Rallying for the valley


Pragya Tiwari rediscovers pre-militant Kashmir in a Hindi classic

ONCE UPON a time in Kashmir, it was easier to tell your story. Growing up in the 1940s and married at 13, Chandrakanta started writing at a young age. She was first published only in 1967, but it wasn’t till the 1980s that all her unpublished work began to come out, catapulting her into the thick of the Hindi literary circuit. Her prose has documented the dilemmas of exile, social change and femininity in long, revelatory sentences. Her novel, Ailan Gali Zinda Hai(now reissued in English), was first published in 1984 — a time when, as Agha Shahid Ali wrote, memory could get in the way of history. Today, they are inseparable. Today, our best Kashmiri narratives run rudderless in their lunatic asylum of stories.

In the dark alleyways of downtown Srinagar’s Ailan gali, Chandrakanta’s exiled community of Pandits live together with Muslims. The immediacy of her characters couples with their nuanced conversations to present a genial, microscopic view of the society. Chandrakanta doesn’t romanticise any ‘brotherhood’ between communities. Strains flicker freely. Human weaknesses coexist with deep bonds. A strong sense of belonging trumps differences, but doesn’t eradicate them: they bubble under, surface and dissolve, never quite interrupting the flow of community life. In the space of this novel, it’s hard to imagine that this well-oiled ancient machinery would soon explode through the heart of Kashmir.

Throughout, Chandrakanta peppers her narrative with local flavours — food, rituals, songs and idioms unique to a language and culture that is the only surviving link between the two communities. Over a decade, we see the dense, cocooned lane suffer from casual cruelties of time. This change doesn’t portend the political tragedies to come. Only age weakens the body, friends die, children move on — and you realise your time could be over. Equally subtle is the struggle of traditions against new social values and the condition of women in a patriarchal society.


A Street In Srinagar
Chandrakanta Zubaan
220 pp; Rs 295

Chandrakanta weaves her themes into stories instead of presenting them as conflicts. The plot centres on the daily lives of a dozenodd characters like Ratni chachi, the lissome widow with a secret lover; teenage lovers Rupa and Kundan, who are destined for heartbreak; and Anwar miyan, the compassionate mediator for all troubles. Their intricate stories — told in a slick, wry tongue with kindnes — account for the book’s enduring reading pleasure.

This form of telling, reminiscent of folk traditions, is the first casualty of the translation. Also lost is the rasa of colloquialisms executed literally in an alien language. The translation doesn’t carry the original title anywhere. And this might be the worst oversight of all, for the significance of this novel is enhanced in a world where Ailan gali does not live anymore, anywhere except here.

Guns And Proses

Books by Assamese militants writing from the front tell a different story of the insurgency, says Aruni Kashyap

Illustration : Samia Singh

AFTER THE harrowing Assam agitation of the 1980s, as a generation of young intellectuals took up arms with the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), highschool student Uddipana Goswami wrote fiery poems supporting the organisation — while brutal counter-insurgency operations rocked Assam during the early 1990s. In 2009, Uddipana published a collection of poems that critique her early romanticism, We Called the River Red: Poems from a Violent Homeland. During her high-school years, Uddipana confesses, she was smitten by Udipto Hazarika — an ULFA rebel whose poems caught the imagination of her generation. Following in Udipto’s tradition, many more militant-poets have emerged, writing on the extremes of their experience and reporting from the frontlines of insurgency.

Take ULFA publicity secretary Mithinga Daimary (alias Megan Kachari), whose collection of poems, Melodies and Guns (UBS Publishers, 2006), generated immense interest on its release at the 2006 Frankfurt Book Fair. Poet and scholar Indira Goswami, who edited the volume, says, “Books by Megan and other Assamese militants give me a sense of the frustration that still burns in the hearts of a whole generation. The matured style and controlled language tells me that these are people who have been writing from a young age, but have only started to publish now.”


Chandrakanta Zubaan
220 pp; Rs 295

In contrast to Kachari, in a Guwahati jail since 2003 and now out on bail, most of these books are written by former rebels who have surrendered. Samudra Gogoi’s nostalgic A Former ULFA Member’s Memoirs (Students’ Stores, 2008) is critical, but empathetic, towards the organisation and his involvement in the outfit. Set in Bhutan, Roktim Sharma’s Boranga Yan — The Forest Song (Cambridge India, 2006) talks about life in ULFA base camps before ‘Operation All Clear’ in 2003, when Bhutanese and Indian forces overpowered the guerillas. The Fire of Aauling (Basu Publishers, 2007) by Anurag Mahanta, another former militant, brings us the harrowing tale of life in ‘No Man’s Land’, sandwiched between the India-Myanmar border. He depicts the plight of locals who don’t belong to either nation and are tortured by their armies hunting for militants.

These books wouldn’t ever be banned, since they’re more political and less propaganda. They project the lived experience of a generation of students, sportsmen, poets, writers, singers, dancers, brothers and sons. “It is a wrong assumption that there would be aesthetic compromise. I would believe Anurag [Mahanta] was a writer first, and then became a revolutionary,” says author Apuraba Sharma, who serialised Mahanta’s novel in the Assamese daily Ajir Asom. Author Hiren Gohain agrees, saying, “It is very significant, raw, first-hand experience. These are books that can’t ever be written by Assamese middle-class writers who sit at home.” Reportage from ground zero is the essence of their work.

“We can’t ignore these books,” stresses Khanindra Kumar Deka, associate editor of the cultural fortnightly Satsori: “They mirror the most crucial aspect of Assam’s complex history told through the stories of familiar people.” The State tells us they are bloodthirsty terrorists and murderers, but their books tell a different story. “They make better writers than militants.” Uddipana says, “If they had seriously pursued writing, you never know — we could have had another kind of revolution.”

