One of the first books to come out of Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370 is Shabir Ahmad Mir’s The Plague Upon Us (Rs 550, Hachette). The Pulwama-based writer and poet has weaved a story narrated separately by four childhood friends – a youth caught in the conflict, the daughter of a social climber, the son of a moneyed landlord and a militant. Drawing from life in the ’90s and several events that have shaped the politics of the region, the story tries to bring out its layered complexities and the impact it has on relationships.
While Mir has written a lot of poetry, his tryst with fiction began when he participated in the FON South Asia Short Story Contest, and became the first runner-up winner for his story, The Djinn who fell from the Walnut Tree, in 2016. He subsequently won the Reuel International Prize for Fiction in 2017, and his short stories have been published in various literary journals. This is his debut novel. Excerpts from an interview:
The story brings out the greys of the conflict and that people can’t be put into boxes, and opinions and loyalties are conflicted. What is it that you wanted to explore through this story?
This is a very tricky question for me to answer because what I wanted to explore with this novel and what this novel finally turned out to be are two totally different things. I had started with exploring and recreating the myth of Tiresias in the contemporary wasteland of Kashmir. Then from Tiresias, I moved on to Oedipus, and the novel at present is a very, very loose reimagining of that. Nevertheless, while writing it, the novel took a shape of its own. It began to explore and reclaim memories of my own as well as of people around me. By the time I finished it, the novel had become an exploration of the guilt of survival in a place and time like Kashmir.
Was it, in any way, difficult writing the book? How long has it been in making?
I think out of everything that I have written so far, this novel was the easiest to write. Easiest in the sense that I just sat down with my laptop and typed away, things just kept turning up. It was as if I had been writing this in my head for all my years. Probably, that is the reason that within three months I finished it.
Did you have to self censor?
No. At least not consciously.
You’ve recreated several significant political events throughout the novel, from the ’90s till, one can say, the times before the abrogation. Was it an exercise in keeping the history and memories alive and against the forgetting of the past?
The attempt was more of an engagement with the past rather than struggle against forgetting the past. I belong to a generation of Kashmiris who lived through a period of history that we witnessed but could not comprehend well being kids. As adults we fail to reconcile our history with our own witness. This slice of history — the eighties and nineties — has become a morass of narratives and counter narratives; of propaganda and polemic. The only way to engage with our own past is by reclaiming our own memories, and experience (but not achieve) some understanding of it all.
Curfews find a mention in passing in the novel. Kashmir saw the strictest and longest lockdown in its history, coupled with an internet shutdown not seen anywhere else in the world. Is it something you are planning to explore in your future work?
Curfews and restrictions provide a very kafkaesque world of imaginative possibilities and fictional forays. This is a persistent temptation for me. Over the years, I have succumbed to this temptation many times in my short stories. And maybe something longer, something deeper might eventually come out of it. But at present my tentative next work is about something totally different. It’s about a weaver who wants to weave a carpet that will fly. It is tentatively set in pre ’47 Kashmir, Srinagar to be precise. But this Srinagar is not necessarily the historical Srinagar, it could be a creation of my own. A Srinagar where carpet weavers and shawl weavers were at the peak of their craft but at the same time were under the firm control of State, which had reduced their existence to money-minting automata. The idea is to explore the role of art and the artist in such a set up.
“Plague, impending doom, apocalypse” — these terms have been used to introduce your previous and latest work. Are you not hopeful of the future?
I am very hopeful about the future, otherwise why would I write? When someone writes about the impending doom and plague and all that, it means he/she has imagined an alternative world, a better world, which he/she is not able to reconcile with, the one he/she finds himself/herself in or heading towards.
How difficult is it to find a publisher for a story set in the Kashmir conflict?
I think, ultimately, it is the merit of a story (merit in its comprehensive capitalistic sense) that decides its chances of publication. A story set in Kashmir has an edge in the sense that it grabs the attention of publishers/agents, but that is it. After that it stands as much of a chance of getting published as any other story.
Did you not sense any fear or disinterest in the publishers towards the conflict? Did the present political environment have no role to play?
I guess what you are trying to ask is how feasible is it to get a narrative published that does not agree with the statist one or that even opposes it, particularly in the current political establishment. I will say if you have managed to create a good work of art based on a subaltern narrative or based on a marginal voice, you will get the attention of a publisher. The problems will arise only when the publication is out. Once the feathers get ruffled and skeletons start to tumble out, that is when the trouble will start. That being said, my observation might be skewed owing to the fact that maybe I just managed somehow to approach only those publishers that have only publication on their mind and nothing else. There might be others out there who, to borrow your words, ‘fear or (are) disinterested towards the conflict’. I had been warned by certain people earlier on about this — ‘You might have to tone down your voice, you might have to edit out ‘objectionable’ stuff’. But fortunately, I faced no such issues at Hachette.
This is your debut fiction and you’ve written a couple of short stories in the past. How did you become a writer? It is to help you make sense of what was happening around?
As far back as I can remember stories have always been my way of apprehending the world. My sixth sense, if you may. Ever since my childhood I have been reimagining and recreating the world inside and around me in a way that I deem fit. Somewhere along I began to write all that down.
We know about your interest in Greek mythology, could you tell us more about your literary influences?
I love reading and what I read depends on the place and mood I find myself in. On days I would be reading Batman comics and on others I would be curled up trying to read Joyce (as much as I could). So it is difficult to tell what influenced me or what influences me the most, because it is like something of everything. But yes, over the years, certain writers have left some really wonderful impressions like (Nikolai) Gogol, (Franz) Kafka, (James) Joyce, (Jorge Luis) Borges and even (JRR) Tolkien.
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