Much of it is due to the circumstances we are in, but more due to the way literature is being performed in Kashmir.
"What will literature do," an angry realist student asked me, "when people are being murdered brutally?" as I went on to deliver a lecture, after five months of turmoil last year. How is Shakespeare and Donne going to help, he went on asking. Because, Literature makes life tolerable, it makes pain bearable, I wanted to answer. But I did not. This was not the answer he was looking for and this was not the question he was asking. I satisfied him by teaching Shakespeare’s "Tired With All This". The question kept nagging me not because it was a rare question (my journalist friends keep on asking me this question) but because the question left a trail of questions behind. All these questions were alarming; and all of them revolved around the big question. . .
Scherezade comes to my mind, ready to confront death armed with just her stories. Standing on death’s borders, what was it that motivated her to go to the gallows and what belief that she would come alive? How did she know that just by narrating stories,she will change King Sheheryar and in turn the fate of the whole empire? Is it not a belief in the power of language, a trust that words can change hearts, a faith that words can bring change in real life? Yes! It is. And this is exactly what we have lost. People should believe in the ability of words and language, just like they believe in bullet and gun. But, unfortunately we have lost it. Or have we lost this belief specifically in the realm of literature only because we do get enraged and furious when someone abuses us. We still believe that a piece of paper, unearthed after months, with names and messages written on it can cast a spell and alter the course of our life. Does this not testify that we believe in the power of words? But the attitude changes belligerently when it comes to literature – What revolutions can a novel bring?
Much of it is due to the circumstances we are in, but more due to the way literature is being performed in Kashmir. It is a strange place where journalists want to be novelists and novelists try to be journalists. No wonder, our first English literary product was a memoir and not to sound like a conspiracy, most of our writers are journalists. It is not bad, neither journalism nor literature is owned by a person or any section of society. But it raises an important epistemological enquiry – why are people who deal with facts trying to write fiction and vice versa?This is bad. The fictionality of Fiction is an important thing to maintain in a state where literally hundreds and hundreds of newspapers and magazines churn and present reality to us on daily basis. Maintaining this fictionality of fiction is what urged Aristotle to say that by imitating ‘what ought to’,Poesies (creation) makes itself a higher endeavor than Philosophy and History. This is done by not imitating reality and creating a fictional world of itself. Artists do not produce an exact copy of the original (and they should not), and in not producing an original they provide an artistic truth more valuable than philosophy and a reality more profound than history. The creation of an alternate world, a fictional world completely different from the real world is, for Mario Vargas Llosa, what makes literature an act of rebellion. By creating another world and by criticizing this real one,we become rebels. The reader of such a fiction returns to reality with a heightened sensibility that translates itself into an act of rebellion against authority, the establishment, or sanctioned beliefs.’
A historian or a journalist writing facts within a fictional world, taking cue from Virginia Woolf, is like a cat playing with a ball of yarn. If one wishes to wear it, one has to process it, knit it. Without knitting, it is nothing but an early morning recreational activity to digest tea. Knitting then becomes a perfect metaphor for creative fictional activity.A woolen garment after knitting protects us from cold but how does knitted reality help us? When a muscle is provided with successive stimuli at a fast rate, I learned in my biology class at college, the muscle instead of reacting undergoes a tetanic contraction. This is what has happened to us. The continuous bombardment of news and reality has reduced us to a tetanic contraction, a state where our only response is ‘no response’. We do not feel anything; we are in a continuous vegetative-state, a zombie state, when we should have been like Vampires actively sucking the blood of colonization. Our obsession to document everything, produce a report on everything and not to leave any dark continent unexplored (an obsession to which social networking and online sites serve well) has ventured us on a bold but defeated journey. Our pen, like the camera of a pornographic film is exploring the depths of reality – a reality which is then made orgasmically available to us in print and online media. We are surrounded by pornography of reality and this is where our fiction should have been therapeutic. In all this confusing reality, fiction should provide us with a cognitive mapping to make sense of all the confusion. It is in this sense that fiction comments upon reality, or life. This is what David Foster Wallace means when he says, "I just think that fiction that isn’t exploring what it means to be human today isn’t good art."
This unflinching commitment towards reality and confusing fiction with reality results in our production of slave narratives, which are then immediately consumed in our academic circle as Resistance Literature. If our sole responsibility as artists and specifically as fiction writers is to mourn by showing ourselves as victims then we must congratulate our journalist community. It is their job and they are performing it well. If there is a good report on mass graves or disappeared persons, why should I read a fictionalized account and not the real one? When we ask ourselves this question we are confronting the discussion we just had. Our fiction is imitating reality when it should have been otherwise. Literary activity should be understood in Kafkaesque way, where the cage is in search of bird.
