"You cannot escape violence when it’s all around you"

April 7, 2019

Interview of Mirza Waheed

Mirza Waheed is a novelist and journalist of Kashmiri origin, based in London, UK. His first novel, The Collaborator, was published in 2011 and was a finalist to the Guardian First Book Award. His second novel, The Book of Gold Leaves, was published in 2014 to critical acclaim, followed by his third novel, Tell Her Everything, in 2019.

From the graphic, beautifully rendered description of Kashmir that opened his first two novels to the frightening conclusion, Waheed’s novels portray the reality of terrorism and violence and their incalculable spiritual costs. Intense and humane, devoid of political bias, hatred, and polemics, they probe deep inside the world of insurgency and offer readers a profound understanding of what otherwise seems impossible to understand. He weaves together stories, both private and public, to create an illuminating postscript to the turn of events in his native Kashmir.

In a conversation below on the occasion of Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) 2019, Waheed discusses chivalry, duty and dedication to the truth, and his continued faith in the belief that his writing can extend our ‘understanding.’

Excerpts follow:

The News on Sunday (TNS): How would you compare the Kashmir of your childhood with the Kashmir of today?

Mirza Waheed (MW): Srinagar is still very romantic but it’s bruised and brutalised. The neighbourhood I grew up in by the Nagin Lake, not far from the Dal Lake, was fantastic. The city was not as urbanised then as it is now: there was less concrete which meant that it was still green but the centre today is like any other South Asian city. I remember a very large pomegranate orchard across the road from my house. It was a place of mystery because it was large and dark, and the fruit trees were big and old, like in stories. But now, it’s all shops: those large pomegranate trees are a line of shops with rooms on top and buildings behind them.

Potentially, Kashmir has always been political -- from the time South Asia was decolonised, the dispute was born. But Kashmir had always had politics, the fact a lot of people always forget. There was a massive movement against the maharajah before 1947. Kashmir also had probably one of the most successful agrarian reform movements in the world when lands were transferred from the lords to the tillers on a large scale. It was a princely state. Before that, it was sold by the British to a maharajah in 1846 for money. (Kashmir was sold for Rs7.5 million and a few goats, and a few horses, and a few Pashmina shawls).

We all know what happened in the ‘80s after years of resentment and decades of simmer. Things don’t come out of a vacuum; they’ve been simmering for a long time resulting in disaffection and wait. I like to recall the moment it all broke out. Sometimes it helps to reduce things to simpler phrases and sentences.  People had been waiting since 1947, and all the countries had told us they’d do something about us, to put it simply and boldly. ‘We’ll talk about you’, they’d said but nothing ever arrived. Through that long period, generations of Kashmiris grew on a sense of betrayal, on a sense of resentment and anger, and on a sense of being deceived and cheated. It was bound to erupt one day.

My childhood was quite idyllic. My father worked in the tourism industry for the government, so he’d be posted to various beautiful places in Kashmir where I would tag along. I would spend time in Pahalgam or in Daksum. Obviously, I have very nice memories of growing up in Kashmir, and that time informs my sensibility as a writer. When you have illusions of being a writer or when you think you have a book to write, all these factors help and combine to influence your sensibility, both as a writer and as a person.

TNS: Do you find it burdensome to wear your Kashmiri identity on your sleeve, wherever you go?

MW: I think I’ve made my peace with it. It’s a matter of expectation, and I can understand and respect it. If you are from that part of the world that is a troubled region, and you are a writer who writes books, of course, there will be expectations from people that he’s going to write about us and about his homeland but it does not require me to stay exclusively on Kashmir. Yes, I am from Kashmir but I am a novelist, equally. The question doesn’t exist for me: I will write about Kashmir if and when I am triggered or provoked or inspired which may mean ‘always’ because I will always think about Kashmir. The question becomes problematic: if someone set forth his work in one place, does it mean it does not contain the whole of humanity?

