In an interaction with Kashmir Life staff, author and academician Dr Nitasha Kaul talks about identity, injustice, concept of nation and state, and the rise of right-wingers across the world. Here are the excerpts from her long talk.
Kashmir Life (KL): What are your Kashmir memories?
Nitasha Kaul (NK): There is obviously a connection to Kashmir. But I think even if I was not a Kashmiri, I would have still held same views on Kashmir, because it is essentially about injustice.
I think my book describes my connection in a better way, which is about nostalgia and exile. It talks about inheriting exile in a sense or inheriting nostalgia because you hear the stories of a lost place from people who are already outside. The texture of it actually is inability to access something that is there, but actually not there.
For you, the landscape, the material memories of things represent Kashmir. But Kashmir was an imaginary place from an imaginary map, because you were not physically there. It was not exotic in sense, it was a place that gave you rootlessness rather than roots.
When I was a child, some of this was really palpable, I didn’t connect. Nobody knew what being a Kashmiri meant, like from the simplest things of having lunar birthdays to food, you could always see exotic-sation of your identity by others.
The striking thing was that there is very little in my book which is real in the sense based on real people. Much of Keya, the central character in my book, isn’t me, but there are some bits of memory that are real.
I remember people asking me, ‘are you from Kashmir?’. Once I say yes, they then ask, ‘do you know Kashmiri?’ Then they want me to speak a bit for them. However, I speak it to people whom I am close to. At times I am tempted, I say sentences but it is like a code language.
KL: Any reaction within your community for being vocal about Kashmir?
NK: I am an agnostic, I don’t particularly identify with any faith but I am Kashmiri in terms of my ethnic origin. In fact, I have lots of identities; somebody who lives at a certain place, or who works in academics, or as a feminist, or an author, or in terms of political ideology.
However, by being vocal about Kashmir issue, my intention is not to delegitimize the fact that people had to leave in 1989.
I don’t say people who stayed in refugee camps, didn’t face problems. Of course they did. There are number of people who were killed or forced away, but that is the whole story of conflict. And my intention is merely to emphasize.
There is no competition to sufferings between different types of Kashmiris. I believe it would be useful if we could see which forces were at work that caused sufferings to different kinds of Kashmir. We, as Kashmiris, should not try to take revenge. Rather, people should talk about their sufferings but without dehumanizing others.
For me there is gender identity at work as well. After my dad’s death, my sister and I were brought up by my mother, so your marginalization is not only in terms of loss of home, but it is also living in patriarchal society and be marked by that.
And I make no bones, how I experienced my life where I was seen as a lesser human being, not because you are a Kashmiri but because you are a woman and you are not seen same as men.
KL: Why do novelists fictionalize reality?
NK: The people who write fiction or poetry do not refute reality but they imagine the situation otherwise. But I do think there is a problem when people use fiction as a way of escaping politics.
Clifford Geertz, a famous anthropologist, who gave us the idea of thick and thin descriptions, has written about a village in a country which was in conflict. He was so engrossed in studying the structures and practices of this village that he ended up mentioning the conflict in a single line: ‘and there were some disturbances in other part of the country’.
In reality those ‘disturbances’ were like huge genocides. So I think it is possible for people to remain focused that they miss the forest for the trees. It is possible for people to do it intentionally too, but I think that is in itself an art.
Any creative art of fiction or poetry etc. should not be approached by bad faith, so you should not start from the assumption that somebody is doing this because they are being apolitical. I think poetry and politics have to be twin strands of our existential DNA, they have to be both there.
KL: How was your book ‘Residue’ conceived?
NK: It is a political fiction. I didn’t want it to be a book that wasn’t a part of my life. I didn’t want to write about Kashmir because there is conflict, or because it has a market. To me that would have been inauthentic. I want it to reflect the distance that I had and the relationship that is in some sense removed. I mean, I didn’t want to appropriate other people’s stories simply for the sake of fiction. Rather, I want to look at Kashmir or any other part of the world that have issues of obsession of nation states with territories. Also at the impact that it has on people, so not looking at land, as people’s place, but simply as a territory on map, which says anything on this side of line is ours.
That is why Berlin was the central theme, because it has been a city where I lived for a long time while writing this book.
The city has a history of division. You can see same prisons being used by the Stalin and by the people from extreme right to extreme left. It is like a metamorphic rock, like the compressed layering of history. When the Berlin wall fell it was like a whole cataclysmic shift in global politics and our ways of understanding politics. For me those moments, that place, time in history was an important one to visit. Like I said, nation state borders, how they divide people; that is why airports figure a lot in my book, because airports or these spaces of transition, function very differently, whether you are a privileged person or a non privileged person or with a secure identity, it really does matter to a person who is able to pass through the airport simply on way to travel, it is different experience than to somebody who has to die on a boat to Mediterranean to reach a border. Those were also issues quite central to me to address basically the injustices.
It was really an attempt to come to grips with the role that memory and history play in the lives of these individuals, so it wasn’t a book about a young man taking a gun or something else.
It is not that I cannot or would not do that story, but I think I would need to be more familiar with not just second hand accounts, but at least of some amount of research.
That hard work and research, even if that research is by book, it is important to me personally before I tell a story.
KL: Let’s talk more about the emergence of walls.
