Contributing literature on Kashmir isn’t just a creative expression to Kashmir-born academic and author Ather Zia. Writing is a “tool” and literature a “strategy” to wrest back Kashmir’s narrative being shaped and distorted by non-natives.
Zia believes the vast amount of literature on Kashmir – fiction and non-fiction – produced by non-natives, wasn’t necessarily a reflection of reality. “Our genuine political and cultural voice is subsumed [in narratives by non-natives],” she said.
In the broader narrative on Kashmir – including that originating from within the Valley – women have been boxed in a narrow corner, merely as victims of war and men; their political agency has been denied by both native as well as non-native writers. “The Indian narrative peddles the victimized icon of Kashmiri women specifically to undermine Islam and the Muslim culture, and in turn, pave another way to dismantle the male-dominated resistance movement,” she said.
“Kashmiri women are perpetually cast as stereotypically oppressed, dependent, passive, and without any agency — victimized by society and resistance.”
In 2019, Zia published her first ethnography, Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir, focussed on the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP).
The same year, Zia along with Srinagar-based academic Javaid Iqbal Bhat published an anthology of twelve essays on the political aspirations of Kashmir. “This book aimed to dismantle the obfuscating Indian narrative that presents Kashmir and Kashmiri resistance in an ahistorical manner: as an anomaly, deviance, terrorism, proxy war, territorial dispute, internal matter or issue limited to five ‘police thanas’,” she said.
While Kashmiri women, often portrayed as mere victims in the story of Kashmir but never the protagonist, are asserting their narratives — without the moderation or mediation of non-natives, Zia has emerged as a powerful voice.
Zia began her journey as a journalist but quit the profession owing to the “limitations of journalism” in Kashmir and went on to pursue a post-doctorate in anthropology from the University of California Irvine in the United States.
A former civil servant in Kashmir, Zia now teaches anthropology and gender studies at the University of Northern Colorado in the US. She documents the conflict and struggle of women in Kashmir through academic writings but also poetry.
“I felt academic freedoms would allow me to write about Kashmir, informed by research and I would also get to teach,” she said. “Anthropology also offered a space to include poetry and fiction which seemed like a gift.”
It was her experiences of growing up amid the conflict in Kashmir that informs her writings on her homeland, said Zia. For many Kashmir women, she observed during her association with the APDP, the enforced disappearance of their male relatives – mostly sons or husbands – had acted as “entryway into political consciousness.”
“In that, they have widened the way for women’s public participation in social and political issues,” she added. “This is not to glorify their grief but make sure we credit them as pioneers of modern gendered political and human rights movements.”
Being a Kashmiri and a Muslim woman, Zia said, that it has taken a lot of time for her to find a space “to stand on both feet”. “Believe me the ground still keeps shaking,” she said. “One has to prove oneself not just beyond limitations of gender, but also of ethnicity, color, and religion. Also, add to that one’s political stance and it makes one’s position further precarious.”
Zia plans on broadening her work across genres “in service of the Kashmiri voice.” Her new collection of poetry is expected to release this year.
Who is that, who am I?
The most valuable thing in Kashmir is its culture, said anthropologist Onaiza Drabu. “I wanted to give back to Kashmir in whatever way possible,” she said. “Writing was the only way for me.”
Growing up in the 1990s, Drabu spent most of her days locked indoors, reading books along with her brothers. “I think my passion for writing just grew out of that,” said Drabu. “I feel like as a reader one wants to recreate the experience for someone else as well.”
From the days of journaling and writing short stories, Drabu slowly started writing about Kashmir after she moved to New Delhi for higher studies. “I guess that is what happens. I used to think about Kashmir more often now,” she said. Drabu later studied anthropology from the United Kingdom.
At some point, Drabu realised Kashmiri folktales for children were fading away, exacerbated later owing to easy availability of folktales from other cultures on the internet. “I realised that the new generations will not be in touch with these stories and the culture,” she said. “It is already getting lost and people don’t have the time to save these.”
It wasn’t just the lack of availability, however. Whatever literature on Kashmiri folk tales was available was colonial in nature. “The folktale books that I had were written by colonialists or Indian people,” she pointed out. “Even the compilations of Kashmiri folk tales were not told by Kashmiri people and you could see discrepancies in them.”
Drabu started collecting Kashmiri folktales, proverbs, and idioms and later, in 2019, published the collection with the title The Legend of Himal and Nagrai: Greatest Kashmiri Folk Tales.
In her folktales book, Drabu has highlighted lukh pache – folk belief, which as per her is evident in the Kashmiri culture. “We believe in different things such as nazar, jin, raantas, paasikdar etcetera without questioning them,” said Drabu who believes that this belief is amusing.
Her book is a collection of twenty-nine folktales that she has heard from her grandmother and read in other books. The book has been classified into various divisions of pataal – sky stories, earth stories, janwar – animal stories, bolchaal – conversational stories. “For me it is not just a book of folktales. It is our culture,” said Drabu.
In her other book Okus Bokus, Drabu has made an effort to create cultural references for Kashmiri children. “I created an A-Z list to cover food, flora and fauna, places, monuments and then I created the book in the form of a conversation between a grandmother with her grandchildren,” she said.
Drabu believes that women are the carriers of culture and they transfer the intangible knowledge from one generation to the next. “They put forward the stories. I believe that women are the torch bearers of Kashmiri culture,” she said.
For long, Kashmir’s history has been told by non-natives, many times overlooking nuances, said Drabu. “I don’t think every writer has a responsibility to write about their place or culture but I think in our context, given who we are and where we are and given that we have always been facing systematic attacks on our identity,” she said, “I think it is very important to own our ‘Kashmiriness’ in our work.”
Keeping a cultural account
For 43-year-old Farah Bashir, writing is about venting intense emotions. During her academic years, it had meant writing poems and short stories but Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s My name is Red motivated her to write long-form fiction, the result of which is called Rumours of Spring, a book on girlhood in Kashmir.
Through the book, Bashir said that she has tried to contrast life and death, love and loss, uncertainty and hope amid the political turmoil in Kashmir. “It is the story of a young girl who is navigating her life in a war and confronting it when all she wanted was to escape it,” said Bashir, who believes that writers can only write when compelled by emotions such as love, grief, beauty, and shame “that bring people and places alive”.
Writing helped Bashir in exploring a new voice and going beyond the boundaries of writing as a journalist, she said. “What I retained was the habit of rigorous fact-checking and substantiating work with evidence,” she said. She plans to work on a loose adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women set in Kashmir.
Bashir’s personal account of her adolescence spent in Kashmir during the troubled 1990s, when the anti-India insurgency was at its peak, is expected to be released in April this year. “Literature can not only preserve history, but also help keep an account of culture and society over the years,” she said.