Taking Kashmir to the world

Prof Neerja Matto, who never left Kashmir, feels sorry about the situation of Kashmiri language

Haroon Mirani
Srinagar, Publish Date: Oct 20 2017 10:49PM | Updated Date: Oct 20 2017 10:49PM
Taking Kashmir to the worldFile Photo

In 1984 there was a symposium on D H Lawrence in Delhi where many experts from Kashmir, including Prof Neerja Mattoo, were invited. At the sidelines of the event, a participant met Neerja and asked her about the work, the language and so on. On learning about Kashmiri language, the participant said, “Really, is their any Kashmiri language too. I have heard about Dogri but didn't know that Kashmiri language exist too.” It struck Mattoo deeply and she realised that despite being old and rich, Kashmiri is literally unknown in outside world. Some more incidents later, and Mattoo decided to take Kashmiri to the outside world by translating its great work.

In her post graduation days, academic and former Secretary, J&K Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, Prof. Jia Lal Koul had given her Amin Kamil’s Kashmiri story Koker Jungm and the same had remained in her mind. She took the famous story and translated it from Kashmiri to English. The story is still cherished by readers all around the world. Mattoo regards Prof Koul as her first inspiration.

“It was my passion. I knew the rich heritage of Kashmir and wanted the world to see and experience it too,” said Mattoo during a recent programme of Cultural Academy. The journey which Mattoo started led her to translate some of the most beautiful works in Kashmiri to English.

Born in August, 1938, Neerja Mattoo is regarded as an eminent academic-writer whose mastery over language, and ability to translate emotions from one language to other, is remarkable. Her schooling is also interesting as her work. She was homeschooled until she cleared class 8. She only saw school when she was admitted in class 9 in 1953.

The transition came as her father, Prof. SL Dhar, was shifted to Jammu, and she was admitted to Government High School Kachi Chawni, which became her first formal School. Upon return of her family to Srinagar, Neerja was admitted to Kothi Bagh Higher Secondary School. A master’s degree holder in English from the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir University, she graduated from Women’s College Maulana Azad Road Srinagar with Honours in English.

In many ways the college became instrumental in grooming her in the subject of comparative languages. In one of her papers she writes, “The things I remember about the college today may sound incredible in today's devastated educational scene in Kashmir, but they are true nevertheless. My first vivid memory of the college is symbolically most significant too. It is that of the rehearsal for a play we freshers saw when we ventured towards the little wooden hut-like structure that served as an auditorium in 1952. The play was about Habba Khatoon, who we learnt to our amazement had been a poet and consort of a king of Kashmir. This was our first introduction to the history of Kashmir, which till then was not taught at any stage of our school or college education. The dialogue was in English as the play had been written by a professor of the college who did not know Kashmiri, while the lyrics were Habba Khatoon's own, set to music by the music department. That it was possible for our poor disdained, till then looked-down-upon Kashmiri language to rub shoulders with the awesome English language on equal terms was an overwhelming experience. This experiment, so new at that time, opened a door to a whole world of mutually enriching linguistic and cultural cross currents. Kashmir no longer felt small, nor was being called a Kashmiri, an epithet of contempt anymore. In fact suddenly one felt proud to be a Kashmiri, yet secure enough to accept valuable lessons from other cultures. We did not realise then that this was an instance of what is now called Kashmiriyat, a word appropriated by those who know nothing about it.”

As she remembers, Neerja became part of this cultural revolution at the college. “Eclectic in our choice of plays to act in, be they the poetic plays of Tagore, translated into English and Kashmiri, the farce-like comedies of Moliere in Urdu, the socially relevant satires of Ramesh Mehta in Hindustani, Bernard Shaw's witty exposes of social and political hypocrisies, the sparkling, epigrammatic Restoration comedies or the powerful human dramas of Shakespeare,” recalls Neerja.

Soon after she completed MA in English from the Jammu and Kashmir University, Neerja joined Women’s College Srinagar as Lecturer. Her decision to work was not without struggle as until then no women in her family had worked outside. “There was opposition but my father stood like a rock besides me and supported my decision to work,” said Mattoo. “I was lucky to have been born in a progressive family where I was free to take decision and do what I liked.” 

In 1967 she qualified interview process and was promoted as professor. This elevation made her Head, Department of English thus earning her another distinction.

In 1981 she was given the grade and status of Principal. However, in appreciation of her teaching work she was allowed to work as Head, Department of English; a position from which she retired in 1996. Throughout her teaching career she stayed in the Women’s College. All along she remained busy in translating Kashmiri short stories.

