred passions for freedom; Ruksana Jabeen’s poetry stunned everyone into an introspective silence; Mushtaq’s polemical tales evoked forbidden patriotism.
Albeit fictitious characters spoke to them their reality, they were engaged in the noble service of chronicling the conflict with ingenuity.
Unaware and uninspired by the profit of fame, these champions of language, who haven’t found a haven of acknowledgment for their art, have been immortalising Kashmir’s literary struggle since they first picked up a pen.
“A writer doesn’t belong to one community. We are everyone and everyone is us,” professed Dr Nazir Mushtaq, a 70-year-old physician from Srinagar.
He has been writing short stories in Koshur since 1964 and while his writings are soaked with Kashmiri pride, he believes that it is his job to paint a picture for his people to interpret.
The doctor is one among the plethora of writers and poets who have been burning the midnight oil, putting together gut-wrenching stories about the external influences on their homeland.
His principle of the de-communalisation of writing circles is shared by almost everyone who call themselves a member of that group.
“Please note that almost all of us are descendants of Kashmiri Pandits who embraced Islam willfully,” stressed Rafiq Raaz, a Sahitya Akademi award winner. “The sooner this is accepted and normalised, the faster divisive regimes will cease to exist.”
We are being suffocated in the mind, body, and soul, and no human should be made to feel like this”
During his interview, Raaz reminisced how his father had fought the Pakistani Afridis in 1947 with a wooden club. Expressing his views on the politics of life in the valley, he said that his home needed space to breathe.
“Armed soldiers with loaded guns have no business in civilian areas. Their presence is unwarranted and claustrophobic. We are being suffocated in the mind, body, and soul, and no human should be made to feel like this,” Raaz remarked.
Inside their meeting room, they cheered for each other with thunderous ‘encores’. Some of these artists used the stage to perform their poetry of romanticism but most climbed up to the podium to voice their very intimate feelings about their community’s actuality.
Glutted with socio-economic issues that are not entirely of her own making, modern-day Kashmir kneels at crossroads of a territorial conflict. Craftspeople are fighting a world with no regard for handmade mastery, the back of the young ones are heavy with Ph.D. certificates in a region where their years of scholarship have no yield, some are trying to save their houses from the metaphorical and literal fire of the camo, and amidst this chaos, the writers of Kashmir, whose narratives have had the might of visualising emancipation beyond its reverberating sound, are reducing in number.
Adil Ashraf, an employee in the examination department of the University of Kashmir, opined that ‘Danga Shayaari’ has acted like a cancer to intellectualism amongst Kashmiris.
Gentle in appearance and tone, Adil is a powerhouse of fiery metaphors and a patron of the ghazal form of poetry. He is known to effortlessly inject soul-stirring pathos into his couplets, layering them with unassuming characters who eventually become heavy puzzles to solve. His ghazals are filled with tropes suggestive of the atrocities that shroud his society.
Even Rafiq Raaz claimed to be an opposer of the vintage, vociferous demand echoing in the region for decades. He says that his opinions on the conflict are always wrapped in spiritualistic metaphors.
“We are all the children of Allah and this land belongs to Him,” he strongly stated. “We are merely tenants who will cease to exist one day.”
A god-fearing man by his own admission, Raaz strictly adheres to the tenants of his religion and is downcast by the meaning of ‘jihad’ propelled by mainstream media today.
“People aren’t supposed to be scared, especially writers,” Ghulam Nabi ‘Shahid’, who prides himself in being an unbiased writer, stated gloomily.
“But the unfortunate reality is that there is no place we can claim as a sanctuary to protect ourselves from the aftermath of our honesty.”
Shahid—the witness—has been ardently wishing for a safe retreat where people like him can unmask bigotry and coercion with their artistic prowess.
Although consciously away from mainstream discourse, these writers live with the fear of being targeted. The constant harassment faced by Kashmiri journalists and the unquestioned trend of finishing off activists is not unknown to them.
Speaking about the horrors of a ‘lurking gun’, Dr Mushtaq said, “The term ‘unknown gunmen’ haunts me. Who are these people and how are we able to see such rampant abuse of the term for every murder? We need to call this out and it is my duty to ensure that resistance isn’t a tunnel-visioned in my writing but well rounded.”
The assassination of eminent writers and journalists such as Lassa Kaul, Ghulan Nabi Mahajan, Mushtaq Ali, Altaf Faktoo, Shaban Vakil and Shujaat Bukhari, by the forces beyond their control, have given these creative writers a real reason to fear for their lives.
