Oddity of Administration’s Coffee Table Books

Let us go, friend, someplace else, the garden is no longer

our own. If it was a matter of flowers, we would’ve borne

the indignity. Now even thorns are forbidden to us,

it has been decreed.


The sky tore apart, the horizon shook,

he was descended into the field

A tumult broke in the gathering, the murderer was

introduced as witness indeed

  • Muztar Akbarabadi

FOR a place that rarely drinks coffee, rather prefers its noon chai sitting on the ground; a coffee table book is somewhat of an oddity. Be that how it is, recently someone in the administration floated an idea that each department of the valley must conceive and compile a coffee table book highlighting their achievements, especially since the abrogation of article 370. These were released by the Lt Governor recently at a well-covered function, even as the process of compiling them has been stopped in early September by official order. What the motives and rationale of the books were, I leave to your imagination and the administration to decide.

However, to my ill-informed mind, it appears to be largely a self-congratulatory move. But vanity is the bane of almost every human being. Government bashing may be the order of the day, but surely blaming them for a bit of vanity is carrying your bias a little too far, or is it? Either way, I have no bone to pick with the vanity, or the self-congratulatory air of the gesture, what I have a bone to pick with is the politics of such a book.

The compilation of the book is not just another attempt by the government to legitimize itself to convince a cynical population. Such gestures are passé, and merit no special attention. However, the coffee table book is different because its politics are well thought out and tie up with the larger project of commemorating and translating routines for consumption of an audience, which is as yet unconverted to either the popular ideology or the narrative of the government. However, this needs to be discussed in detail, or else one runs the risk of being accused of making mountains out of molehills.

First, why a coffee book? Why not a proper report or a white paper detailing the achievements? Or why not a proper book in the first place. The answer lies in the form of a coffee table book, which allows information to be consumed at a single glance without paying attention to detail, where the devil lies. A coffee book relies majorly on images and photos, which exploit the human tendency to privilege sight over other senses. After all what is seen is what is believed, and vice versa!  The photograph particularly is crucial in this context as by its permanence it freezes the reality, and erases the contexts in which the reality it captures was constructed or realized. By focusing on the immediate and visual, the photograph erases the constraints and contexts of time and space, and therefore allows for a glossing over of reality to suit narratives. Susan Sontag writes therefore “In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads — as an anthology of images.”

The coffee table books released exploit this very tendency and introduce a grammar of progress and development conveniently erasing the contexts of censorship and repression within which such progress is articulated. Rather, the immense materiality and factity of the development in terms of tangible figures, statistics and images is foregrounded in both image and prose to obliterate the more abstract narratives of happiness, justice and liberty that ought to underpin real development.

Moreover, the prose in which the photographs are translated, builds on this edifice of evasion and erosion. One, the prose is deprived of any claim or trace of authorship since it is written in the most generic manner as possible, and merely highlights the factity of the photographs. If it diverges from the factity to explore the emotive, it usually does so by praising the material and tangible benefits that will be accrued from the ‘development’. By doing so, it commemorates the benevolence of the state, and establishes its legitimacy as being engaged in the welfare of people, when the reality on ground testifies otherwise. In other words, it creates a fiction of progress and benevolence that invites the reader to recognize the beneficence of subjugation.

The question that arises then is how must such fiction be contested? Apart from poetry and slogans, what other media are present that can translate local routes and roots of dissent and translate them into a form that can be disseminated to convert and motivate a people to the narrative of the oppressed?

Fiction offers a useful medium for such activism, for diamond cuts diamond. To the fiction of state, we offer our own fiction. The question, however, is not to define the role of fiction in enacting resistance. As I have previously written, writing offers the subjugated to conceive of and produce alternative papers to the paper trail of subjugation. The question is: what form should fiction take or what idiom may it adopt to achieve maximum effect?

Normally, one would steer clear of such prescriptive questions, and suggest that a writer is free to adopt any style which suits her. However, as in everything, the question of art in a situation of turmoil is a particularly vexed one; for the writer is tasked with the responsibility of voicing the aesthetic of the collective, and find space for collective memory in writing. Besides, the writer is implicated in the same collective memory, and therefore is bound to draw from it in writing.

