In March 2017, Shaheen Akhtar, 33, translated and self published a print of Oscar Wilde’s short story, The Selfish Giant in Kashmiri, titled Khudgarz Jinn. The book is written in simple Kashmiri with illustrations that appeal to children. Akhtar is a school teacher based out of Srinagar, who teaches Kashmiri language to students of first to tenth standard at the Tyndale-Biscoe and Mallinson Society (TBMS) in North Kashmir’s Tangmarg.
The Kashmir Walla spoke to her about her aspirations and inspirations to preserve Kashmiri language, what she refers to as Kashmiri Zubaan, an identity and a medium of innate expression for the people of the valley. Following is her edited conversation with Sanjana Reddy,
How long have you been teaching and why did you decide to teach?
I have been teaching at TBMS, Tangmarg since 2010. I believe teaching gives birth to every profession that is why I chose it. The best part about it is the counselling and motivation we are able to give children to get them on the right track. We also learn about ourselves and the taste of life we get in the process is priceless and very precious to a teacher.
What have you written so far?
I have published my first book Miyaneun Muzmoonun Hinz Soimbrun (Collection of My Thoughts). A translation of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant is my second book, and nowadays I’m working on one more translation, which is the witty stories of Akbar and Birbal. Insha Allah that is coming soon, so I’m working on that.
Can you talk about the inception and process of Khudgarz Jinn?
Actually, whatever I was writing earlier was cut off from the school, so no doubt I had a huge collection of my writing but I don’t think I had even mentioned my writing to anyone at the school. It was during a class tenth’s farewell at the school, many educationists were invited by our school headmaster Rajinder Koul. One of the education officers stood up and while delivering his speech he said, “This school should do something for Kashmiri language.” He said it as though we do nothing. We do teach Kashmiri at the school. After that our sir took over the mic and said, “You are going to give us a challenge? Okay we accept the challenge, and our Kashmiri Department will prove themselves.”
I was the only Kashmiri teacher over there and I’m also called the Kashmiri Department at times. So he posed his challenge to me and I accepted it gracefully, because it was not a very big challenge for me. When I started working, it took me only two months. It was winter and by March I went to Sir and placed the book on his table. He was very happy. He encouraged me a lot with his words.
Another thing that encouraged me a lot was an interview taken by Ruil Kaul, Rajinder Koul’s son. After that Rashid Nizami – a TV anchor, a radio anchor and a very talented person, invited me on a radio show where he encouraged me a lot. I felt because of these people that I can do something.
Why did you choose this particular story – The Selfish Giant?
When I read the book, I noticed that Khudgarz Jinn represents selfishness in human beings, and that factor negatively affects any person who connects with other people. I have ended the book with a moral: whatever good a person does never goes unrewarded. So, why don’t we live and let live? There is a divine power in the story, a blessing for the good one does, a reward for it. Death comes in two forms, if we’ve done wrong, a person suffers a bad death and if we’ve done good, a person dies such a death that feels just like a breath of air, one who lives and lets live in peace, dies in peace. This idea of easy death and difficult death related to one’s deeds is found in the Quran as well.
Can you talk a little about your first book – Miyaneun Muzmoonun Hinz Soimbrun?
This is the valley of saints, poets, writers, isn’t it? Here in our valley such artists have taken birth that nobody can beat them. So here, Shayar-e-Kashmir, Mehjoor, was very inspired with Kashmir valley, and same is the case for me. I’m not comparing myself with him but I aspire, because I think I’m very inspired with this natural beauty of Kashmir. In class 12th we went for a picnic and there I began to observe what the mountains were telling us, what the sky was telling us, waterfalls and other things. I put my pen to paper and wrote down my observations. That’s how I started my writing. In my book, The Collection of My Thoughts, you will find similar themes. I have defined every single thing in nature and compared it with life.
How does the political atmosphere of Kashmir engage with your work?
When a person notices what is happening around us as days pass, there is a bad effect. There are individual differences, some people are very sensitive. For example, I’m very sensitive. Some people may be able to ignore it but I reflect on everything very deeply. I am not a perfect writer but I am trying. I’m new in this field, all my writing is based on observations, to observe and contemplate at everything. How can such a person separate such a situation from oneself?
