Last August, as droves of rock-hurling boys and young men rallied on the streets of Srinagar, essayist Pankaj Mishra wrote in The Guardian that “apart from the youth on the streets, there are also those with their noses in books...”, a generation, he wrote, that will soon “make its way into the world with its private traumas. Life under political oppression has begun to yield, in the slow bitter way it does, a rich intellectual and artistic harvest.”
Mishra’s words appear to have been borne out by the minor boom in English-language writing by and about Kashmiris. This includes Sanjay Kak’s anthology, Until my Freedom Has Come, in which the film-maker has compiled writing, mostly from the Internet, produced by Kashmiris last summer. India International Centre chief editor Ira Pande’s A Tangled Web: Jammu & Kashmir is an anthology that seeks to provide fresh ways of looking not just at Kashmir, but Jammu also.
The new crop of Kashmir books is a diverse lot. Published last year was Luv Puri’s scholarly Across the LoC, and soon to follow are My Kashmir, by former civil servant Wajahat Habibullah, and a book of Amit Mehra’s photographs. Also forthcoming are reporter Rahul Pandita’s memoir of growing up as a Hindu in Kashmir, and Sonia Jabbar’s book of reportage from the state.
Likewise, works in translation are beginning to trickle out. Prisoner No. 100, Anjum Zamarud Habib’s jail memoir, was published in translation from Urdu this year. First-time translator Sahba Husain said she has had other offers to translate Urdu works, but passed in favour of writing a non-fiction book based on her activism in Kashmir.
The interest in Kashmir among publishers and readers also spawned the Harud literature festival, which was scheduled for late September, and was born out of “interest and enthusiasm from some Kashmiri writers after the success and visibility of the Kashmir sessions at the Jaipur Literature Festival,” says Harud programme director Namita Gokhale.
Speaking up : Young Kashmiris are taking up their own stories. Tauseef Mustafa/AFP
The event, however, has been cancelled. Some Kashmiri writers refused to participate, saying it was a political tool used to promote a false sense of normalcy in the state. An open letter in protest on the website Kafila, calling the festival a “travesty”, attracted more than 200 signatories. In a statement, the festival’s organizers said the platform had been “hijacked by those who hold extreme views in the name of free speech”, and said many authors were “concerned about possible violence” during the festival.
Two novels released this year are widely cited as stoking the groundswell of Kashmiri writing: The Garden of Solitude, Siddhartha Gigoo’s story about the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, and Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator, a dark novel of coming of age during the conflict.
Many writers credit Basharat Peer’s 2009 memoir Curfewed Night as the inspiration for the recent proliferation of English-language Kashmiri books. In the book, Peer laments that “people from almost every conflict zone had told their stories: Palestinians, Israelis, Bosnians”, and that he “felt the absence of our own telling, the unwritten books about the Kashmiri experience, from the bookshelves, as vividly as the absence of a beloved”.
Books by Mirza Waheed and Basharat Peer.
That yawning chasm might be closing.
“I think Kashmir has always been of interest and books on the state—from the issues surrounding its accession to India to the present insurgency—have been regularly published,” says Ranjana Sengupta, editorial director, general, non-fiction, Penguin Books India. “Perhaps the difference is that they now reach out to a wider readership.”
Gigoo, 37, was a teenager when the conflict in Kashmir escalated in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He says it has taken years for the experiences of writers of his generation to gestate. “Basharat Peer’s book shot to popularity after around 20 years of political turmoil. Twenty years is nothing as far as the evolution of art is concerned,” says Gigoo.
“Curfewed Night was important because it was read not only by Kashmiris and people in India, but people in the West also,” he says. “Previously there had been Urdu poetry and short stories—some of it self-published—but not novels and memoirs.” Likewise, the odd novel set in Kashmir did not deal explicitly with political turmoil, Gigoo says.
For many Kashmiri writers, writing about the conflict is inevitable, says Waheed, author of The Collaborator. “For me it was impossible not to write about the Kashmir conflict. That’s what you saw growing up in the 1990s: the brutal reality of the conflict. If you happen to be from Kashmir, it’s what informs your world view, your sensibility.”
Waheed cautions against calling the flurry of English-language publishing activity a “revival” of Kashmiri writing. “That would be a disservice to people who wrote in a languages other than English, (such as) Kashmiri, Urdu and before that, in Persian. This hasn’t just sprung from nowhere,” he says. “In Kashmir, we’ve had a rich and diverse poetry tradition, from mystic poets to the romantics, to some political poetry as well, all the way down to Agha Shahid Ali.”
Waheed cites 16th century poet Habba Khatun, the Sufi saint and poet Nund Rishi, and the mystic poet Lal Ded as inescapable influences on Kashmiri writers. This year Penguin published a new translation of Lal Ded, and next year it will release a new translation of Tahir Ghani, a seminal 17th century poet from Kashmir.
Still only in their 30s, Waheed, Peer and Gigoo represent the old guard of Kashmiri writers in English. For the younger generation, says Kak, the transition to a relatively more peaceful form of street protest, which began in 2008 and came to a head last summer, was a catalyst. “Halfway through the summer it became quite clear that there was something happening on the streets, but also something else was happening alongside. Writing had been coming in drips and drabs in 2008 and 2009, but by October of 2010 I was suddenly aware of a sizable surge,” Kak says. “A lot of the earlier fear and anxiety had disappeared.”
The outpouring in writing had a metaphor in the protests. “With this critical mass of writing there was something like safety in numbers,” Kak says. “It was an echo of what was happening on the street. I tried to hold that between the covers of this book.”
The reading public too has become more receptive to different narratives about Kashmir, Kak says. Five years ago, “there was a blanket of silence and noise. Silence because what was happening there wasn’t reported, and noise because the little that was reported was the usual government storyline.” Because of the first-hand reporting coming out of Kashmir via the Internet and in magazines and journals, people don’t buy into the old narratives any more, he says. “Publishers are also aware of that.”
Fahad Shah, who is 21, publishes the nascent monthly online magazine The Kashmir Walla. Like other writers of his generation, he’s known nothing but the conflict. A journalism student at the University of Kashmir, Shah says young writers are tired of being misquoted and misrepresented by journalists and writers from outside Kashmir who swoop in and out of town.
“No one from Kashmir used to speak up. Now Kashmiris want to do things on their own,” he says. “The generation born around 1988 to 1992 is more interested in reading and writing. They’re more interested in reporting on their own lives.”