It took debut author Mirza Waheed 20 years to break his silence on Kashmir and the violence he witnessed there.
Mirza Waheed is a young London-based Kashmiri broadcaster whose first novel, The Collaborator — about growing up in the Valley at the height of militancy and state repression — is due out soon. With Basharat Peer, author of the critically acclaimed Curfewed Night, he represents a new generation of Kashmiri writers who see writing as much a literary as a political act.
More so writing in English which, Mr. Waheed says, is the only way to get the Kashmiri “voice” out to the wider world, not the least to the English-speaking “middle classes” in Delhi and Islamabad, whose perception of Kashmir, according to him, is shaped heavily by a toxic mix of official propaganda and often “skewed” media coverage.
“Of late, things have changed in the media, but there was a time when most major national mainstream papers did not trust the Kashmiris to tell their own story. I used to write to newspapers in Delhi but never even got a response,” Mr. Waheed said at the DSC South Asian Literature Festival which kicked off at the weekend with a discussion on “Power of the pen: a resolution for Kashmir?”
There were two other panelists: Justine Hardy who has lived and worked in Kashmir (her 2005 novel The Wonder House is set in Kashmir against the background of the conflict); and writer and academic Victoria Schoefield, who has written extensively on Kashmir and India-Pakistan affairs. But as a Kashmiri (and the new literary kid on the block) the focus, inevitably, was on Mr. Waheed.
So, had the “power of the pen failed” in Kashmir? he was asked.
“No. But the pen, however mighty, can't solve problems. It can only highlight an issue and I think the pen is doing a good job,” he replied.
Yet, Mr. Waheed pointed out, it was not easy to write about emotionally numbing experiences of the kind that Kashmiris lived through for much of the 1990s when violence acquired an absurd “banality”.
“When you grow up, as I did, seeing bullet-ridden bodies around you and having to behave as though there is nothing abnormal about it then silence helps. I left Kashmir at the age of 18 and it has taken me 20 years to break my silence. It is only now, with the benefit of distance, that I think I am prepared to tell what it was like growing up in Kashmir at the time” he said.
The Collaborator, originally titled In the Valley of Yellow Flowers, has been described by its publishers Penguin/Viking as a “heartbreaking and shocking story of what happens to a community, and a family, that must live through a conflict that is all too real”.
Mr. Waheed did not agree with the notion that the new crop of writing coming out of Kashmir represented a sudden resurgence or “renaissance”, as the moderator described it. Kashmir, he reminded the audience, had a long and rich literary tradition, especially in poetry.
“Yes, there is a resurgence in English writing but Kashmiris always wrote,” he pointed out even if often the writing was “bad”.
Ms Hardy pointed out that because Kashmiris wrote in their own language people outside Kashmir knew little about it — until Agha Shahid Ali put Kashmir on the world literary map inspiring a whole generation of young Kashmiris. But after his death in 2001 there was a period of silence, she said and mostly “outsiders” like her were writing about Kashmir.
“As an outsider, however much you may think you know about Kashmir the fact is that you don't,” she confessed.
Ms Schoefield agreed that what Kashmir needed was “more and more Kashmiris” writing about Kashmir and the fact that a new generation of writers was making itself felt was a good sign.
But Mr. Waheed warned against exaggerating the role of writers arguing that they could only write about their experiences but unless others “listened” nothing would change.
So, what about the future? Where would Kashmir be in the next ten years? a questioner asked.
Mr. Waheed's candid reply was that he had “no clue”.
“I wish I could predict but the situation in Kashmir is much more complex than we think. The good news is that the younger generation of Kashmiris wants to talk. It doesn't believe in violence and it is willing to discuss anything but it wants to be heard. ‘You must talk to us', it says. The bad news is that if they are not heard and the current drift continues it could all end up in something very scary,” he said urging both India and Pakistan to rid themselves of the notion that they could impose a solution on Kashmiris.
More on India and Pakistan would be heard during the festival as writers and academics from the two countries discuss issues (literary and otherwise) of mutual interest.
It is Britain's first literary event devoted entirely to South Asia and, though sponsored by the same business group that sponsors the Jaipur Literature Festival, its patron Surina Narula said it was “completely different” from the Jaipur festival in terms of its reach and range of fare on offer.