By Ather Zia
Recently a news item in the Times of India announced that a literary festival would be held in Kashmir. I find something deeply unsettling about the way this piece has been written (or how the news has been evolving ever since). Not to mention, the audacity of the idea of a literary festival in a place where deep constraints on freedom of speech and life exist. There could be numerous reasons for the way this piece has turned out - a journalist in hurry or uninformed or plain disinterested, but these are not convincing reasons when considering the publication. The more I closely read it, the more it seemed bent to create an unmistakable murkiness around the burgeoning intellectual capital in the valley.
The tone of this piece increasingly reminded me of the scene in Sholay (a wildly popular Indian movie in the 70s), when one of the main characters named Jai is negotiating his friend, Veeru’s, marriage. Jai’s euphemistic rendition of Veeru’s bachelorhood scruples (or lack thereof) is hard to miss and is entirely aimed at sabotaging the proposal.
In the same vein, this news piece brings together serious contradictions, which are left unexplained. This seems a deliberate attempt to sabotage the cathartic documentation by Kashmiri writers (Muslims and Pandits alike), which is being read far and wide by audiences intrigued by the Kashmir imbroglio. No doubt, contradictions exist in Kashmir, but they demand a nuanced understanding of Kashmiri history (which, unfortunately, is not a largely shared forte), so that it is not misinterpreted as meaning that the lit fest shows that Kashmir has become conducible to India’s ministrations. The emphasis, in the least seems to be on presenting the literary scene in Kashmir as “writing for writing’s sake,” leaving none wiser about the temper of emerging Kashmiri literature. Even the name of the festival, Harud, which means Autumn in Kashmiri, seems like a nuanced jab at the “Summers” of civil unrest that have become the motif of Kashmir’s grassroots resistance since 2008.
I have taken a few sentences (in bold and italics) from the news item to "tease” the “unease" - explicated immediately after. I can be accused of over analysis, but every bit of writing counts and has serious direction, especially when it comes to an issue like Kashmir.
HEADLINE - Kashmir Valley turns a page, starts a literature fest
Facetious - is it an impulse? – something like, first they took to the gun; last year was spent in pelting stones, this year "they" write. The cute play on “turn” a page and literature fest - does not work.
The Kashmir Valley has not seen a peaceful summer since 2007, but autumn may yet bring hope
Hope? A nuanced way of making pre-2010 summers murky? Did peace exist in Kashmir before summer 2010? Not a hard one to fathom.
Wahid, Mirza and Giggoo have spearheaded a new wave of books on Kashmir, written by a generation of Kashmiris who grew up in conflict, and will soon share a dais in the land that inspired them to write
“Inspired” is too small a word to convey the pathos of Kashmir – a tragedy that moves its writers, that urges them, stirs them, and which is manifest in their work and conversations.
I must also note that the other reputed writers, who are being thought of in the list of participants, make a strange concoction. I would not hesitate to say that this move dilutes the temper of writings by Mirza Wahid, Basharat Peer, and Siddhartha Giggoo. If Kashmir is the common thread between them, it should get a pass, but without context, not so much.
Orhan Pamuk is also mentioned (by a source), but if memory serves me right, did he not boycott the Galle festival in Sri Lanka? Some names are conspicuous by their absence, such as Arundhati Roy, who is mired in the haze of sedition on behalf of her empathetic stance on Kashmir. Roy boycotted the Galle Literary Festival too, as did Noam Chomsky, stating the “great tradition of solidarity that binds writers together everywhere, to stand with your brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka who are not allowed to speak out."
So, how can we contextualize the lit fest in Kashmir?
These writers have started a virtual stampede among young Kashmiris eager to tell their story
This sentence pertains to the recent success of Kashmiri authors and is a deeply unsettling vision. Wahid, Giggoo, and Peer are pioneers in bringing Kashmiri pathos into much needed literary focus. This has no doubt encouraged other aspiring writers, who have been writing under pen-names, the threat of prison, and censorship. The framing of this literary process as “virtual stampede, eager to tell their story,” trivializes the burgeoning intellectual capital. It seems to portray the emerging Kashmiri literature not as a cathartic expression, as a mode of memorialization and mourning, but as a one that is tinged by something more banal and worldly, like opportunism, for the lack of a better word.
Quoting a budding writer - “…. only outsiders wrote on Kashmir….I saw the success of authors like Basharat Peer. I thought I could write about what I went through, about what it's like to come back home and find 10 Pakistani militants watching TV in your living room."
In a short news item, this is the only exemplary vignette from a contemporary Kashmiri life? It is a brazen attempt in making it a representational aspect of the Kashmiri psyche battered by extreme militarization. I would imagine that any “normal” (I really mean normal normal) Kashmiri would first want to capture the 700,000 forces, who may not be watching TV at this given moment in my living room, but who in the Kashmir carceral are certainly free to watch, and who move beyond watching, and act without fear of reprisal.
A festival like this will be a steep learning curve, said “the source.” "To hear directly from people who have written books is a dream. I just hope foreign authors don't get scared by Kashmir's reputation.”
This entreating demeanor of “the Kashmiri” (woe is me, what if they do not come?) becomes that motif of eternal “outside” patronization that a Kashmiri, and by implication entire Kashmir, is portrayed as needing.
Then, comes the issue of the foreign authors – what do they have to fear from Kashmir? That much is conveniently left unexplained (stone pelting, gun-culture, that they really are militants masquerading as writers, or that it’s a Kashmiri tradition to eat the brains of foreign-writers for breakfast). The armed movement and its accoutrement - is that not a twenty year-old fact?
What might have given a real leg-up to the festival is that Germany has lifted the travel advisory for its citizens against visiting Kashmir
This vouches for the safety that Kashmir in its current avatar promises, but comes only after you have been time and again reminded of its potent underbelly and “its reputation” that should/must scare. Viva Tourism (pack all your apprehensions along)!
On top of this, now the organizers are saying that this literary festival will be “apolitical.” This packaging becomes an outright mockery of Kashmir, its literary talent, and aspirations. I would go as far as to say, that there should be an international law that bans using Kashmir and “apolitical” in the same sentence (if international law only existed).
Literary festivals do not necessarily have to spell out their “political or otherwise” stance. If they need to, it seems like a disservice to the soul of the very literature being celebrated. In its current evolving form, this festival, like the NGO epidemic in the valley, has the potential to create an unnecessary schism between the muzzled Kashmiris, and those who have been passionate enough to mold their words into wise forms in order to speak the heart of Kashmir.
The old and new writers in Kashmir need libraries, writing workshops, mentors, fellowships, and forums of intellectual capacity-building and exchange (and not necessarily by non-Kashmiris). A one-time event insulated from reality, or even an annual festival may attract big names and expose Kashmir (not necessarily Kashmiris) to the world of literature, but it will do little else for common benefit, especially if in this intensely political region it is touted as “apolitical.”
It is another story if this event is intended to end up as a bullet point in a tourist book.