NK: I am pessimistic even about the situation in West now. There are more division and walls in the world than there were in late 80’s. So in that sense, even I am pessimistic about the situation in Europe and with Brexit, the whole super-state concept of corporation, the idea that people will move around, that European union concept, has gone out of the window.
The resurgence of the right wing is very real and very urgent even in that part of world. It seems like we are all globally seeing an increase in the fact that people are closing in their identities.
So the countries that are not part of the West are often at odds with each other and at loggerheads.
The idea of erecting walls serves the interests of the elite. If you give people identity pride then you don’t have to worry about satisfying their basic needs.
For example, you tell people with Hindutva that you are proud to be Hindus, even if the government doesn’t have policies, they will think the sufferings they have to endure are because they are proud people. You can sell that to people far easily than if they ask for their rights.
The neo-liberal capitalist system ultimately is not working, a study says, it would take another 100 years to eliminate basic inequalities from the world. The present generation in UK has the worst prospects ever compared to their grandfathers. They don’t have any job security, welfare to rely on, no secure pension and now even with Brexit, their prospects are even worse everywhere.
The future is bleak, unless you happen to be one of the specific set of elites. In such a system, how do you stop 99 percent people asking for their rights: you do that by giving them identity rhetoric, and by telling them that there is some other person, an immigrant or a Muslim, taking their things!
If you are able to construct an enemy, (A Syrian, and Iraqi or a Turkish man, black or a brown man) then the people will be busy with that. They are told that this hypothetical enemy is taking their jobs and basic amenities. I think this process of enemy construction serves ruling elite in a big way.
Likewise, you construct an enemy not just at an individual level, but at a societal and a national level. It is very common now in the West to find this rhetoric. It’s like playing losers, making people fight for the ever smaller shares of the pie without wanting to question the overall structure. We see that from time to time when we have financial crisis, which are avoidable because a lot of financial speculation is what adds volatility. There are other ideas that exist, like the ideas of basic income, income tax, but people don’t want to add into it.
There is no political will, it is far easier to call people Islamophobic or racists. In UK we have a hard time, and same is the situation in France, Germany, and Turkey etc. Putin is there, Trump in America, and then PM Modi in India.
KL: There is confusion between the terms “nation” and “states”. How can we clear that?
NK: I guess this confusion exists because we have the idea of nation state from the Westphalian System which is essentially a European system where you assume that a nation has a state and it is a nation state and then you assume it is same everywhere. Now some countries in the world actually are like that. Iceland is a state and a nation, it is a good example of nation state but if you look at UK, it has a Scottish nation, a Welsh nation, Irish, English, etc. It has all these nations which are also part of one state. It is a part of multi-national state. It is a state with more than one nation. Then, there are nations which do not have states like the Kurds, Kashmiris, Tibetan, who have a sense of identity, but they don’t have a state of their own. The number of states in the world is only about one hundred but the number of nations is plus 500.
KL: Post 1947, there has been a change in India, followed by ramifications for Kashmir.
NK: I guess part of it will depend on how great the damage to the fabric of secularism will be, by the time this government (BJP) goes out. But it will really depend on the elections in UP and other states. If they lose, then there is hope that some of this damage will be undone. Somehow after demonetization, if they still win the elections, then I think RSS wants to take out the commitment to secularism and socialism from the preamble of the constitution. In fact they published an ad some two years back without those two words. I think there is a link between refashioning of the economy and refashioning of society that they are undertaking since they came in power.
For Kashmir, it could create greater arbitrariness because instead of just an established system of patronage or certain other channel they manipulate through, it could introduce greater uncertainty because of the authoritarian style at the centre which would eventually mean greater difficulties maintaining those same channels, there could be greater uncertainty and mistrust.
Plus their entire plan in the longer term is to increase their presence in Jammu and Kashmir in which PDP-BJP coalition was immensely avoidable but that is for the local people to decide later.
KL: In conflicting narratives, how difficult is it to take a stand?
NK: The more the narratives are, the better it is. And we have to challenge the conventional narrative. If you feel like you are not able to satisfy the political aspirations of being able to do something worthwhile for Kashmir, because of financial or other reasons, I say please write about it. Write about that dilemma. Personally speaking, I know it is not easy to challenge anything. The status-quo is always beneficial and helpful but I think we have our own moral compasses. We can do what we have to do, and what is right.
The thing with Kashmir is there are different imaginaries of Kashmir: there is different kind of a Kashmir on map and then there is imagined Kashmir. I think for any movement to go ahead, there has to be some sort of dialogue that emerges between those imaginaries of Kashmir. Otherwise, everyone is trapped and locked into their idea of their imaginary of what Kashmir is and what it should be and these are at loggerheads with each other, sometimes completely opposite to each other and then there is no move forward.
Personally I think writers do that: they present different pictures, and the more pictures there are, there just needs to be more communication, and dialogue. I think of how deeply divided the society is in conflict. There is hope because sometimes they emerge at the other end, and not always in the perfect way.
There needs to be a lot more truth, reconciliation, and a basic acceptance on the part of the oppressors that this is wrong.
Who is going to do that? The political will isn’t there, and that is the tragedy. Outside Kashmir, Kashmir doesn’t exist. That is the thing where work needs to be done: by controlling the narrative which has to reach to common Indians without going through the Indian media.