By the way, my third novel is not set in Kashmir; it’s set in London.

I have nice memories of growing up in Kashmir, and that time informs my sensibility as a writer. When you have illusions of being a writer or when you think you have a book to write, all these factors help and combine to influence your sensibility, both as a writer and as a person.

TNS: How did The Collaborator happen? Was it an attempt to reinvent/subvert the stereotypical Kashmiri narrative?

MW: The premise of The Collaborator had stayed in my head for a long time. I don’t think a writer especially a novelist starts with a project that he must challenge the narrative through his novel or challenge certain assumptions by working on a book. A work of fiction is much more than that. I had grown up in Kashmir, and I was a teenager who witnessed everything when it began. Of course, that had impressions on my mind. Some of them are unerasable because you cannot escape violence when it’s all around you. It takes you time to process it because you don’t really understand it. Or you understand some of the minutiae because you are living in the midst of it. All that travelled with me, and I ended up writing a long section one night. I wasn’t sure it’s going to be a novel. Of course, I wanted to write a book with an experience of 10-12 years in journalism behind me.

I wanted to tell the story of this boy, of how he deals with his situation caught in the midst of a brutal theatre of war. What happens to things like love and beauty, sport and friendship when the colossal war machine arrives at your doorstep or is in your house? What becomes of things like a little boy’s dreams or his relationship with his parents? What does it do to your family? What does it mean to become a participant in that war? What will it do to your being - your heart and mind? I don’t really provide the answer; that’s not my job. I just pose questions.

I did want to examine the trauma of a young man caught in brutal times. Or what it means to be a young man with dreams dealing with something so massive and beyond anything that he’d ever seen in life. The way I thought of doing that was to put the boy in the middle of the war and make him a participant because once he is a participant, he observes everything. I put him into the thick of it because I had decided I don’t want to shy away from violence. Violence exists everywhere; it influences and affects everything; it affects your daily domestic life. It’s not just about guns on the border. It’s also about what it can do to your mother.

I found the novel form for my narrative most exciting - it’s a flexible and a free form. Are there any personalised life experiences in it? Yes, but partly. The entire premise is invented - the place where I located my characters does not exist in reality.

TNS: Should one surmise that you’ve been privileged enough to escape violence by taking up residence in England?

MW: I won’t describe it as a privilege because when I left as a young person, it was not to escape war but to pursue education. To study literature, I went to a certain place. My family had limited means, so I had to work. I worked in Delhi for four years after finishing university there. Delhi is an amazing city but it’s also a hard city for a poor student. One of the reasons why I left it is because I couldn’t see myself living in such a hot place for the rest of my life. When the opportunity came, I just took it even though it wasn’t quite my cup of tea.

My first job with BBC London was in Urdu when I had not read Urdu since school. My Bachelors and my Masters were both in English literature. Prior to that, I had worked in Delhi in tech media, new media, etc. When I started working for BBC Urdu Service, I worked very hard to re-educate myself, to learn the language of the trade, as they say, because sahaafti zubaan kuchh aur hi hua karti hai. As you know, in our part of the world, the language of employment is mostly English.

To answer your question, the detachment or the distance helped!

TNS: What are your views about the recent insurgency in Kashmir?

MW: Kashmir has been in a state of mourning for a long time. When you are busy forever counting your dead, it makes you different but it also forces basic questions like: What does it mean to be human in such a time and place? All they are essentially asking for is a seat at the table where they are being discussed (if I were to reduce it to a simple sentence).

Kashmir is deeply melancholic. It’s seriously damaged in the truest sense of the word. Who doesn’t want peace for his children? It will take time but the process has to begin, and the first step is justice and dignity. People rebuild, Kashmiris are a resilient people -- it’s a cliched expression though. All that they’ve ever said is: we want to be heard. The process has to begin by which I mean the governments have to talk to people, to all kinds of people. That’s a necessary, rudimentary kind of a step which the two countries have failed to take because they are stuck to their intransigent positions. It’s a question of Kashmiris’ future and destiny.

