Timeless Tales

Going through Neerja Mattoo’s curated book of Kashmir short stories, Khalid Bashir Gura sees elements of both timeliness and timelessness in the collection

Some of these stories were written soon after the tribal invasion of Kashmir in 1947 which triggered a patriotic fervour in response. Nadim’s Reply-paid Card is a classic example of this. It is set in rural Kashmir and depicts the determination of men and women to defend their land. The collection begins with this story. The narrators have pointed out social inequities in order to rouse the consciousness of people.

Kashmir stories selected and translated by Neerja Mattoo, The Greatest Kashmiri Stories Ever Told was published in 2022

There Somnath Zutshi’s When the Light Dawned, highlights the plight of the destitute in a newly freed land and talks about the motivation of the oppressed to transform their situation in life.

Sufi Ghulam Mohammad’s, Paper Tigers follows in this vein. It underscores the exploitation of workers and their dehumanization while exploring the psyche of the characters that are oblivious to their shackled, slave life.

With the aim to make members of the oppressed classes aware of their political and social conditions and the abolishment of the inequalities that they see around them, the writers have used conscientization, a process envisaging developing, strengthening, and changing consciousness.

Similarly, Ali Mohammad Lone’s The Strange Mohalla supposed to be a microcosm of the country is a story of the marginalized and their plight. The story uses figures of speech and irony to underscore society’s and individuals’ hypocrisy.

Deeper Probing

Eventually, Kashmiri writers shook themselves free of the socialist ideals of the Progressive Writers’ Association and began to probe deeper into the wider human condition. Now, they were not bound by a reformative zeal but looked around for timeless, enduring themes of a universal nature.

Teacher and author, Neerja Mattoo

Akhtar Mohiuddin and Amin Kamil are exemplary of this change. Though Mohiuddin’s earlier stories talked about feudalism and its control over the lives of ordinary people, he went on to delve into complicated issues of human, even philosophical interest.

Bansi Nirdosh’s To Slavery Born is a story to which the elderly in any society can easily relate. The abandonment of the elderly and disillusionment they face at the hands of their children is an eye-opener. Similarly, the crisis of pollution especially of water is a worldwide phenomenon.  And Avatar Krishna Rahbar’s Anguish is about it.

European Impact

As Kashmiri writers came under the influence of European literature and moved away from the simplistic, naturalistic style of writing to deal with more complicated philosophical questions there were experiments with surrealistic elements. The male writers in the book probe a woman’s psychology very well. Some of the themes are bold besides exploring the emotional cravings of a woman, and her fears and longings in a patriarchal society.

Kashmiris have a great sense of humour and also the ability to laugh at their own, sometimes, abominable circumstances. Nazir Jahangir’s The Boy Is Guilty has a touch of black humour and is a fine example of this Kashmiri trait. Taj Begum Renzu’s The Beggars at the Dargah is a deeply sympathetic story about the destitute female beggars who haunt holy shrines. It tries to analyse their past and why they are the way they are. They remain victims of exploitative patriarchy. The story invokes readers to see individuals beyond their immediate self.

The Division

Similarly, geo politics and blood-soaked lines that were drawn between two parts of Kashmir in 1948 after a war between India and Pakistan also influenced some writers. AG Athar’s The Enemy reflects the tragedy of this separation of blood bonds living on two sides of the Line of Control.

The book concludes with the healing touch by a Kashmiri Muslim woman writer, Dheeba Nazir, whose story The Search touches sensitively upon the theme of migration of Kashmiri Pandits. Here, a young Kashmiri Pandit man comes back looking for his Muslim sister with whom he shares a close bond.

The violent events that hit Kashmir in the 1990s left it in tatters. Besides The Search, there are other stories which narrate the painful migration of KP’s. The stories have a holistic understanding of historical brotherhood between communities and create ripples of empathy. The pain of losing a homeland and being forced to live in an unfamiliar environment with a different climate forms a major theme for Kashmiri Pandit writers.  Moss Swimming on the Water highlights the broken fabric of society in Kashmir and how all communities were affected in the aftermath of the migration. Roop Krishen Bhat’s The Call shows the tragedy of the displaced elderly who cannot adjust to an alien environment, weather and strange ways of life. It is a story of yearning for a lost homeland.

These heart-rending lines of the elderly lady, Ded, bring tears to anyone’s eyes. “Tell him that my heart is aching, I can hear voices calling me – I long to go back home, everyone there must be waiting for me, how long can I keep them waiting?” as she is on death bed, far away from home.

The Generous Chinar empathizes with the victims of the break-up of Kashmiri syncretic society.

The book is laced with stories of diverse themes, lively characters and riveting plots which make it a page-turner. It sketches the historical hue of land and tracks the trauma of individuals and societies. It broods on the psyche of hapless inhabitants and shows a mirror to the collective conscience. The amalgamation of different eras, societies and changing contours of Kashmir conflict, and society, has been knitted meticulously to carve a gloomy silhouette of stories.  The stories reflect Kashmiri’s saga of courage, oppression, pain, trauma, violence, resilience, exploitative patriarchy, poverty, slavery, struggle, brotherhood, community hood, love and loss.

Male Domination

The book is dominated by male writers narrating Kashmiris’ harrowing stories. The stories are a reflection of the times, of people’s elusive aspirations. The book is the history of cultural, sociological, political, and moral dilemmas. Fearlessly, these stories are holding a mirror to society.

As short-story writing requires a sense of technique, structure, and discipline to knit elements of theme, characters, setting, plot, conflict, point of view, and style, the writers are adept at it.  However, the title of the book has a touch of hyperbole. They are the best but the greatest is contestable. While translating, the distance between the thought and the language may widen. However, the author has put her years of experience to retain the essence.

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