Historically, every rising has seen writers and poets silently work towards unifying people for a common cause. The Indian freedom struggle, the American civil rights movement, the Russian revolution, and the anti-apartheid movement gave birth to an excess of literary artists who are now placed in the upper echelons of the world’s collection of literature. Their activism not only united people at that time but also commemorated the culture that existed then. Their memoirs of unjust and tyrannical eras act as important sources of information and are a matter of patriotic pride.
However, when the dust settles on this valley and it’s time to reclaim the nights, how will this community’s ethos be reminisced or celebrated?
Defiant literature which is meant to capture the essence of a struggle, principles of a movement, and form a unique singular identity for the people it represents, has barely any names that a Kashmiri commoner remembers, the writers fear.
We are being choked by two different hands simultaneously
“We are being choked by two different hands simultaneously,” Shahid, an Urdu-Koshur writer, continued. “Because nobody here, civilians included, tolerates criticism.”
Lamenting over the migration of Kashmiri Pandits, he said that he began writing in 1969, after his best friend Dilip Kumar Nehru was killed in a police action.
“Everything I do is for his memory but I give him no written acknowledgment because that can be a bone of contention as well,” Shahid said morosely.
Not belonging to the ethnic majority but an integral part of the community, Deepak Kanwal, Sohanlal Kaul, and Khalid Hussain, are names celebrated amongst the tiny Koshur and Urdu literati of Kashmir. Based out of the valley, they have made vital contributions to its treasury of literature.
An author of many eminent Koshur books, Sohanlal Kaul left Srinagar in 1990. “Every drama or short story I write is about the conflict,” Kaul said. “If not directly mentioned, there is always an undertone.”
Using the 2014 floods as an allegory, Kaul wrote ‘Yotam Saier Paeth Gow’ (Until everything has drowned), which evokes the image of suffering at the hands of administrative apathy. ‘Abysmal’, ‘Haehshi Kath’ (One and the same), ‘Panien Panien Gunah’ (The result of our sins) are some of his other works.
The man rejects the common rhetoric steeped in whataboutery on the Pandit migration and expresses solidarity with the rare narrative that might even offend the migrated.
We were not taken away and neither were we thrown out. There was a frenzy..
“We were not taken away and neither were we thrown out,” Kaul said. “There was a frenzy that caused the community to fear its existence and compelled them to leave when it wasn’t entirely necessary.”
People must also remember, he continued, that it’s not just the Pandit community that is living in exile but the intelligentsia as well.
“Outspoken and free-thinking Kashmiris are migrating out of the valley because of the grim atmosphere here,” he added.
The collective believes that films and books on the conflict, which are imperative value-adds to the conversation, exist only in the realms of cinema and foreign lands. Best-selling books on Kashmir, which have made it in name and recognition, are largely diasporic. The native voice is hushed, they opine.
Rafiq Raaz said that freedom of speech wasn’t a rarity in the past.
His eyes gleam as he remembers Lal Ded’s verses. “She blatantly spoke against injustice and social evils. Her endeavours had really hurt the reputation of the kingdom, but she thrived. She even spoke against idolatry but her memory is still revered amongst the Hindus. However, today, if anyone dares to raise their voices against the establishment, their families may not find them the next day,” he grieved.
Best-selling books on Kashmir, which have made it in name and recognition, are largely diasporic. The native voice is hushed.
Even Adil Ashraf grumbled over the problems his circle has faced due to their work that is considered ‘unfavourable’ to the current nature of upheaval.
“It has led to the complete ignorance of our opinions,” he asserted. “There are very few takers for the ideology we preach and that is reflected in the difficulties we face during publishing our work.”
However, refusal by publishers, limited distribution, scanty wages, and poor readership isn’t new to this brigade.
“We mostly publish our books by our own means and travel one city to another trying to get it sold,” Dr Mushtaq said. “That way we can ensure ourselves of some profit because if given to the publishers we end up with no returns.”
Facing the same difficulty, Muhammad Sayeed Tramboo started publishing a monthly collection of poems and short stories called ‘Nagina’, which is Urdu for ‘gem’.
It’s been 52 years since he conceived the magazine and he has never failed to print a new edition each month. The owner of Shehanshah Palace, Sayeed Tramboo is an undeterred creative writer who uses historic parallels to explain the issues troubling the valley.
Complete with political, religious, and social symbolism, Sayeed Tramboo takes around four to six months to complete a story. He believes that the youth today is ill-informed and quick to react.
“Resistance isn’t easy and neither is everyone capable of it,” he said. “We need an overhaul in our education system because youngsters today have no grip on Kashmir’s history.”
