Our English Jihad

 

Hope seldom overrides despair for we Kashmiris. Let us honestly admit, most of us often give in to what looks like ‘the inevitability of a national decay.’ Our circumstances usually leave us confused, and dejected. Left marooned and captive, we often crane our necks for a glimpse of hope, some fresh air.

The good news is that our grey clouds have plentiful silver lining. Look at the sort of renaissance our English literature is going through. Kashmir is catching global attention today, and not for ordinary reasons.

It is true that we have a rich tradition of producing fantastic literature, mostly in Kashmiri, Urdu and, to some extent, Persian. But our brush with English is somewhat new.

If ever Kashmir happens to own the hated, the brilliant, the maverick Salman Rushdie, then we have made our mark in English literature for a while now.

If not then our English era begins with Agha Shahid Ali – the genius, who made the literary world take note of Kashmiris’ ability to craft astonishing English literature. No matter the angel of death had him little early, and we didn’t get to read a novel from him, his poems remain the best thing we have ever produced in English. His writings – including his translations of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Urdu ghazals – continue to captivate, and leave a reader with incredible but pleasant bewilderment.
What has created ripples in the literary world lately, however, are Basharat Peer’s memoir Curfewed Night, and now Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator and Siddharth Gigoo’s The Garden of Solitude, both novels.
And, one hears, more stories are just on the way.

Listening to Waheed Mirza at a Srinagar café a few days back was a real treat. This genuine English writer, who seems to know his job well, made an excellent case for what he had crafted. And, frankly speaking, I greatly enjoyed his narration of the evolution and the making of The Collaborator than the tracts he read from the novel.
Having spent the last couple of weeks in the reading of The Collaborator, Curfewed Night, and a partial reading of The Garden of Solitude, I am left with a mixed feeling.

All these three books are undoubtedly a work of colossal effort. What they have done in great measure is make the world open its eyes to Kashmir’s profound human stories. These books are bold, do not mind making people angry, and come with an emotionally-charged personal relation to their narratives. For those who wish to appreciate why Kashmiris nurse so much of pain and anger, these books hold the answer. In two of these books, there is also some resonance with Muzammil Jaleel’s "My Lost Kashmir", which appeared in the London Observer way back in 2002.

But there is something that is missing too – a captivating narrative that captures intricate details normally seen in Kashmir’s non-English writings and an inquisitive plot. Curfewed Night and The Garden of Solitude have mostly relied on linear story telling. But there are some brilliant thoughts in Curfewed Night as well, like this one – Srinagar is never winning or never being defeated.

In the end, in all these three books, the thirst for a narration where imagination goes berserk, and attention to detail sounds obsessive, is left unquenched.
But those who see too much of politics in these books miss the point. No writer having been witness to Kashmir’s mayhem can skirt the political circumstances their authors have breathed in. Those circumstances shape their cognition, and so what they write.
But when it comes to literary merit, one would surely love to see more of magic realism squeezed from a million things that are Kashmiri, entwined in our historical fiction, which is inevitable.
To say that a first person or third person protagonist narrative could have been avoided in these books is unfair too. No creative writing needs to be moored to a particular genre. Likewise, it is completely ethical to narrate a story from the prism of one’s perceptions and biases. But, yes, when personal political biases cross a certain line, and balance creeps in for being politically correct, literature loses its charm.
What The Collaborator does remarkably well is bring to the world the story of Kashmir’s secluded hinterland – the life of the hapless people living close to the Line of Control. But as what Peter Carty in his review of the novel says, The Collaborator is “frequently histrionic and overwrought.” Although that sounds little too harsh while reading, but actually not totally unfounded as one goes into the novel in detail.
When it comes The Collaborator’s title – originally titled In the Valley of Yellow Flowers – a reader is left thinking if it is intentional. A best-selling novel of the same title by Seymour Gerald, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is already in the market since September 2009 in the UK.  
There is, nevertheless, a big reason to cheer our Aborted Martyrs kind of writers – waging a jihad of a different ilk, winning friends to their political cause and empathy for their people’s suffering.
First novels seldom bring out the best of the writers. Writers evolve as they write. Basharat, Waheed and Siddarth possess a talent that is capable of producing far more striking stories.
And then we have our other brilliant and veteran creative English writers – Syeda Afshana, Ajaz-ul-Haque, Muzammil Jaleel, Sajad Lone and Ajaz Baba. These individuals are capable of producing English literature which could hit the global literary stage with unpredictable results. I wait for the day when these people find time from their work commitments, resign to themselves, and let their literary genius go berserk. I am also greatly fascinated by the writings of Sameer Bhat, whom we read mostly on Facebook. He has the talent of being a global sensation. He is my favorite number one.
And who knows we may one day have a master piece, a contender for the Booker, as Agha Shahid Ali said – in a language that must measure up to one’s native dust.
(The columnist can be emailed at Arjimand@greaterkashmir.com)