Month: June 2009

A View of the Valley: An Interview with Justine Hardy

FOR JUSTINE Hardy, author, filmmaker and activist, Kashmir has been a home away from home for about two decades. Her latest book, In The Valley of Mist, published by Random House, tracks the story of a family of houseboat owners and carpet-sellers – the Dar family. Excerpts from an interview:

Q. You based your novel The Wonder House and a non-fiction book, Goat: A Story of Kashmir and Notting Hill in Kashmir. Was it important for you to write another non-fiction book to tell the story of conflict and insurgency in the valley through a family portrait?
A. It is my third Kashmir book, and the second non-fiction one. Each time I have been trying to find ways of drawing people right into the heart of the situation in Kashmir, beyond the politics and the international rhetoric. I could think of no better way to do this than by telling a family story, and not just the story of one family, but many families.

Q. What was the genesis of this book? While it is the story of one family in transition, there are concomitant aspects of the changing cultural landscape and the religious, social and idealistic faultlines. Did you set out to incorporate all this?
A. My hope was to portray a people and a place rather than a wall of political history. Kashmir’s recent history is so complex that even if you rinse it right down the chunks of complicated information easily alienate readers. But all of us are part of a family: we all have brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children and extended families. We have all had our own struggles with our families, with education, work, relationship pressures, and stress. I wanted to use these very familiar themes to make the situation in Kashmir
as real to people as possible.

Q. The plight of the Kashmiri Pandits makes for a heart-rending narrative. What sense did you get of their pain and agony of being uprooted from the land of their ancestors while interacting with them?
A. Their sense of loss is not only palpable, it affects every aspect of their lives, both consciously and unconsciously. In the camps it was all-pervading, and impossible to escape, because their refugee status was and is writ large in every tent and cramped living space, in the way they suffer in the Delhi heat and long for the softer summers in the Valley. And beyond the camps, far beyond them, in places like the UK and the US, Pandits speak of their former home with such poignancy, keeping it alive in cooking, wedding customs, songs, stories, art and of course in the pashmina shawls that they wrap around themselves. As a dear friend of mine, a Pandit now living in the US, put it,
“We are joined by an umbilical chord that can never be cut, and sometimes that chord
tugs so hard that sense of loss is overwhelming all over again”.

Q. Kashmir is a place you have lived in for a long time. How close do you feel to Kahsmir? Does it give you a sense of home?
A. We live in a such a mobile age, and so many of us can call many different places home. Of course there are obvious reasons why we choose some of them; for work,education, family reasons, sometimes just to try and start afresh, and sometimes it is because there is some sense of a connection that goes beyond explanation. I have a sense of home there and I am not sure why. Perhaps it is familiarity, the kindnesses that have been extended to me, and the shared pain that binds you to people; perhaps it is the mountains and their pull; maybe it is because when you fly in from Delhi and descend towards Srinagar, you fly in over green fields, trees and water, just as you do when you fly over the part of England where I was born.

Q. Initially, as an “outsider”, it must have been tough to find yourself in the state which was beginning to show the signs of insurgency, extremism and repression. What egged you on to continue?
A. When I was in Kashmir with my mother during that final big tourist season in 1989, there was a tension in the air that was like an electric current, but because so many of the local people were trying to ignore it, we tried to do the same. We were told that the sounds of gunfire from the city were firecrackers for Holi. I remember an absurd discussion with our houseboat owner then. I asked him why they were having firecrackers for Holi when they were supposed to be for Diwali, but he would not budge his story, and indeed we chose to believe him. When I returned, 18 months later, by then as a newly-trained young journalist rather than a tourist, the insurgency was in full swing. At first, I thought I wanted to be right there, commentating on the fighting, but it did not take long for me to realise that what I really wanted to do was to bear witness to what these people were trying to live through, and to tell their stories. This is why I have kept going back and back.