Khalid Hussain, on the other hand, believes that the Kashmiri creative power must not be underestimated.
Ever since Akbar’s deceitful annexation of Kashmir in the 16th century, Kashmiris have opposed the incumbent rule, he said.
“Islam came into Kashmir during the 14th century and has flourished ever since,” Hussain said. “Now, we need the world to know that the Mughals and Afghans, who were also Muslims, faced unabated opposition from the people. Even the non-Muslim Sikhs and Dogras were resisted unanimously by the Hindus and Muslims of the valley. This needs to be reiterated so that internal and external lobbies don’t communalise our strife for self-determination.”
Hussain made an important note as he detailed how Kashmiris have traditionally been a peaceful and patient kind of people.
We need the world to know that the Mughals and Afghans, who were also Muslims, faced unabated opposition from the people of Kashmir.
“Butchers were a taboo amongst Kashmiri Muslims,” he explained. “But look at the present situation: a community that feared to slaughter their meat is running into the jaws of death voluntarily. Surely, something is amiss. They have been pushed beyond the figurative wall.”
Small-time columnist and short-story writer Shazada Bismil also resonated with this sentiment.
Bismil is a ‘proud Kashmiri nationalist’ who expressed deep concerns over the “de-humanization” of the place.
“The government has erred and so have we,” he said admittedly, “but I wish to see Kashmir as an independent state just as it had been in history.”
Most of these creative writers are men whose literary gaze misses the cause of women. Luckily for Kashmir, there are a few women wordsmiths giving their writing a holistic approach.
One such fiery woman, Rukhsana Jabeen was born in 1955, in Downtown Srinagar. She is a poet fighting the patriarchal belittling of her gender and the violent dehumanisation of her people.
As a young woman growing up in ‘ultra-conservative’ times, her parents didn’t allow her to perform her poetry in public. She made excuses throughout her adolescence to escape into these writing circles, where she built her repertoire.
In 1983, due to her intelligent charm and command over Koshur and Urdu, she secured the position of a Program Executor in Radio Kashmir.
“It was a job that allowed me to be creative and kept my poetic side alive,” Jabeen said. “Nevertheless, my parents were headstrong about not letting me work there. I had to tell a few white lies and mould facts so that I could be the person I wanted.”
Over the years her parents opened their minds and accepted their daughter for who she was. She even married by of her own choice, a rare phenomenon in her days, and eventually split from her husband who began developing reservations over her strong-willed poetry.
A community that feared to slaughter their meat is running into the jaws of death voluntarily. Surely, something is amiss.
“Let someone prove that I’m wrong,” she said. “My conscience is clear because I speak the truth. I am a devout Muslim, a woman by nature’s will, and Allah knows my struggle. That’s all that matters to me.”
Her colleague, Noor Shah, born in 1938, has manifested ‘the woman’ beyond her traditional gender-defined roles in his stories.
As an ally to the feminists of the valley, Shah combines the themes of romance and sensuality in his writings. He has published his stories since 1960 using the pseudonym ‘Shahizada Shireen’.
But it was only after 1990, Shah departed from his usual genre to write ‘Kashmir Kahaani’, his fictitious novel inspired by the conflict.
In a parallel universe, and in an amicable atmosphere for grooming literature in Kashmir, these writers could have been counted amongst the ranks of Darwish, Kafka, Yeats, or Tolstoy.
The ‘J&K Fiction Writers’ Guild’, as they call themselves, make it a point to meet regularly and plan their rendezvous at least once in two weeks to keep their art alive.
None of them are full-time writers due to the bad economy of the region, but between weekdays and weekends, they manage to immerse themselves in the sketches of their words.
They hope that their literary portraits aid in ending the strife without further tarnishing the dignity of Kashmir but poor reading habits amongst Kashmiris and the shrinking use of Koshur in books is another matter of concern.
However, they are determined to leave a legacy of strong literary works for their people.
When our generation of writers departs from this world, our children will know that not everyone was a turncoat in Kashmir.
“We need more gutsy youthful writers to join our cause, only then we’ll be a force to reckon with,” Khalid Hussain said.
“Right now, we’re just a handful but it doesn’t dissuade us from writing. When our generation of writers departs from this world, our children will know that not everyone was a turncoat in Kashmir.”
As the meeting approached its end, the last performer withdrew from the microphone as his performance had concluded and led the artists into the garden outside their creative cave, to allow their freshly invigorated minds to rest with a cup of hot tea and a traditional slice of warm cake.
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