It is no surprise then that like poetry, fiction too has greatly revolved around the turmoil and trauma of Kashmir, besides being realistic in tenor. This has attracted the charge of a ‘pornography of reality’ against contemporary fiction, which has been accused of peddling “slave narratives” apologetically as ‘resistance literature’. The Palestinian critic Hanan Mikhail Ashrawi offered a succinct summary of this pejorative attitude with respect to Palestinian fiction, and an observation, which holds true to Kashmir too: “There is a tendency to suggest that the literature is ‘Palestinian’ and unfortunately this national definition has become the rationalization for the lack of any objective study or criticism of the literature which is in itself a source of national pride, a symbol as well as means of resistance.” Is the fact that a work is produced by a Kashmiri or is about Kashmir enough to insulate it from criticism? A corollary to this question is: Must a work be necessarily dismissed on account of not being ‘fictional’ or ‘lyrical’ enough. This is a debate that offers no easy answers but rather must be deliberated in detail.

The purveyors of realistic fiction will point to the nature of resistance literature as produced within harsh realities, and immediate contexts of subjugation, oppression and trauma. Such literature defies the expectations of being instruments of entertainment, rather focuses on intervening in the cultural appropriation by the state and allied structures.

Literature offers a site of contestation over power to shape and articulate narratives that determine the collective memory and possibilities of expressing that memory. Fiction that is representative of the diverse contemporary realities may not permit a fictionality, which can be best described only in negation of realism. The immediacy and plainness of the literature could be read as rebelling against cultural imperialism, which permits neither the luxury nor resources (servile academia, dreary and outdated curriculum and complete absence of any spaces and liberty for peer interactions owing to prohibitions on movement and internet, to quote an example) to produce enough ‘quality’ literature.

Moreover, the argument that realistic literature is necessarily reactionary and hence inferior to literature rich in ‘fictionality’ itself is flawed. Realistic fiction lays bare the stories of betrayals, transactions, corroborations, hypocrisy, failures and tradeoffs as it brings to fore the commerce of occupation in grim and ironic detail. The protagonists are unsuspecting people caught in the whirlwinds of fate and turmoil, and seek to extricate some life out of the rubble of normalcy and routine. These are narratives then not of binaries, not of oppressed vs oppressor, subjugated vs subjugator, powerless vs powerful, subjects vs tyrants, slaves vs masters. Rather, it steers clear of such ideological simplicities and explore the grey areas rather than offering black and white narratives. Such literature is neither the spokesperson of Kashmiri struggle for meaning in and control over their lives, nor judge the efficacy of the struggle. The blue print offered by such fiction is to dramatize and engage with the contradictions and cleavages manifest in monolithic or uncontested portrayals and thus sustain the agency of the movement in construction and conception of history, as well as the struggle for formation of a conducive culture to expression of such agency which merits a theoretical elaboration in order for it to be accorded its due sociological and historical weight. The accounts offered are realistic not just in cataloguing the factity of events, but in recollecting the immensity of it, the toll turmoil takes siding clearly with the oppressed without appearing to take apparent sides. Realistic fiction seeks not to describe heroes or villains but simply humans compelled to agree to strange choice confronted with even stranger dilemmas like whether or not to seek compensation from the occupier, whether to side with normative patriarchy or let the natal impulse win, or denial as a way of dealing with overwhelming loss. Confronted with such tragedy, the characters are broken yet they strive tirelessly from some vague sense of human endeavor. Even as the fiction is therefore allied to the idea of counter-subjugation, it doesn’t emerge as a spokesperson of populism.

(To be Continued)

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Huzaifa Pandit

Huzaifa Pandit is the author of the recently published ‘Green is the Colour of Memory’, which won the first edition of Rhythm Divine Poets Chapbook Contest 2017. He holds a PhD on poetry of resistance from the University of Kashmir.

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