Shudder to Stealth: How Kashmir’s Progressive Prose Lost Its Plot

Tracing the proper lineage of short stories in Kashmir is difficult. The literary transition was influenced by the outside world. This is why the lineage is also known as the bastard lineage.’

By Maheen Sajjad

GHULAM Nabi Shahid is everything an ideal writer has to be—keen observer, textbook struggler, drifting rambler… But above all, he’s living by his name: witness.

This other Shahid of Kashmir may not be a beloved poet, but as a native observant he’s a chronicler of Kashmir’s conflict change.

Adjusting glasses over his deep-set eyes and furrowed-flustered face, the man-of-letters recalls the time when he would rub shoulders with the jola-slinging comrades inside a celebrated café sparking erudition and eloquence in now capitalist-crammed city.

Those vibes are no longer coming from the Sun City’s current café corpus. “You don’t find that old flame anymore,” Shahid strikes a poetic contrast. “Much water has already flown in Jhelum. But certain things do make you nostalgic, like Srinagar’s bygone literary atmosphere.”

The jovial writer in his late-fifties turns grim over the contemporary literature driven by an obsession of creating cults out of adolescent authors. This rat race of sorts—seen as a badge of honour and a shot to some make-believe glory—is only fading the literary Midas touch of the place, Shahid reflects with his curated tone and tenor.

“Back in the day,” he recalls, “prose writing would pass through a litmus test in the form of critical reviews. Some literary heavyweights of the times would hold detailed discussions on the emerging literature from the valley and take pains to shape storytelling skills.”

Fall of those community reading-rooms aka informal academies has created a self-implicit delusional literary scene, reckons Shahid, whose anthology, Ailan Jaari Hai, is being hailed for detailing the discord-dented change in the society. “Those literary spaces of past would help authors to produce a trove of tales capturing dilemma in the society.”

Years later, as some writers are trying to capture that “dilemma” in their tomes, Shahid names Akhtar Mohiuddin’s prophetic writing as the fountainhead of that literary lineage.

 In one of his famous short stories—Fixture—Akhtar prophesises the events: “… Neither camera nor photograph is a fixture but yes, time is! 1,750,000 years! Now you only understood my meaning, not the essence. You can’t get the essence for I too don’t have words to express in it. However, let us both assume that time is a fixture…”

Akhtar Mohi-ud-Din

Evidently, the evolution of short story writing in Kashmir has made the change brought about by time conspicuous. For instance, in Fixture, Akhtar enunciates how the whole caboodle reconditions with time.

“Time amends how belles-lettres are perceived,” Shahid continues. “And what that has brought home is an exigency of meaningful literature, adding to the overall lack of production of time-specific short stories that should have been based on real-life events but are most likely based on a framework fuddled with obscure symbols.”

However, some contemporary literary organizations, like the J&K Fictional Writers Guild, takes a certain pride in fostering “a sense of community” to develop a modus operandi and “resurrect the lost meaning of literature and its symbols” in order to advance writing in all of its forms and facets.

But then, what makes Kashmir chronicles so sui-generis is apparently their unrestricted ability to not only be a faction of the realist genre but also accost with plausibility.

In fact, a long time ago, the sages adumbrated future women riding iron horses and seasonal fruits ripening together. And today, that vision has come true.

That prophetic prose, it’s believed, comes from writer’s uncanny ability to map the mood and its possible ramifications in the society. For instance, it took nightmarish nineties for Akhtar Mohiuddin to pen down an imagined dystopia and deadly din in the woeful vale.

Many of those stories were also driven by the writer’s personal loss. The harrowing strife in his homeland consumed his son and son-in-law—the twin losses fuelling his grim and grave expression.

One of his stories of that era was about a boy, pleading and crying for a gun. A video recently seethed on the internet, where a similar incident came to light on the streets of Srinagar.

“It’s all prophesied,” quips a scribe covering Literature and its evolution in Kashmir from last 15 years now. “It’s a step ahead of realism, a progression into reality.”

The change that swept literary landscape of the valley over the years only vindicates the newsman’s views. And much of this change, Shahid states, comes from short story’s evolved style due to a variety of factors, including the knowledge that the form has changed as a result of the change in the reception of this genre.

“Form is fluid,” Shahid muses. “Kashmiri language is a result of aging, and with that senescence, the way things are understood has changed—adding that the way the language is spoken has also changed—and with that, there is of course a transition in the form. This change, however, should not be viewed negatively because it is a result of time and is referred to as adaptability.”

Among the new-age conveyor belts of this change are wordsmiths who’ve already shown streaks of brilliance. They’ve this consensus—that writing has something to do with stories and poems and clutching onto hopes and promises that can’t come true in reality but can be experienced in the alternate world that brings in the hex.

“Writing comes with an understanding of the ambience and flavour of the place, and that stands particularly true for Kashmir,” says a poetess from Kashmir, who goes by the romantic moniker Rumuz-E-Bekhudi. “Writings tell us about history. It’s about people and their experiences, and it’s about culture. Kashmir is rich in culture and writing is a part of that richness.”

The beginning of this chronicle culture started as Dastangoi, Rumuz says, a tradition of passive storytelling at nukads.

People would come together at tea-stalls, rickshaw or bus stands, or at the kandur shops, and they would discuss the happenings of life or share a story or two.

“That’s how the culture was cultivated,” the poetess says. “However, if we’ve to track the academic lineage of this culture, we need to know how the Progressive Writers Movement (PWM) penetrated the system.”

