“Kashmir is quarry of stories. Kashmir is both beautiful as well as brutalised.”
Recently a young author from Kashmir namely Mr. Shahnaz Bashir’s novel “Scattered Souls” hit the stands. It was widely accepted in scholarly and literary circles. Earlier another of his book “Half Mother” was published, which comprises stories of relatives of people who were subjected to enforced disappearances. According to the author, the relatives cannot share their loneliness. Mr. Shahnaz Bashir is an Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Convergent Journalism in Central University, Kashmir. Author is a gold medalist in PG Journalism from University of Kashmir.
The unique way of narrating Kashmir’s story by kashmiris themselves has started in this decade only. Mr Shahnaz Bashir has authored two books namely Scattered Souls and Half Mother in which painful stories are narrated. The was awarded Muse India Youngster Award.
In an interview with a monthly Urdu Magazine, Payam Talba, the author had a detailed conversation about his new publications and writings, with its special correspondent, Iqbal Kirmani. For the interest of readers, the entire interview is translated and published here.
Can you give us a brief draft of your two books “Half Mother” and “Scattered Souls” for our readers?
My first book, “Half Mother” has stories of relatives of those Kashmiris who have been subjected to involuntary disappearances and cannot share their loneliness. “Half Mother” carries a story of a family belonging to Natipora, Srinagar, in which the head of family is killed by troops. While the family is yet to complete their mourning, his son is made to disappear. Then, there is another story of a mother who is in search of her beloved son.
Actually in this novel what I have tried to narrate is the situation of Kashmiri women, who are reduced to a mother-only character due to the Kashmir conflict. You can say that a mother is woman but a woman also has her own existence, desires, intentions and aspirations. Even as she has wishes and ambitions for her life but in the ongoing conflict she remains nothing more than a mother, who’s only and last objective remains to find her son.
In this novel I have narrated that Kashmir has never mourned its painful distress because the situation of Kashmir never let its people complete the mourning of a death. We have seen how people are carrying coffins and at the same time barrels of guns are pointed towards them. In this way the series of mourning goes on – every mourning in Kashmir is incomplete.
My second book “Scattered Souls” is about a former militant who fails to live a normal life. He was made to disappear while a cricket match was going on between India and Pakistan. After his death, his wife is sexually abused by the killers. His wife lives her entire life in an undecided state whereby she is unable to know whether her son is of her mujahid husband or is he a bastard child of those govt. forces who had raped her.
Then of dislocated life… there is story of this boy who is blamed to be bastard by the society. He becomes a stone pelter which earns him respect among people. When he pelts stone, he not only pelts it towards a trooper but also towards his existence. He targets those blames, under the pressure of which he is buried. He pelts it on the society which had not allow him to enter the mosque at some point of time but then respects him, and gives him the title of “Shoaib Akhter”.
Although these are stories but these are actually reflections of our own society. When you write these stories, do you feel relieved from the pressure of such stories which are around us?
These stories depict every suffering viz torture, rape, enforced disappearance etc which is witnessed by us. Someone has said, “If you are angry one way of getting rid of your anger is, go and write about it.”
Being a Kashmiri I am not only angry but also helpless. Rest of the people around me are also helpless and angry but the ways of expression are different. A pen cannot be the only medium to express this emotion. Some may even express by their paintings or let music express their emotions. There are some people who express this by pelting stones and some even take up arms to express their anger and helplessness.
You once said that we should be our own story tellers. What was the thing which encouraged you to write? How can you encourage others to tell their stories?
I was inherently inclined to writing which is why I held the pen. Had I been inclined to painting I would have told my stories by painting. Everyone among us cannot be a writer.
When I held the pen in my hand, I wanted to write about myself, but the suffering of people around me made me realize that my sufferings are very meager compared to theirs. There are so much sufferings of our people that if they are penned down it would be an unbearable tragedy for world, but they cannot write. I suggest to opt for other medium to narrate the stories. Not only is it important to write a story but its reflection is also equally important. To narrate a story in rhythm and music has its own status. We can have “oral story telling”. We can launch a project in which we can invite people, ask them and listen to their stories which could be recorded and later on uploaded. That can be an oral novel. The point is we have to narrate our stories and that is very important for us.
Since there is no dearth of intelligent people in Kashmir, then why haven’t we produce such people who could be heard in the literary world?
Firstly we should shun this path of voluntary compulsion that we force upon ourselves by which we think that the world should listen us. If the world won’t listen to us then what can we do about that? It isn’t correct to say that if world won’t listen to us, why should we narrate!
In this context is the story under the title “A photograph with Barack Obama” in my book “Scattered Souls”. Whenever USA elects its president, we keep on pinning our hopes on the elected president thinking that he would solve our issue. This reflects our state of thinking in which we associate our expectations at the international level. I do accept that only when certain changes take place in the geopolitical level, would we get rid of this conflict. But our resistance should not only be political, should be moral at the same time. We are in a real-time problem so we cannot be only political or diplomat. We are fighting this war by our sentiments which is part of our morality. After that we should add the political factor because if we are only sentimental we could opt suicidal path only. Because ours is a small nation quantitatively numerically, so one can ask how can we be both simultaneously? But it’s important to have both approaches simultaneously.