The centrality of author in our literary and academic circles is another factor that is strangling our literary project. When I asked a ‘famous’ writer of Kashmir about the death of the author, he felt as if I was a maniac about to kill him. His response was rash which clearly highlighted his ignorance of Blanchot, Barthes and Foucault in which context I was asking. Hero-worshiping has always hurt our political project from Sheikh Abdullah to Syed Ali Shah Geelani and it pains to see the same Author-worship in our literary project. It is doing us more harm than good and most of all it is hurting the literary sensibility that evokes trust in language and faith in words. Kashmiri author emerges as an eclipse that darkens the literary skies when it is language and literary activity that should have shone. Literary text emerges at the exact moment of author’s diminishing self or like a meteor which is visible to our eyes only when it is dying in the earth’s atmosphere.Not only is there a need to proclaim the death of the author and self-aggrandisement of author but also death to all those practices which give birth to this figure of author – the cult of entrepreneur, Book-Café culture and Talks.
Entrepreneur is the most abused word in our literary culture alongside Resistance. It is good that so many book-cafes have emerged within Srinagar only,which positively highlights our rising appetite. But dear entrepreneurs, it is high time to stop pouring caffeinated literature down the throat of Tea lovers. No doubt, you are earning and nurturing a cult of authors but you are doing no service to literature or Nation. If you are true literature lovers, then we are desperately in need of some good Publishing houses giving opportunity to our new emerging writers. If this happens then you may be earning as well as serving literature. But again, be cautious, it should not happen (as often happens in your café-literary-talks) that the brother-of-someone-you-know or the friend-of-a-friend whom you know or the-Mr.Brilliant-writer-from-birth-and-pedigree should only get published.
If it sounds harsh then language is doing its job and highlighting the point that we have grown intolerant to criticism. In fact, criticism is missing from our whole creative edifice. Somehow, when it comes to creative activity we are satisfied only by the fact that the person is Kashmiri. The phenomenon was earlier seen on national level, when we supported QaziTauqeer, knowingthe fact that he was not at all qualified to be a singer, let alone win the contest. We supported him just because he was a Kashmiri. In these very newspapers, we have seen amateur writers being compared to Garcia Marquez, Dostoevsky even Ginsberg. It is good that we are appreciative of Kashmiri writers but it is not essential to make literary gods out of them. The towering figure of writer that we are creating will collapse under its own weight like Babel but the rubble will take up the much needed literary space. The history of Philosophy and the history of Literature show that it has always been constructive to be a little critical. Maybe, it is time we need critics more than writers and good critics should be given shelter as Kabir once mused:
Bin pani binsabun, nirmalkaresubhav
(Keep the critic close, shelter him in your courtyard
Without water, without soap, He keeps you clean)
The restoration of trust and recognition of the power of language comes only when we believe (with Barthes) that in literature ‘it is language which speaks, not the author’. Literature is a hopeful activity because it does not asphyxiate itself by reaching an end, a goal, a self, an achievement or vanity. It is not a window but a door leading to hundred other doors, an attitude captured perfectly by Michel Foucault when he says, "I don’t write a book so that it will be the final word; I write a book so that other books are possible, not necessarily written by me."
There are stories about the tribes of Solomon Islands who curse and abuse the trees to clear the forest for development. Storiesabout an African tribe who gather round a person who has committed a crime and say all the good things that he has done to connect him to his good nature – we may never know the truthfulness or the falsity of these stories, but what they signify is the power of words. A power we reassure ourselves of every time we pray for someone. The connection between word and world is close – the words like Kun Faya Kun can create the world, Christ’s Qum can bring dead to life, Mansoor’s AnnalHaq can topple rational empires. Words can Kill, Language can heal and Literature can help but it all starts with hope, faith and trust – a trust in the sacredness of language in relation to truth as well as a faith in the holiness of language in its relation to Humans. This is what makes writing ‘an act of hope’ for Isabelle Allende. She says: I feel that writing is an act of hope, a sort of communion with our fellow men. The writer of good will carries a lamp to illuminate the dark corners. Only that, nothing more — a tiny beam of light to show some hidden aspect of reality, to help decipher and understand it and thus to initiate, if possible, a change in the conscience of some readers. This kind of writer is not seduced by the mermaid’s voice of celebrity or tempted by exclusive literary circles. He has both feet planted firmly on the ground and walks hand in hand with the people in the streets. He knows that the lamp is very small and the shadows are immense. This makes him humble.
Muzaffar Karim is Assistant Professor, Department of English, KU, South Campus