I don’t subscribe to any particular narrative because as long as I am a writer, I have to be completely autonomous and free to the maximum possible. So I can’t possibly tie myself to one set of descriptors for a narrative because I have to be true to the stories that I write. If I limit myself to only one kind, then I am limiting myself which won’t ring true.

With regard to which of these is more important, I would say the question is which of these is more necessary. The answer is The Kashmiri Narrative because they are the people who’ve lived this for decades. It’s not just suffering; their entire lives and consciousness have been shaped by it. The Hindu narrative/ Muslim narrative reminds me of a documentary many years ago that a Pakistani journalist and an Indian journalist made together. It was called Hindu Pani/Muslim Pani.

The suffering of the Hindu Pandits is also part of the same story. There arrives a moment of fracture in Kashmir’s history in 1988-89. All of these things relate to that moment of enormous, unspeakable suffering of the Kashmiri people, and is part of the same story. I don’t necessarily see the Kashmiri Pandits as opposition. Yes, there are people who would side with only one narrative but how can I not see them as part of the same story?

If you are looking at a place of conflict, it will have all kinds of stories with all kinds of human experience. Sometimes, people just reduce it to atrocities and violence. People have been capable of large amounts of violence throughout history.

What is vital and necessary for me as a writer is that I want to be able to be free to write what I want to write. I don’t want to write prescriptions or cater to a certain kind of taste. Yes, there will always be a contested narrative and a contest of narratives. It can’t be reduced to such a crude framework, as "my suffering is more important than yours." Kashmiri people have lived the hard times. It’s not an academic thing; it’s not something they’ve heard about. The finest understanding of what goes on in Kashmir rests with the Kashmiri people because they are the ones who have lived it, again and again, and again.

TNS: How would you define the character of Dr K in Tell Her Everything? Has he been subjected to the irony of fate or force of circumstance for the kind of choices he makes in life?

MW: Dr K is a character of circumstance but he is also a character of choice. He does realise later on in life that there’s a conflict within him, and he’s tormented. He just doesn’t admit it because he tries as far as possible to justify it, and there are layers of justification that he provides. Deep down he knows the reason why he is waiting so anxiously and agonisingly for his daughter to come.

Dr K is a perfectly ordinary man who spends time with his daughter, who wants to be with his family; a family man who cares deeply. By his own admission he does it all for money, for material gain, now that he’s reflecting back. His primary impulse is that he wants to speak freely. He tries to rehearse his conversation which is the form of this novel. He has a conversation with his daughter in his head, imagining what he will say to her. He also imagines what she will say in return, and what kind of questions she will ask. He imagines the answers he will provide. This conversation interested me as a literary form that I found to be both exciting and challenging.

Dr K wants to create a life sketch for his daughter so that she understands what he’s been through, and the kind of person he’s been because he fears if he dies, she will never know. A novel is not supposed to psychoanalyse a character. I was trying to understand myself what a man like him thinks; what kind of a language will he use; how would he behave with his little child; and how would he address his wife, being part of a venal system in a creeping way. When he was younger, he thought it was necessary to do well in life and provide everything to his daughter. And since he’s just following the system, he’s not doing anything particularly wrong.

Dr K comes from a small town, from a lower middle-class family. He’s been taught that one succeeds if one works hard. He becomes a doctor. When he arrives in England, he doesn’t see himself ‘fitting in’, so he worries he might not be successful. So he wants to leave before his confidence is completely shaken or crushed.

In this novel, I was also examining questions like: What do migrants do? This is the story of a migrant too who arrives with a mission, who measures his success in terms of "Will I have a house in a western country?" By the time he has a lovely house by the Thames in London, he finds himself all alone and without the love of the only child who he thought he was doing it all for. He is a man of contradictions.

"You cannot escape violence when it’s all around you"