Camus Over A Cup of Tea

In Agha Shahid Ali’s hometown, Albert Camus has been brewing the literal storm in a teacup since long now.

 By Shabeer Ahmad Deka

IN a crowd of idlers, drifters and idealists, some fresh-faced bibliophiles also turn up on Srinagar’s iconic Bund – just to talk about literal plots and ‘plotters’.

They strike steamy discussions in the shade of the vintage Suffering Moses and inside the trendy teahouses frequented by the gregarious and garrulous of the city.

Many of them detail the canonized treasure left behind by a French writer whose pen bled for the beleaguered, especially when he was himself grappling with hot and cold war.

Albert Camus is not a stranger in Srinagar’s literary circles.

His The Stranger, The Plague, The Myth of Sisyphus, The Fall, and The Rebel are possibly in all eager readers’ wishlist, if not on their shelves.

As a literary heavyweight, the Nobel laureate in Literature is known for his poignant prose and philosophical insights about life. This also holds true in the fabled city of Seven Bridges.

Even Kashmir’s contemporary English writers—like Mir Khalid of Jaffna Street fame makes no bones about his Camus captivation through his social media posts.

“Camus pleads our case when he writes, ‘The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free,’ says Munaza Shafi, reading Camus’s The Plague in the times of a plague.

“As a writer, his head and heart were in right place during a sleight of hand penmanship era.”

Camus clicks with many Kashmiris for his open disapproval of the “totalitarian” USSR and his advocacy for a pluralistic Algeria during its war times.

 Albert Camus

Back then, during those Leftist meetings—either held on star Marxist Nazir Ghash’s Safa Kadal paend, or inside the smoked space of Indian Coffee House at Srinagar’s Residency Road—Camus was the mover and shaker of any debate, says Javed Bhat, a senior socialist looking a pale shadow of his jola-slinging bygone avatar.

Even though comrades celebrate him, Camus had contested the leftist ideology during the Algerian War itself, when he rejected the classical Marxist canon—that history defines morality.

“For his bold and brilliant views, Camus was a flame during his lifetime itself,” Bhat says. “But his untimely death at the age of 46 only created a new class of comrades under the New Left front.”

Then in the Red corners of Srinagar, Camus resurrected after the Soviets started tumbling in the “graveyard of empires”. His death only popularized his version of communism.

“At the heart of that New Left was Camus’s skeptical humanism and his support for political tolerance, dialogue and civil rights,” Bhat says.

Years later, as the city comrades have now lost their social say and sway, Bhat during his solitary strolls on the Bund often bumps into young readers carrying Camus in hand.

“Back in the day as the aggressive armed conflict dominated the scene, we feared that the war machinery might extinguish the literary spirit of this heritage city forever,” Bhat says.

“But then, as Camus says it, ‘The hopeless hope is what sustains us in difficult moments; our comrades will be more patient than the executioners and more numerous than the bullets.’

In this war-torn city’s woeful chaos, words do keep sanity and spirit intact.”

Apart from this nostalgic socialist, Camus admirers can be seen passionately discussing his existentialist and absurdism philosophy over a cup of tea.

Tracing Camus’s absurdism, from a collection of four letters about resistance, rebellion, and death, some avid readers of Srinagar say The Plague author highly detested the “philosopher of the absurd” title.

“Call it ‘Camus’s Absurd’ or Paradox, but his integrity as a writer makes him irresistible,” says Sheikh Sahil, a political science student fuelling tea talks on the Bund.

But while these budding literati somehow recreate the classic coffee house ambiance in teashops and stalls, they end up earning the slur of “Paper tigers” from some cynics.

However, these young men don’t seem to give two-hoots about such labeling. Instead they sustain Srinagar’s literal hangouts, with their thoughtful stances, heavy eyes, and grave mood.

As they spark caffeine conversations, Srinagar’s classic, yet subdued, literary scene has clearly resuscitated itself.

Over endless sips of tea, these new age book buffs of Kashmir talk in plots and sub-plots, with thriller fans among them reading patterns even in the tea they taste every day.

“Mostly, Camus drives these discourses,” Sahil continues. “It’s not over-romanticism or any kind of hero-worshipping, but an effort to keep the literary legacy of the rebel writer alive.”

These fervent tea talks get steamy after Camus’s stint as a secret soldier during the French Occupation finds mention.

“Despite his life torn asunder by wars and conflicts, Camus stayed optimistic,” Sahil says.

“That’s why, perhaps, he wrote songs for the oppressed hearts: ‘In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.’  ”

  • The author is pursuing doctorate in English from Desh Bhagat University.

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