Camaraderie — the novitiate of which was a radical movement led by a group of learned individuals.

The PWM, a movement that sought people to produce gratis, unrestricted literature, inspired writers, following decades after, to join the drive and create the authentic literature that was free, radical, and realistic, based on people’s real-life experiences. Short stories were one of the attributes that burgeoned significantly.

The short story first appeared in Kashmiri as a literary form distinct from the centuries-old folktale, fable, and parable. As a part of prose literature, it accepted the influence of all experiments in the technique of the shorter fiction over the last forty-six years.

“Tracing the proper lineage of short stories in Kashmir is difficult,” Rumuz says. “In fact, the transition from Dastangoi to radical writings like that produced in PWM was abrupt in Kashmir. The outside world was the source of the influence. This is why the lineage is also known as the bastard lineage.”

During and immediately after the PWM, the writings produced in Kashmir were heavily influenced by Russian literature. It was an era when writers were influenced by Leo Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and others. And by that standard, Rumuz says, “what the writers in Kashmir did was imbibed the technique and converted it into Kashmiri.”

The quintessence writers of this generation— Rahman Rahi, Rafiq Raaz and Dinanath Nadim—wrote about the subjective reality of individuals as well as the social environment that surrounded them through a variety of characters and events, and many authors in subsequent years attempted to produce something comparable or roughly comparable.

“The works of many of these authors are read outside of Kashmir, have been translated into many languages, and are well-liked everywhere,” Shahid continues. “It was an era when writings in Kashmir would reflect with the emerging literature in the world.”

A rare photograph of Progressive Writers Movement in Kashmir.

In Kashmir literature, the 1960s to 1980s are referred to as an unconventionally exploratory eon. The stories that were written during this time period viewed trivial, puzzling, or traumatic events from a surrealistic perspective. Focusing on regional, rural, and trivial issues with irony, Koshur wit, and astute observations was a tendency.

But as the 20th century came to an end, the subconscious and inner psyche started to take centre stage.

In the 90’s, the picture changed drastically. The period saw loss, not only in terms of lives and material wealth but also in terms of literature. This age witnessed authors writing about Kashmir, its traditions, its languages, its people and envisioned a utopian, and at times dystopian, society that became a reality in later years.

The use of symbols was prevalent in works from this time period. “Historically,” Rumuz reflects on the literature produced during that troubled timeline, “the word rose has been associated with love and romance in writings and poems in general. But as time went on, the understanding evolved. Rose meant something entirely different to conflict chroniclers. For instance, I refer to rose as emptiness (‘ye kyuth cxerar chu dazan’) in my works (here, ‘cxerar’ refers to rose).”

The poetess’s prose-projection evokes Amin Kamil, Kashmir’s foremost ghazal writer, who believed that the growth of any language stemmed from its prose writing tradition — something that got lost in the overtones and tensions.

Post-90s, the literature mainly concentrated on strife manifestations. Kashmir underwent a fundamental change and the youth started speaking out about their lived experiences in a way that was very personal to them and was layered with words and symbols that clearly reflected fracas.

The short stories written by people in the late 1990s or early 2000s mostly dealt with their experiences as individuals during curfews and crackdowns. While being raised in a conflict-ridden environment, authors wrote about changes that occurred during their formative years.

“Short stories during that period had a striking effect,” Shahid says. “And the writers employed language in such a way that it appeared as if they were shrieking but were not. It was done with pens.”

This was a sort of change that was welcomed at a time when the protracted strife had created a craving for some passive alternative.

But the façade of that so-called “healing touch” literary atmosphere created among others by some foreign-returned young Kashmiris ended once the watershed years of 2010’s began.

The literature produced during that decade was much different from that of the late 90’s and early millennia. The boom of writers that emerged in this age were the ones that wrote best-selling books on Kashmir, made it in name and recognition, but were largely diasporic. It was the start of when the native voice started getting hushed.

“There are writers from this time that wrote pieces that could resonate and relate with any place around the world,” says Shahid. “But there’s a lack of attachment in the works from this era, visibly evidenced by the use of symbols.”

The literature produced in this time was termed disturbing as the imagery used and the symbols presented were very raw and dark, where the writers gave expression to their suffocations and observations that they had accumulated over time. The works produced were Kafkaesque, as elements and experiences were described with sardonic attitude.

Native contemporary writers whose tomes mapped the troubled times in Kashmir.

The 2010-epoch saw many prominent writers who did not begin their careers as professional writers but rather as journalists who later turned to writing and became household names.

But with the stifling of the native voice during this time period, there were also works produced that made it seem like writers had changed the meaning in order to avoid trouble.

“There are writings from post-2010 that make it seem like the writers wrote pieces with knives held to their throats, as this was the advent of writing that was termed politically right,” says Shahid.

The differences between short story writing produced today and that produced before 2010 or 2000 or in the 1990s are so pronounced that the form itself appears to have changed.

The short stories that are currently being produced use cryptic language and symbols, which make it challenging to understand the required meaning. The speech contains politically correct subjects and subjugations, and all of the references are constrained and this changes how short stories are written, perceived, and propagated.

“As of late,” Shahid says, “there’ve been publications written on generally ordinary meetings, occasions that individuals haven’t been a part of. Because of that kind of writing, there has been deterioration in the quality of literature produced of the fact that what happens is that individuals wind up obscure symbols that are difficult to unravel.”

Clearly, in this day and age, individuals fear retaliation, and yet, Shahid says, “writers who know how to write, know what to write, and write what they want to write.”

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