Karnataka poet and writer Samwartha ‘Sahil’ was in Srinagar for a week. In 2016, he was tasked to write a book on Kashmir. He ended up writing a travelogue about how and why he failed to reach Kashmir. Last week, Samwartha talked to Saima Bhat in detail.
KL: If you are Samwartha then why this Sahil with your name?
Samwartha Sahil (SS): The first name I got from my father when I was born and the second is my pseudo name. Basically I belong to OBC and usually, the lower caste people don’t want to reveal their identity. My second name was to hide my identity but it coincided with taking me to poetry, then I took a pseudo name of Sahil, which became my takhalus.
KL: Tell us about your work and the assignment you were given in 2016?
SS: After I graduated in mass communication, I started working with The Hindu from Mangalore, but soon I realised reporting was not my cup of tea. I quit the job and went to Jawahir Lal Nehru University for M Phil in theatre and performance studies. Then I changed my mind again and I landed in Film Institute of Pune where I did my course in screenwriting. Since then, I work as a freelance writer in Kannada. I do translations and I also work for films. Right now, I am doing a film on mental health for Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT).
In 2016, I got a fellowship from Karnataka Sahitya Academy for travelling to Kashmir and writing a book. It was the time when Burhan Wani got martyred and I couldn’t enter the valley. I could reach up Jammu. I was in touch with a few Kashmiri friends who helped me to understand better but when I was in Jammu, phones were jammed and I couldn’t contact them. I returned. I ended up writing a travelogue of a travel that couldn’t happen because of the larger political reasons. It is a book that tells the story of 2016 Kashmir, about how things were. Through negative space, it actually creates a narrative about Kashmir and it will be published in our regional language.
I am a bit nervous because it does not go well with the official narrative. Given the situation about how things are right now in India where every third person is a vigilante, you don’t who will react how. But I am glad that I wrote that alternate narrative about Kashmir in our regional languages I realise the significance of it, its importance as well as its urgency.
KL: How long it took you to complete that book?
SS: I got the fellowship in July 2016 which was supposed to be done in 28 days. Basically, the Karnataka Sahitya Academy wanted to look at it in view of culture, poetry, literature but at the time of war, it is inhuman to talk about such things so I decided to work around the whole idea of conflict. I started my work from the first week of September and ended up in a month that I spend in Jammu where I met a lot of Kashmiri people. Every day I tried to touch a part of day to day life I used to get bleeding stories of the conflict.
By the time I reached Jammu, over 50 civilians had already died by bullets or pellets. On September 18, when Uri attack happened, I started getting calls from my relatives, friends, and everybody asking if I was safe. It left me wondering why suddenly everyone felt I was in an unsafe zone. I am not saying the lives of 18 soldiers were worthless, of course, they mattered but why didn’t 50 plus civilian mattered before Uri attack? Then I realised that Indian media, had underplayed the 50 deaths but they consume the news and the death of the 18 soldiers was amplified in such a manner that everybody thought it was an unsafe zone. This bias and other small things are in my book so that they juxtapose with what is the reality and how the media plays, how the state narrative works, and how it has created a gap.
KL: When you are actually in Kashmir for the first time, how did you find it?
SS: To be honest, the more I try to understand, the more confused I get. Maybe, I lack homework. It needs a lot of time to be here to understand Kashmir. With all my empathy and solidarity with Kashmir, it is difficult to undo the lot of conditioning that has already happened because I have come from a place which is far away. The kind of narratives I have heard and had read are different. I owe Kashmir my learning of unlearning because Kashmir has forced me to unlearn. Nobody has taught me as much as Kashmir did so I owe that knowledge to Kashmir. The people I met are so warm, human, and concerned. It feels like coming to a home which I was never a part of.
KL: How people in Karnataka see Kashmir?
SS: For most of the Indians including Karnataka, the idea of Kashmir is a bit limited because of the distance and the official narrative. I think there is a gap between Kashmir, the people know, and its residents. Kashmir as a place is a great place to everyone as it was for me where Shami Kapoor danced but Kashmir with its people is perceived as anti-national. That kind of anger they hold for Kashmiris. They don’t understand what the actual narrative is. All we get to hear is Kashmiri people support Pakistani cricket team, or people hurling stones on our soldiers. These things hurt their sentiments because they associate with Indian cricket team and soldiers. We are told Kashmiris hold so much of anger against India but why it is so, that narrative never comes into the picture. It is unfair and I know many of my friends and comrades would disagree with me.
KL: Are you satisfied with what you wrote without visiting Kashmir?
SS: What I understood in 2016, the same understanding is getting deepened and widened during this visit. My basic possession of the book in 2016 is unshaken. But there are more shades and dimensions which actually I am able to see this time. Probably I will make more of visits then write a sequel. But I am still trying to understand.
KL: Your book was under the genres of poetry, culture and literature. How much of it is there?
SS: Of course there is because I met the poets and the writers also. The first book I read was of Basharat Peer. I met him last time and then I met many writers like Khalid Hussain in Jammu. He is a Punjabi Urdu writer and then a few regional celebrated poets and writers. But that time the situation was such that you start at any point but you end up talking about conflict. Then, I went to a Darsgah outside Jammu. I was surprised to hear people discussing the post-Burhan uprising. You don’t hear people discussing these things there. You can have a qawali or any other spiritual conversation but they were talking about the conflict. That said a lot.
KL: What is the difference between Kashmir before 2016 and after?
SS: I had read Curfewed Nights and another book of various essays. I knew the situation was not right in Kashmir. But then hanging of Afzal Guru was something that disturbed me a lot. I started reading more about Kashmir but then 2016 changed it completely.
Before that, I had translated around ten poems of Uzma Falak on the conflict in my regional language. I was already in that process when Burhan Wani was killed. Initially, Basharat Peer or other writers did not respond to my queries but then I started befriending every Kashmiri on Facebook. Everyone on daily basis would narrate to me what was happening. It was dawned on me that how ordinary Kashmiris have used social media to puncture India’s official narrative. The work of photojournalists played a big role. Here, I see those images deepening my understanding.
Earlier, Kashmir was not a major issue for me. It would anger me as well like any other Indian when I heard stone pelting on soldiers. But there is a shift now because I have heard Kashmiri people speaking. I have read truth finally. All the jingoistic walls and bars we have created for ourselves will not stay for long. That is what I think.
KL: You are very emotional about Afzal Guru. Why?
SS: It is a personal thing. When the parliament attack happened, I was a young boy and it angered me as well. But then in 2010 Arundathi Roy’s write-up came, and it made sense what she was talking about.
I have always been against capital punishments. When in 2013 Afzal Guru was hanged, it troubled me. They had not even informed his family. What actually made me really uncomfortable about it was that it was given to satisfy the collective conscience of the people that made me feel the blood was on my hands also. Somebody had put a gun on my shoulder and then fired at him. In me, it turned into guilt after some time.
Ghalib was still very young when it happened and it feels like I was also part of victimizing Ghalib. But I owe an apology to Ghalib, Tabassum and Kashmir and tell them I was not part of that collective conscience and many people are there who were not part of that. It needs to be communicated. It will make no difference either to Ghalib or to Kashmir but I need to get the burden out of my heart. I want to meet Ghalib, as an Indian on whose hands is the blood of his father.