Her academic and literary career both complemented each other and she went on to reach new heights. 

During the 1990s she devoted her time to translation of Kashmiri short stories into English. To date she has three volumes of short stories to her credit; two of which have been published by the Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi. She translated works of Amin Kamil, Ratan Lal, Akhtar Mohiudin, Nazir Jehangir, Mushtaq Ahmad Mushtaq, Naeema Mehjoor and others.

While describing the older authors Neerja gave the example of her book Stranger Beside Me published in 1994. “Many people who read this book thought that the stories have been written in 90s. Because they are so full of anguish, frustration of being Kashmiris. That was the genius they had,” said Neerja. “The kind of sensibilities those older authors had, I am sorry that I don't find short stories of that class anymore. The depth and layered kind of understanding of human nature and human dilemmas is missing in our young writers.”

The Stranger Besides Me translated from Kashmiri title Nakhe Taluk Vopar is termed as the best compilation of short stories since 1950s. It is already out of print.

Neerja who never left Kashmir feels sorry about the situation of Kashmiri language. “I am sorry that most people are not speaking Kashmiri. Learning Kashmiri in schools is not enough. It is only as we speak and understand its nuances that we can grow command over it. It is a shame that you don't learn you own mother tongue at home but learn in an artificial kind of environment in schools,” said Neerja. “People need to learn to think in Kashmiri and use Kashmiri all the time only then they can express in it. We are at a risk of losing our language.”

Besides The Stranger Beside Me, Contemporary Kashmiri Short Stories and Kath – Stories from Kashmir are some of her prominent literary works.

In Kath the first story is Jawaabi Card or Reply Paid Post Card By Dina Nath Naadim while the last story is Generous Chinar by Mushtaq Ahmed Mushtaq. In between one experiences the privilege to read wonderful English translations of short stories by Akhtar Mohi Ud Din, Ali Mohammed Lone, Habib Kamraan, Som Nath Zutshi, Amin Kaamil, Umesh Kaul, Sufi Ghulam Mohd, Taj Begum Renzu, Autar Krishen Rehbar, Deepak Kaul, Bansi Nirdosh, Hari Krishen Kaul, Hriday Kaul Bharti, Gh. Nabi Shakir, Rattan Lal Shant, Shanker Raina , Farooq Masudi and Majrooh Rashid.

Writer and linguist Prof Shafi Shouq says that her success in creating particular time and space in non-native language is remarkable. Neerja credits her translation of high calibre to being able to think in two languages. “While translation I think simultaneously in two languages. It is spontaneous. If I have to struggle to get the word then you lose it. One must have ability to think in both languages,” said Neerja.

With her extensive reading and knowledge Neerja has been able to highlight some lesser known but brilliant writers of Kashmir too. “We had one writer Habib Kamran, which most people don't even know. Though currently he is not alive but he had a huge potential. I translated his long story titled Tell Me A Long Long Story, of around 30 pages and I am happy to announce that it was included in Anthology of Long Stories along with the works of likes of Maheshwari Devi and Ismat Chugtai,” said Neerja.

A recipient of Senior Fellowship by Ministry of Human Resource Development, Neerja also enjoys the distinction of having been a visitor to the Oxford University under the aegis of British Council.

Neerja is widely read and her colleague vouch for in-depth knowledge. Prof Jaya Parimu who worked with Neera says, "I am sure that Prof. N.Mattoo has done some translations of Hari Krishan Kaul's stories, besides other works Co authored with other luminaries of literary firmament of the Vale. She has been into the academics and writing right from her college days. Kashmiri cuisine by Neerja Mattoo was gifted to me by my niece from U.S. I used to call her a walking talking encyclopaedia during my time in the Women's College Srinagar. Google was not there but we had a special privilege to be her junior colleagues "

It was her keen memory that she wrote Kashmiri folk tale Sinni Kissir, which she had heard during her childhood from servants and workers. Prof Shoq who has worked with Neerja terms the story as Kashmiri Cinderella story which is much better than the English version.

Mother of Amitabh Mattoo, advisor to the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, with the status of a Cabinet Minister and Aaditya Mattoo, who works at World bank, Neerja often shuttles between Kashmir and Delhi but never far away from her work.

Editor in Chief of quarterly literary magazine Miraas, Neerja also has two edited works to her credit. A coffee table book and a book on Kashmiri cuisine are some other works of this eminent writer. Her latest work is on four eminent Kashmiri women poets - Lalla Ded, Habba Khatoon, Rupa Bhawani and Arnimal. This literary work is about to be formally published.