We should keep in mind that it’s not after 2009-10 that we have begun to express our talent and qualifications by our talks and writings at the international level – talent and intelligence was there even before. As I told you earlier that in “Half Mother” a woman is shown as reduced to a mother only. She lives under such conditions and situations under which she is unable to express her desires and or execute her plans. For example, she may want to remarry because she could have sexual desires which are instinctive. To fulfill such desires would be unacceptable for her under prevailing circumstances. I have noted in the story that when Halima sees her husband “something happens inside her.” What are those emotions referring to? She hides those temptations because her environment has changed. The period of 1990 to 2008 was when we fought the battle of survival. Even the current period is same but who would publish it? God forbid if the massacre is going on, what would you do? No such creative work is possible to be carried out under such situation. Creative work can be done in the prison because you are certain that you are there for a given period of time. Our situation is uncertain. Now the chances of uncertainty are decreasing so the result is that such people are emerging who are performing creative tasks.
Do we need to institutionalise such work?
Absolutely, we need to! Institutions aren’t mere structures but a representation of individuals. Universities were founded by individuals under the shadows of trees. Aligarh Muslim University came into existence by like this. However, the problem which lies with us is that we aren’t organized. Man is impacted by the environment around him. “Allahu jameel wa yuhibul jamaal” (Allah is beautiful and likes beauty) is the philosophy of beauty. We should instill charm from our environment. We have such a landscape which could encourage us. If you place a writer in such a wilderness he will surely find out aesthetics in it. Even though our environment is full of such aesthetics but we are unable to express our creativity because we are unorganized. Outside Kashmir, people are organized. You can see news organizations like Scroll, Scoopwhoop, DailyO, Catchnews etc are all founded by students. Students having common mindsets got organized and started to work, later they got investments and sponsorships. Here, we are unsuccessful even at running a well-established newspaper.
Anne Frank and Zlata, in their very young age started to write their diary and documented memoirs of the unrest. Why don’t our youth do such things?
There are different types of people in society. In our society there could be many such people who maintain their diaries. It is again an issue of disorganization. You have to type your diary, edit it and then present it before any expert. Patience is the key to being organized. Many youth are organized but then they lose patience. They are in a hurry to get their piece published by ruling out whether their write-up is of any serious content or not. In the present situation non-serious work won’t flourish – “You can’t be a non-serious writer in a serious situation”. Another issue is that some youth want to get published without the enough study to back their work, but there are some who listen, obey and seek patience.
How much is study important for a writer?
Studying is the soul of writing. There is a saying, “You are what you read.” It opens up the mind of the writer. There is a lot of importance of “warm up” for exercise so that you can prepare your body parts for difficult steps throughout the exercise. Similarly studying is also like “warm up” for a writer. You learn the best usage of words and the skill of sentence construction. It broadens your ideas and thinking. If you won’t study you won’t be able to write.
Can you recommend some suggested readings for those who are interested in novel writing?
- Initially, you should study what you like so that studying would become integral part of your life. If you don’t do this you can’t obtain the benefits of studying. If you don’t study someday, you should feel uneasiness. Then with time you have to be selective while studying. In fiction, there is no parallel to Russian writers. There is no one ahead of Leo Tolstoy, Dostovesky and Anton Chekhov in fiction literature. So when you read, you would get connected to writers who are serious in their work.
Similarly, in this context you would be in search of serious writers of current times. Then you would have to see and read renowned writers of different countries. Or at least you would have to read a writer from each country. Your mind and thinking would broaden by reading every kind of subject. In non-fiction, if you want to read about Iranian revolution, then read Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shah of Shahs. If you want to know about Salvodor then read Joan Didion’s Salvodor. To know about relations between US and Maxico, you can read Sonia Nazario. If you want to know about Iraq situation then read Anthony Shadid. For Vietnam and Japan, read Micheal Herr and John Hersey respectively. For information about situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, read Ahmad Rasheed. To know about slums of India, read Katherin Boo or Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City.
Apart from this, for a writer it is vital to have knowledge of different subjects. Not necessarily with precision but a writer should have information of different subjects. In philosophy, Will Durrant’s The story of Philosophy and in history The history of Entire World are necessary books. Similarly one should have introduction of different subjects.
“Who is who” is also necessary. Similarly, one should be updated with politics of different important countries. If you don’t know about Timbiktu (one of the poorest cities in Mali), at least you should have information of Iraq and Syria.
What have been your inspirations?
I am not inspired by anyone but I am impressed. For inspiration there ought to be physical presence, that is why I haven’t seen inspiration. There have been effects of my school teachers upon me. Although they were not that much qualified academically but they were imbibed with great moral courage and conscience.
How is a place like Kashmir for a writer?
Kashmir is quarry of stories. Fortunately it is an ideal place for writers because it is a beautiful valley. But this is also a reality that the beautiful valley reflects a desolated look. In other words, Kashmir is both beautiful as well as brutalised. What could be more essential for a writer than to pen down bloodied beauty of Kashmir?