In conversation with Nawaz Gul Qanungo, MIRZA WAHEED talks about the novel form, writing, media, Kashmir, its suffering, faith and illumination. This is the first of two parts.
NAWAZ GUL QANUNGO: You spoke about the novel being the best form of writing for what you wanted to do. Could you go through that time of inception of The Collaborator, somewhere where it had to be a novel…
MIRZA WAHEED: Well, sometimes, it’s a matter of what you know best. People don’t really go through a complicated process of decision-making. It’s a continuous process. I’ve grown up with the novel as a form and, I said this elsewhere, in my teenage years I actually used to believe that the novel is one of the best inventions of mankind. This form is something which has survived for so long because essentially it goes back to a very, very long time, the oral traditions, the classics, the Greek epics, even the epics from our culture or even the world culture, the Arabian Nights and all those things.
Then, you also need stories, we always want stories and it has gone through such a huge transformation. From the time when people would sit in a village and then recite and narrate stories even in this era but essentially it is story telling. And we need that all the time. Somebody said something very interesting on Twitter – that even the cave-men used to scribble for recording their things and here’s Twitter doing very much the same thing, after thousands of years. So I’ve always been comfortable in it. What helped and what must have been a catalyst was that I studied literature. You begin to know more about the technicalities. And the sense of delight that you get from a story and the art, the characterisation, and what the novelist is saying beneath the text which is so important, so important. [In a novel,] there’s a beginning and then there’s an end. But, there’s also a lot happening underneath the text. That’s why some novels take time because the writer needs a processing time, there is a period of gestation… What does he or she want to explore? What are the themes? Some novels have a philosophical theme because the writer is of a philosophical kind of mind or thinks a lot. He or she may not even have read the philosophical texts, but there is sometimes an innate understanding of the kind of the world and the universe that we live in.
And then there’s the context, the thematic context or a political context or a historical context and so on. So, it’s a part of it. So, what I found myself is that the novel is the best form for all these things to, you know, to really come together and enter this mix. How a theme emerges from say a dramatic scene. Yes, you are making the reader read, there’s plot, there’s movement, there’s expectation of something, there’s suspense, and all those things. But some of those things may have already worked into the text and what you want in the text. So, yes, I’ve always been with the novel and I’ve always been absolutely delighted by it.
NGQ: There is already this huge body of work about Kashmir that people from outside Kashmir have written. There are writers from India and the world. How do you see that body of work? And how do you see, now, Kashmiri writers entering that space and writing about Kashmir and talking about themselves…
MW: The Kashmiris talking about themselves is very important. And it’s very crucial. In the sense that we have always been written about, we have been “explained” as well. Sometimes, we have been explained to ourselves, that this is what you are like. (Laughs.) And then, when you are growing up, even that plays on your mind, you know. Writing about Kashmir, writing books about Kashmir, writing histories of Kashmir, writing accounts of the conflict and coming up with solutions to the dispute, you know, Formula 1, Formula 2 and Formula 3 and all those things. At one level they are slightly upsetting when you are growing up in Kashmir. Upsetting in the sense that sometimes you read a book and you say, “OK, that’s not how it is, I don’t see that.” Yes, you have done your research and you have spent time here but we know a different Kashmir. So, that plays on your mind. And many of the books about Kashmir are not good. The ones I have read, I found them inadequate. And sometimes, when you don’t know the world, you get a feeling that you are being exoticised, you know, to be otherised, in many ways. You know, there are these native Kashmiris and they are like this and they are like that and they are not to be trusted (laughs) and, you know, they lie, they are deceptive, and all those things. And they have been published! (Laughs again).
NGQ: …and this affects?
MW: Yes. At a young age, they do affect you. You begin to question you begin to ask that it’s not like that, so why are you saying that?
NGQ: And it affects the process of your writing…
MW: Yes, absolutely. It affects. But it’s not a conscious effort in terms of that you decide like that you set aside a few months and you say that I’m now going you read these books with a critical eye and then I will write something better. It doesn’t work like that. It’s part of your growing up, part of your being as a writer, part of your novelistic process as well. So, those things can impinge on you and they inform you as a writer. At the same time all books about Kashmir are not bad, obviously. Obviously some great writing has been done on Kashmir by people who are not Kashmiris. So one should sort of you know respect that as well. But there have been some horrible books about Kashmir (laughs)… yes, seriously…
NGQ: You want to name any…
MW: Oh no, no… (Laughs again.) I’m sure you know!
NGQ: So, yes, now there is this stage where Kashmiris are talking about themselves, writing about themselves… What difference does it make to the whole discourse and, in a sense, does it have a potential to change the situation on the ground?
MW: It may not change the situation on the ground but it does open up a new narrative space, a very important narrative space. This is my story. I may get it wrong but this is my story. I am writing it. And I have the ownership of that story. And it’s not about territorial ownership or about racial ownership or ethnic ownership. It’s a cultural ownership… (pauses.)
And, you know, that, I can do this. So, it’s about that restoration of faith in who you are and that you can talk about yourself and this is, I think, quite important. And it’s not about ability. You know, some people say that you can’t write, so that’s why you have people writing about you. It’s not so simple. It’s about the impulse. It’s about the need to write. It’s not about that narrow thing called ability to tell a story. It is important for me to write. And it’s also about that moment when you think you cannot not write. One writes, but one doesn’t write because one wants to tell people that one can write in a fine English. One writes because one thinks, “Oh! I think differently. And this is what I think.” The impulse to write is much more than just being a chronicler of your community, area, region, population – there’s something more important. But yes, it’s about the context as well, it’s about nuance and sometimes you think, OK, my story, the story of Kashmir, or any place you may be writing from, you sometimes think that its way more complex and nuanced and detailed than what you’ve read and you think that you want to do that and that you want to add to that body of work, so the novel can be about that.
But it’s also not just Kashmir. It’s also about that I wanted to write (laughs) and at some point of my life I thought I could write and then you test it. And then there comes a moment when you are brave enough and you set up on it and you embark on it and you start a chronicle or a short story or an essay. And that is a crucial act when you tell yourself, “OK, I think I can do this. And now, I want to test it.”
NGQ: And coming back to that… Your book goes almost right across the world, there’s Curfewed Night [Basharat Peer, 2009] already. And so these are going almost across the world. How much does this have the potential to change how the outside world looks at Kashmir?
MW: People begin to take notice that there are stories coming out of this conflict that the world has chosen to forget. It’s exactly what I believe. The world is not really very keen on the Kashmir conflict and you very well know. So, Curfewed Night was important, very important in that context because it did force open the gates. And it told a lot of people that this can be done. And I also think it should be done. And then, I’m not saying that Curfewed Night or The Collaborater will change that overnight. But it does enter public consciousness, to a small measure. Two books cannot be called a work of major proportions or emergence of writing… but it’s a beginning.
The interview was done on Feb 1 in Srinagar after a public reading of excerpts from the novel by Mirza Waheed.
To be concluded. This is the first of two parts.