Q. Do you feel you had an edge as an “outsider”? Did being a journalist help?
A. I don’t think it’s so much an edge as a different point of view. While I have a sense of connection with Kashmir I am neither Kashmiri nor Indian, therefore I can approach this without the weight of recent history of the region. Though of course being English brings its own weight of recent history and the vast human and cultural cost of post-colonial remapping. I am also unsure as to whether being a journalist helped. In some ways, it was a hindrance because the journalist is trained to remain separate from the story, and
to be just the messenger. I have become involved in the story and so I can only struggle to try and be a balanced teller of the stories of those people. And we are not just talking Kashmiris here, but also others: soldiers, foreign militants, tribal herders who used to move easily across borders.

Q. How did the Dars react to the story?Have they read it?
A. The Dars gave me their blessing to write the book. The eldest of the four brothers, who are so central to this book, read the final draft, and he told me that he was happy with it. I sent them final copies of the book several weeks ago, but I just got an email from that same brother saying that they had not arrived yet. I am not sure whether to blame the UK postal system or the Indian one.

Q. What change do you foresee in Kashmir? What needs to be done to allay the sense of alienation?

A. There are two ways of approaching this. Politically and humanly. The politics have a bumpy history to date. It is vital at this stage to look at the people themselves who have been going through this trauma for 20 years. There is little point in imposing grand ideas of political change and resolution on a people who are collectively suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that manifests in hundreds of different depression and disease forms. How can a man think about the future if he is barely able to get himself out of bed in the morning? In a sense the cry of last year’s state election for “bijli, paani, sadak” was as much a cry for basic dignity as it was for power, water and roads. I would suggest that a part of giving this dignity is to see very clearly the
condition of a people who have been going through an extended generation of violence
and unrest.

Q. What are your expectations from the current dispensation in the state?

A. When Omar Abdullah was announced as the new chief minister last winter he came into office with a huge load of expectation. I was amongst the crowds lining the road to the airport when he flew in at the end of December. It was so soon after Barack Obama’s election and people were chatting away, saying that they too had a new young lion, and that this might finally really change things. No single man can ever live up to this level of expectation, and he has a difficult political family history to contend with in the context of Kashmir. What I know many people hope, or rather those pro National Conference and Congress hope for is some courageous use of legislation that might begin to chip away at the staggering levels of corruption that have been paralysing the economy at so many
levels.

Q. Do you feel the real stories from Kashmir – of rape and torture – never make it to the mainstream media? Do you agree that the atrocities of the Army are almost always buried under the carpet?
A. In the early days of the insurgency these stories very rarely got out, but that is changing. The story of Kunan Poshpura in February 1991 was the beginning of that change. The village is still referred to as the raped village, and the story of that sad night in February 1991 is told in the book. The government of India had to comment on what was happening in the Valley. But let’s be clear, there is truth, and then there is “political truth”. The latter is never going to be transparent, simply because of the nature of politics. Conflict results in appalling extra-judicial violence, and in the case of Kashmir this has been carried out by many parties, and not just the security forces in the state.
As we can see right now everything is not being swept under the carpet, as has been
shown by the much-covered unrest over the recent alleged rapes and killings of the two young women in Shopian by the security forces.

Q. How do you see the government of India’s recent offer of a dialogue with the Kashmiri separatists? Do you see things changing in the near future?

A. It is a step, but with that step comes the complication of splitting factions within the separatist, and indeed pro-Pakistan groups. Those that might agree to the dialogue with the government of India will be attacked by the hardliners who will see it as a betrayal of the cause. This is the almost unavoidable risk of dialogue, and those brave enough to take this risk may well be able to take the first step towards the negotiating table. But this can only be a long and very slow process, and not without its own backlashes.

