Life Writing and Resistance

Life Writing and Resistance

It makes our literature rich, our struggle richer

Sometimes, one indulges in writings, without knowing to what genre of literature these belong to in the academic world. A couple of days back listening to a talk by novelist and poet Nitasha Kaul on ‘life writing,’ organized by KCSDS and Kashmir University, I understood  that this is something couple of my friends and I have been doing for pretty some time.  Interestingly for the past ten years, I have been recording my childhood memoirs and experiences, reproducing stories, I have heard from my grandmother, mother and elderly neighbors in the nostalgia column. Some more writers like Prof. Nighat Hafiz and Nazir Ahmed have also been doing the same.  Thus, perhaps unwittingly subscribing to this genre of writings. 

What is life writing? The  Oxford Centre for Life-Writing explains that the ‘life writing is the recording of memories, and experiences, whether one’s own or another’s. It applies to many genres and practices, under which can be found autobiography, biography, memoir, diaries, letters, testimonies, personal essays and, more recently, digital forms such as blogs and email.’ 

Scholars, in the academic world, are discussing various facets of the ‘life writing.’ Some are engaged in analyzing ethics of this genre of writing, and some are involved in studying if such writings can ‘violate a literary convention governing non-fiction as a genre.’  This category of literature for providing first-hand stories   of the individuals about their participation in various social and political movements or being witness to the resistance and freedom movements, struggles against apartheid and casteism can be  “useful academically” in history writing. One needs not to be ‘someone big to resort to life writing; it  can be someone readers have never heard  about before  so long he has a good story to tell about life.’   

I realized this a couple of days back when I got access to an unpublished diary of a professional who was detained in 1965 under the Defence of India Rules  (DIR) along with some of his friends for their ‘political activism’.  The Preventive Detention Act (PDA) perhaps had not then been enacted, and students and political activists were detained under the DIR.   The act after 1975 Indira-Abdullah was given more teeth and renamed as the Public Safety Act (PSA).   During his three years, long incarcerations under the dreaded law the detainee had been meticulously recording the treatment meted out to the prisoners behind the high walls of the Srinagar Central jail and political aspirations of fellow inmates and also their desire for release from the prison.  While recounting the story a psychopathic superintendent jail, who derived sadistic pleasure in inflicting psychological and physical pain on the inmates he also has recorded how eventually his hubris led him to his nemesis. It is more valuable a prison diary than those published by some leaders in the recent past, as the detainee had been closely monitoring the Kashmir-related developments at the international level and same writing  his diary. Such diaries are the life writing that not only enriches narrative of the resistance literature, provides big props to it but also are a major source for writing history. Instead of leaving such diaries for silverfish to feast upon there is need to publish them and bring them in the public domain. For past seventy years, scores of thousands of political activists and people were incarcerated- even if only one percent have maintained diaries or recorded notes about their jailed life that could be substantial material for the future writers for telling the whole story.   

For ‘life writing’ telling the truth is essential, and any compromise on the truth whittles down even the most powerful narrative. The autobiographies and biographies are counted as important life writing. Nevertheless, they lose their authenticity once lies are given space in them for self-glorification and demeaning others. The autobiography of one of the protagonists of the earlier part of the resistance movement of Kashmir published posthumously suffered this malaise, and thus it has ceased to be a reliable story for the posterity.  Nevertheless, honest memoirs of some prominent contemporary actors blow away the cobwebs’ woven by such narratives around the resistance movement. One of the classic examples, in the case of Kashmir, are the  memoirs of Munshi Mohammad Ishaq a prominent leader of the Kashmir Struggle published fifty years after his death by his son- such journals are essential for defeating the “dominant discourses” and strengthening the ‘public discourses.’  Some important actors of 22 years long years of the Plebiscite Front Movement had also written their memoirs, but for the callosity or expediency of their progeny, these were not published- thus the real story about an important chapter of the resistance movement is lost.  

Letters and testimonies that also are included in the ‘life writing’ too play a significant role in strengthening the narratives of the struggling nations. That reminded me of Ho Chi Minh’s February 15, 1967, letter to American President Lyndon Johnson and New York born actress Jane Fonda’s testimony- broadcast over Radio Hanoi to American servicemen involved in Vietnam War. Ho Chi Minh in his letter sent a terse message to Washington: “The Vietnam people deeply love independence, freedom, and peace…They have risen up united as one man…they are determined to carry on their resistance until they have won genuine independence, freedom and true peace…The Vietnamese people will never submit to force, they will never accept talks under threats of bombs.”  Such letters strengthened the resolve of the Vietnamese people. Equally it was Jane Fonda’s testimony:  “One thing that I have learned beyond a shadow of a doubt since I have been in this country (Vietnam) is that Nixon will never be able to break the spirit of these people;  he will never be able to turn, north and south into a neo-colony of the United States by bombing…”. That   sent a message to the people of the United States and made intellectuals to come into the open in support of people of Vietnam.

True, some ‘life writing’ like the Curfewed Night of Bashrat Peer have ably told the Kashmir story to the world, but there is great scope for strengthening the peoples narrative through this genre of writings.