Did you face any challenges in translation while working on Khudgarz Jinn?
The thing about translation is, with regard to writers, poets or poetesses, the simpler you make it for the reader, the better it is. While translating I’ve used Kashmiri words that are easy to understand. There aren’t any such difficult words that take time to look in the dictionary. There are eleven volumes of Kashmiri dictionary that are not all available in the market. So, I have used words that even children can understand.
What is your history with the language?
I was a medical student but when I qualified plus two (higher secondary) I decided to take Kashmiri and everyone was annoyed in my family. I was good at studies so they must have wondered why I would want to take Kashmiri but I had decided. I changed my course and took Arts and studied Kashmiri. When I did Masters in Kashmiri, I think the professors who taught me there recognised my writing skills even before I did. On Saturdays we used to have ‘mehfils’, where all the students and professors would sit together, and those who wrote would read out their writing and lay it open for criticism. We used to learn from the process and thanks to almighty Allah whenever I would read my work I received a lot of encouragement. I then compiled my material into my book The Collection of My Thoughts, which I published later. Following that when my family noticed my work, and when they saw that my desires lie with writing, they appreciated it and encouraged me.
How do you think Kashmiri language should be preserved?
Kashmiri language is our mother tongue, our identity. We are Kashmiri people and our zubaan is Kashmiri. For every person, I think it is very easy to express anything in our mother tongue. One does not have to look for words, our own vocabulary is quite rich in the language, and I feel that when one thinks our thoughts first originate in our mother tongue after which we give those thoughts another language. I think to preserve this language, government is taking some steps, no doubt, now they have introduced the language in class 10th school level too. But they are not very serious about this. The efforts should be at ground level, where one can experience that this is happening. There are a lot of students who have done masters or higher degrees in Kashmiri language who are unemployed, which is the reason lesser students take interest in this subject. One should feel proud, encourage the youth, the new generation, and open up avenues to pursue it, or else the language, the zubaan itself will die.
What effect has the book had on children?
I’ve kept both my books in the library and after this one was inaugurated and introduced to the children. The librarian used to tell me that there is so much crowd for this book that she couldn’t decide who to give the book to! Then I made more copies of the book and placed them in the library so that the children can read. Whenever I go to a class to teach, some or the other student would come having read the book and would remark, “Ma’am, I’ve read your book! You’ve written very well, how did you get this idea?” These are the older children usually. I ask them to meet me during lunch break. I feel that in order to create interest, I should speak to them personally and encourage them to write and discuss ideas. Perhaps, some of them will emerge as examples for others.
How is your relationship with other teachers?
At school, I’m told that my sense of humor is very sharp. As much as I can, I try to make people laugh. I’m friendly with everyone, everyone shares things with me no matter who it is, parents share their problems with me, even if I cannot help them at all, their heart lightens by sharing.
Who are some of your favourite authors?
I used to read a lot as a child and in college, but now I’m so busy that I’m not able to read as much as I used to. I’m very inspired by Mehjoor and Abdul Ahad Azad but he wasn’t alive for too long, it is unfortunate on the part of Kashmiris that he wasn’t. Muhammad Iqbal, Mir and Shakespeare.
Can you talk about the printing and publishing of the book?
These things are solely for my interest, this is my own taste, whatever I spent, I have spent out of my own money for this. I have kept two samples of both the books at the Cultural Academy as well. I managed all the expenditure for all the copies. I did not want to depend on publishers. I wanted to make the book colorful. A writer is usually crazy for such things as you would know and this is my first priority. Even if I have to print more copies I don’t mind spending out of my own pocket, when I work so hard to earn for myself.
What else would you like to do for the Kashmiri language?
For language, whatever is possible, whatever time I get in the future I will only spend it on writing. You won’t believe, I’m nowhere near retirement for now but at times I think about how after I retire I would just sit and write madly!
What are some challenges you face as a school teacher?
Every day is a challenge. If a child is a slow learner, at times we are losers, for what a child gives is a reflection of the teacher, so for a teacher every day, every hour, every minute is a challenge. If one doesn’t face challenges and everything is going smoothly, then one should check themselves, if there are no peaks and falls in the pulse and if there is simply a flat line it means the person is dead, isn’t it?
Featured illustration by Sanjana Reddy