Q. Where do you see the issue of Kashmir in the larger context of a discourse on the changing face of Islam and what is called “Islamic terrorism”?
A. One of the saddest things about Kashmir’s story is that it has been turned into a rallying cry for jihadi movements, and not just for those in South and Central Asia. There are young boys being recruited “to the cause of Kashmir” by extremist recruiters in the UK, Europe, Africa, the West Asia, the US and more. On the international extremist stage,Kashmir has been turned into a poster child for the “the oppression of Islam”. One of the odd judgements made by many outside commentators seems to be that if the “Kashmir problem” can be resolved, then the whole region will be much more peaceful. This is an extreme over-simplification. If Kashmir were to suddenly, miraculously, find a way out of
its current situation, the extremists would find another cause to rally to.

Q. Finally, you have been quite eclectic in the range of your writing. What next?

A. I’m smiling as I answer this question because it’s the fate-tempter. In many ways each book seems a journey towards the next. Ten years ago I wrote a book about Kashmir (Goat, 2000). I was told then that I had to make it funny because the subject was so depressing, so I adopted the pashmina as a way of comparing the story of the weavers of Kashmir, living through the worst of the situation in Kashmir, and the “ladies who lunch” crowd in the hippest areas of London who were tripping over each other’s kitten heels to get their hands on pashmina back in the late 1990s. I wanted to go on writing about Kashmir, but I went sideways to the subject of Hindi film and the new generation of stardom in the filmi world. But then I went back to Kashmir with a novel (The Wonder House 2006), hoping to be able to tell some of the more difficult stories using fiction. And finally I got to this one, In the Valley of Mist. Of course, I would like to go on telling the story in the hope that it will create dialogue on the subject of our attitude to conflict, not only of this kind, but our own personal conflicts. I am currently working with wonderful doctors and psychiatrists in Kashmir on a programme addressing the extensive mental fallout of 20 years of trauma. This is a story of the defiance of the human spirit, and I
think it is one definitely worth telling.

