Shahnaz Bashir was born and brought up in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). His widely reviewed and critically lauded debut novel ‘The Half Mother’ won the Muse India Young Writer Award 2015. His short fiction, essays, poetry and reportage have been widely published. In its New Year special issue of January 2016, Kashmir Life, a popular weekly tabloid of J&K, profiled Bashir as ‘one of the nine difference-makers to stand out in the 12.5 million population of the state’. A university gold medallist in journalism, he was awarded the prestigious Shamim Ahmad Shamim Memorial Kashmir Times Award in 2007. Bashir, who is currently working on his third book, teaches narrative journalism and conflict reporting at the Central University of Kashmir, Srinagar.
Edited Excerpts from an interview •
Scattered Souls reveals the conflict in Kashmir as it operates on the ground on a day-to-day basis. No wonder it is getting such rave reviews. One review compared your writing with that of Manto.
In an interview with BBC’s Sufia Shani on May 10, 2005, writer Nasira Sharma had said Saadat Hassan Manto’s “language portrayed reality”. Right from his first story Tamasha (spectacle), all his stories were based on the reality he witnessed. Majority of his post-1947 stories are all thematically Partition-centric. He was more influenced by the animalistic behaviour displayed by the people crossing over during Partition and saddened by the riots and rapes that took place under his very nose. The darkness of human psyche affected him so much that all his masterpieces, which revolve around Partition, are still universally relevant. My writings are about J&K in the 90s’, grounded in realities of that period. And perhaps, stylistically too, I might look like Manto, and that is the reason people have started comparing me with Manto. But I don’t want to be compared with him because my politics differ with Manto’s at many places. I want to be known as Shahnaz Bashir from J&K.
The book comprises stories, which unsparingly highlight the dark underbelly of the conflict. How did you get them.
Actually, I wrote this story called ‘The ex-militant’, which is based on a true story, and all the rest of the stories stemmed from it. The rest is imagined. Serious literary fiction is written to produce a higher, more universal meaning of the realties we face. The stories in ‘Scattered Souls’ are interlinked. The connections between the stories have been determined by the inter-dependent diversity in suffering that run through disparate and scattered individuals as a thread, thus giving each character a fuller role in relation to the other. But that is not how it was planned. It emerged so while writing them. For instance, when I wrote the ‘The ex-militant’, there was a mention of his daughter and long after having written it, his daughter hit me as an individual character. I imagined what can be the life of an ex-militant’s daughter now? Then what his wife could have gone through without him and so on and so forth.
The stories are more about ordinary lives caught up in ruthless operation of the conflict, which upsets the popular understanding of ordinary life. What would you say?
Had there been no militarisation in the state then, I would have surely written about something else. An outsider would be inspired to romanticise about this place if not for its walnuts, apples and the famous Dal Lake. There is a certain politics and political forces at play that want militarisation not only to continue, but also to consolidate and thrive. And that means more suffering. There is nothing, really nothing, that a conflict leaves unaffected or uninfluenced. Our situation is extraordinary, because we are all affected and suffering; now what is more strange is how we strive to survive as ordinary in the extraordinary. That intriguing part of our collective tragic life is a story to cry on.
‘Memory is our greatest achievement. It’s something that keeps our identity close to the ground. The experiences of 90s’ will live with us forever’
Stories like ‘Transistor’, ‘Psychosis’ and ‘The Gravestone’ are chilling reminders of the J&K during the 90s’ and its fallout. They are fictional, but they are also real and raw.
They are. To explain it better, once in a letter to his friend Apollon Makav, Dostoevsky wrote, “Oh my friend, I have my own special view of reality (in art)… In every newspaper you come across reports of the most real facts and the most odd… but they are reality because they are facts. They occur every moment and they are not exceptional. Facts are irrefutable, terrible, disfigured, implacable”. I don’t have anything better to say about the role of reality in the art of fiction than what the great Dostoevsky wrote to his friend. The most important word he used was “disfigured”. “In what ways are the ‘terrible and disfigured’ also beautiful? His books ponder this question,” writes author Laurie Sheck about Dostoevsky in her essay ‘Reading Dostoevsky as Thanksgiving’.
That is where the rawness comes into play. It’s not merely the impassive rawness of a daily one-killed-three-injured hard news report that is normalised by losing it to the vast database of tragedy statistics. It’s the narrative rawness that renews and universalises the normalised story of a tragedy.
Your book has been released in the wake of yet another uprising for Aazadi, the fourth one since 2008. However, both your books, ‘The Half Mother’ as well as the new one evoke the horror of the 90s’. You have yet to turn to the present. Why?
Is memory a more powerful inspiration than experience for you?
Memory is our greatest achievement. It’s something that keeps our identity close to the ground. The indelible memories of 90s’ are experiences that will live with us forever. Tell me where I’d go with what I carry. The pain of seeing my cousins and uncles tortured and killed, my aunts slapped, my mother and father humiliated and looted; seeing myself paraded in crackdowns, abused, detained and almost molested by a trooper when I was a child; seeing my daily life mired among bunkers and rifles; seeing my friends being arbitrarily killed. It’s been sometime my aunt stopped wailing on her kitchen window 20 years after her son was killed. Yet, I have turned to the present with stories such as ‘Shabaan Kaak’s death’ and ‘A Photo with Barack Obama’. But I still don’t know if I could ever get off the deadly period of 90s’.
Despite being one of the oldest conflicts, the situation in J&K continues to be the most misunderstood in the world. Many observers blame lack of sufficient artistic and literary articulation of the conflict as a part of the reason for it.
Not only misunderstood, but it’s also the most unknown too. Luckily, that is good as well. There is also a danger in knowing something well for it wouldn’t take a lot of time for the situation to turn like it is in Syria; dirty and messy politico-economic interests.
But that doesn’t mean we should stop wailing and start protesting and asserting. Firstly, the reason for inadequate artistic and literary articulation is that traditional litterateurs in J&K refuse to come to terms with the concerns and worries of budding writers. There is a widening gulf. Secondly, an absence of organised public space for consolidation of literary activity and thirdly, those who have emerged on a global scene seem conceited and quasi-serious with their writing.
Yet, on the top of it all, I am hopeful and I see it coming. In the next five years or so we would have all the artistic and literary arms that we require. The future of J&K is very bright..