With or without you

As the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize kicks off in New Delhi, Gaurav Jain  asks two winners why the award both bores and tempts them

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, 34, was the fashion editor at Nigeria’s NEXT newspaper before moving to the copy desk there. Her debut novel, I Do Not Come to You by Chance, is themed on the infamous Nigerian ‘419’ email scams and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2010 for Best First Book (Africa). In an email interview, Nwaubani discusses her writing, African literature, the problem with African youth and the significance of the prize. Excerpts:


Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani Phoenix
368 pp; Rs 350

In the novel, Uncle Boniface entices the narrator to join his 419 schemes by emphasising money over education. Do you see young Nigerians being enticed?
During research, rather than being upset I was almost enthralled by the 419ers’ ingenuity. The talented underprivileged can’t be blamed for taking advantage of opportunities to express what they have bottled up inside them. 419 and other crimes are simply by-products of booming economies where there are few opportunities for the underprivileged.

The book enjoys humour like laughing at Igbo and Edo accents. Why is this still rare in African literature?
Our writers’ serious tone is probably a habit from our predecessors. We seem to think the West won’t take us seriously if we don’t write that way — we’ve made ourselves slaves to the slavemasters who’ve left. My Nigerian publisher once said that of all the manuscripts she receives, half tend to write like Chinua Achebe, while half tend to write like Wole Soyinka. I probably would’ve been the same had I not read Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, which showed me you can write a dismal story that’s still humorous. I decided to damn the consequences and relax into my own peculiar style.

You’ve said young Africans should be “systematically deprogrammed” — what’s wrong with their thinking?
The white man left Nigeria 50 years ago yet he’s blamed for everything. Just as people who attend support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, we need to own up and take responsibility for problems.

You’ve criticised colonialism but stressed that Africans should act rather than blame others. What about a prize organised around former colonies?
I understand the ‘colonial masters’ did many things they shouldn’t have, but life has to go on. Let’s be honest: today, most African nations are poised to gain more from being part of the Commonwealth than by not. Until we overcome the ‘gimme’ mentality to relate with the West, nobody should complain about being part of the Commonwealth. I don’t know a single African writer who’s succeeded in the global literary scene without a western body’s assistance. Not one. Until we’re willing to support our own people into the limelight, no one has the right to bite the hand that feeds them.

‘Our books get respect only if the West approves’

A book gets very little respect in Nigeria if the West hasn’t anointed it. Comments like “It won the Commonwealth Prize” or “It got a great Washington Post review” are enough to make people proclaim you the new literary czar — whether they’ve read you or not. That’s worked for people like me, but it’s retrogressive. I don’t know about India, but how many Africans do you know who’ve instituted major literary prizes in their countries? The few literary prizes we have in Nigeria are riddled with controversy.

Mohammed Hanif, 44, is a special correspondent for the BBC in Karachi. His debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, won last year’s Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (all regions). In a frank conversation, Hanif ridicules the idea of the Commonwealth and the prize. Excerpts:

What did winning the Commonwealth prize mean for you personally?
We grew up in Pakistan hearing about the Commonwealth but never knew what it does. Nobody knows. The Commonwealth as an institution is irrelevant — nobody loves or hates it. I’m sure athletes and hockey players care about it, but I don’t think writers go around thinking about this prize. It was a very nice event, though [in New Zealand]. I bought an [electricity] generator and TV with my prize money.

Did it help your book’s visibility?
I’m lousy at tracking these things. Surely it did — there were mentions on the paperback. But I don’t think it influences people to go read the book. When you write a first book, you’re just grateful for a publisher and readers. When you’re nominated for a prize, you secretly start thinking — maybe I can win. If you don’t win people say wasn’t it great to be nominated — no, not really.

The Commonwealth prize is just one of many prizes [out there]. It’s a bit obscure, quaint and old-fashioned. When you tell people, they ask — ‘Commonwealth what?’ We joke it looks after the British royal family and their holiday calendar. But we don’t really have any reason to hate it.

How do you feel about the prize being organised around Britain’s former colonies?
The Commonwealth doesn’t publish books, it doesn’t do anything. It’s just some kind of f****d up mammary that people have kept alive for themselves. It isn’t giving people anything. I’ve been reading of the excitement in India about the upcoming Commonwealth Games there — lots of new roads and sports facilities and lots of poor labourers being exploited, which is probably consistent with contractors in the Commonwealth.

‘Next time, I’d probably withdraw from this prize’

Does criticising such prizes imply biting the hand that feeds you, such as Amitav Ghosh’s withdrawal from this prize some years ago protesting that it includes only English language entries and that the Commonwealth is a “memorialisation of empire”?
I didn’t know till I won that my book had been entered [for the prize]. The concept of Commonwealth is irrelevant to my life. It’s a bit of a joke. Next time, I’ll probably do what Ghosh did — I think he did the right thing. He’s a veteran writer and has been around a lot. Next time I’d ask him about it.

Why were you detained by Auckland airport customs when you arrived for the prize ceremony last year?
It wasn’t as much about me as another writer from Nigeria [Uwem Akpan]. Mine was a regular airport inspection and interrogation, but he was held for several hours without even being allowed a bathroom break. Everyone was horrified in Auckland — they’re very sweet people. I mentioned it in my acceptance speech. I said someone should tell immigration officers that brown and black people also write books, and sometimes they also win awards, and there’s nothing frightening about it.



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