Found in Translation

Novelist Mani Sankar Mukherji, popularly known as Sankar, belongs to the “golden age” of Bengali literature – the age of Saradhindu Bandopadhyay, Benoy Mukherjee
(Jajabar) and Manik Bandopadhyay. The 76-year-old author, whose novel Chowringhee,
translated into English by Arunava Sinha and published by Penguin Books, won the 2007 Vodafone-Crossword Book Award in the Indian Language Fiction Translation category, describes himself as a “mofussil writer”. But the “mofussil writer” has now gone “global” as his 1976 novel Jana Aranya (The Middleman, translated by Arunava) hits the shelves. Published by Penguin Books, the novel was released in New Delhi on Wednesday.
Sankar was a part of the 50 Indian writers taken to the London Book Fair in April by the British Council and hogged the fair as the star author. Chowringhee, which has recently been published in Britain by Atlantic Books, got rave reviews and full-page coverage in the Guardian, Sunday Times, which described the novel as “as densely populated as Calcutta itself”, and the Independent which termed it as “an utter treat”.
The Middleman, which was a sensation at the fair, talks about the toll that city takes on a youth, Somnath Banerjee. It was made into a film by Satyajit Ray, besides Chowringhee and Seemabaddha.
Sankar is warm as a person and there is a certain sense of old-world charm about him.
He rises from his chair when you meet him at Africa Avenue in New Delhi on Wednesday
and folds his hands in a gesture of namaste when you greet him.
Sankar da swears by three words – simple, sensitive and arrogant – while talking
about himself and his works. “A certain level of arrogance is needed,” he says. His
newfound fame and regeneration as a writer is something he had not “planned” or
“dreamt” about. While in London, he was heartened to hear people in Tubes, trains and buses talk about him.
“I realised that readers everywhere are the same. And Chowringhee has an element of
universality – it has the same effect on readers from Geneva to Zurich or Los Angeles to Lahore,” he says.
Chowringhee, his second novel, was published in Bengali in 1962. Set in 1950s’ Calcutta (now Kolkata), it unravels the “layers of everyday existence” at the city’s largest hotel called Shahjahan and exposes “the seamy underbelly of unfulfilled desires, broken dreams, callous manipulation and unbidden tragedy”. While the novel’s initial success was reflected in it being adapted for a film, a play and translated into major Indian languages, wasn’t its translation into English long overdue? For 45 years, Sankar says, he waited and waited, partly because of his “laziness” and partly because of his “usual
Bengali arrogance”. Sankar, who got a sense of “reassurance and replenishment” with
the kind of response his work in translation has triggered, always thought people would “come to me”. Why should he approach anyone? And, therefore, he didn’t take any initiative. But the renewed interest in his works after the translation of Chowringhee and Jana Aranya certainly “feels great”.
Writing, says Sankar, doesn’t come with an expiry date. And his writings have
“withstood the pressures of time”. He has had his share of struggle and he says that it’s a “wonder” that he’s still alive to see the result. While all the great books are available in translation, all books may not be accepted in translation. And sometimes authors themselves destroy their works in translation. Sankar’s story resembles that of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore whose writings were rediscovered after the translation of Gitanjali into English.
Sankar says that he is rediscovering a “new India” – an India that he had only heard
about and never experienced. For him, it’s great to get “a bit of acceptance” from the new India, the India of young, English-speaking, Facebook generation.
There is a new generation of Bengalis with no direct touch with Bengali who have
rediscovered his writing. “It’s a double-edged sword,” says Sankar about his experience of reaching out to a whole new set of readers, different from his traditional readership in Bengal.
Chowringhee is all set to be translated into French and Italian. Sankar says: “I have waited long enough for everything that has come my way only now. It took a long time, but it was worth waiting for.”
Sankar doesn’t run after fame, power or money. He became a writer to prove a point: he had it in him to be a writer. When he wrote his first novel, Kato Ajanare (The Many Unknowns), a famous publisher in Kolkata went around saying that he was a novelist by fluke and would prove to be a one-book wonder. It was to silence him that he wrote Jana Aranya. Set in Kolkata in the ’70s, it was based on his own experiences of a waste-paper basket seller. Jana Aranya has crossed the quarter million mark in Bengali and his publisher has come out with a commemorative edition which lies at the table as he talks about it over tea and cookies.
“I wrote this novel in 1976. It was about living in an overcrowded jungle. And this is 2009. But the ground realities remain the same. It makes me sad,” says Sankar. Those realties are about imperfections and degradation, about unemployment and desperation, about women selling the bodies of their daughters, about brothers eking out a living out of their sisters’ flesh.
The novel had a “whispering message,” and only showed a mirror to the society, says
Sankar. “I can’t shout. I am too small a man to shout. I am no Lenin, Stalin or Roosevelt. I am only a humble chronicler,” says the author.
When he saw the human degradation on the streets, Sankar says, he was “cut to size”,
“torn into pieces”. For Sankar, who has also written biographies of Swami Vivekanand and Sri Aurbindo, all forms of writing, all genres, blend into one way of “expressing yourself”.
Books have unlimited shelf life. They defy all borders. Feluda (by Satyajit Ray), for example, has been read and appreciated by people of all age groups over the years.
Sankar’s books have only begun to enjoy that life.
Everything Sankar has written came out of his own experiences. In his novels, he tried to depict how people in big cities lived, loved and lied. Having written the first volume of the biography of Buddha titled The Unknown Face of Vivekananda, he has nearly finished the second volume and is also about to finish his biography of Sri Aurobindo titled Not So Well-known Aurobindo. “They make for great characters. Some great lives are greater than any fictional character. Fiction and biography can be interchangeable as in biography, characters can be real and events fictional, while in fiction, characters can be fictional and events real,” says the author who is also planning to write a book on cuisine, his other love.
Sankar dons many hats. And at 76, he still wants to do much more. But, at the same
time, he is aware of the constraints of time and space which severally constricts the space for creative endeavours. He has done what he ought to have. But then each
venture is limited by the considerations of health, geography, reason and resources. So, what he has been doing, in a small way, is “finding the gaps and filling them”.
Sankar turns 77 on December 7. But in the “new India” he’s taking youthful strides.