Is it an accessibility gap between the writer and the reader? We asked five persons to find out the answer.

Lal Ded, Nund Rishi, and Habba Khatoon are just a few gems in the ocean of Kashmiri literature. It expands from the Sufi and Shaivite poetry of the 14th century, the lyrical ghazals and masnavis of the 19th century to the recent progressive and modern prose, drama, and poetry.

Kashmiri literature has a legacy of poets, prose writers, and playwrights. Regardless of this vast repository, Kashmiri literature, however, fails to find many takers. 

But is that due to lack of availability of the literature or a lack of readership? Or is it an accessibility gap between the writer and the reader? The Kashmir Walla asked five persons, associated with the field in one way or another, to find out the answer. 

Shafia Khan  (PhD Scholar at the University of Kashmir researching ‘Contesting Patriarchy and Fighting Erasure: A Comparative study of Sylvia Plath and Habba Khatoon’)

I believe that there is a lack of readership, not the availability. We have a lot of Kashmiri literature, which can be explored in so many ways, from different perspectives but we have not explored that space. The reason is because people are more inclined towards the West and English Literature, be it for higher studies or any other reason. We are not very well versed with our Kashmiri literature, because we have not been taught in a way that does that for us. 

I think language does play a role in all this. Children today are made to feel ashamed of their language. As for the academics, I don’t think it’s an issue. At my time, we weren’t being taught Kashmiri but today it is a core subject. If the board implements some changes in the syllabus, I think that people will definitely move towards their own literature. We can reframe the curriculum and include eminent authors like Habba Khatoon, Arnimaal, Wahab Khar and so on. The administration has to take a step because in the end, it’s all about how the administration goes with it.

Professor Shafi Shauq (Author and editor)

I write in Kashmiri, Urdu, and English but whatever I write is about the Kashmiri language and literature. Books are being published, and then distributed, normally at a very low cost. But, unfortunately, those who are interested don’t have access to the right institution or agency, who will make these books available. I don’t agree with the fact that it is a problem of accessibility. Rather we lack the readers, not only for Kashmiri, but for all languages. The readership is dwindling very fast.

The public libraries don’t have enough funds. There is also a certain bias by the selection committee. These books should be purchased in bulk and made available to the general public. This is the fault of the department that selects the books. They select books that negate the very purpose of reading. The committees, made up of non-entities, who are neither writers nor do they have any thorough knowledge of the quality and standard of the books, are randomly selected. This can only be rectified when these people in charge are doing their jobs consciously. 

Sheikh Ajaz Ahmad (Owner of Gulshan Books, in Srinagar)

We cater specifically to the audience that reads Kashmiri literature but the sales of books written in the English language are more. The reason? The Kashmiri language is dying. It’s at the brink of its existence. 

We are at fault. We couldn’t preserve our language. Whatever we do in our personal or professional lives is in either English or Urdu. We are doing nothing to preserve our language.

Kashmir book store
Inside view of the Gulshan Book Store in Srinagar. Photograph by Mukaram Shakeel for The Kashmir Walla.

There is a general decline in the purchase of books because of the advent of E-books and digital libraries. The libraries or the departments that have to purchase books buy 90 percent of the books in English and Urdu, including more than 70 percent in English. There should be a proper system where these books get distributed from department to department, and reach the proper audience. 

We are publishing Kashmiri books with Urdu translations. Sufi saints and poets like Shams Fakeer, Lal Ded, Sheikh ul Alam, Mahjoor, and Habba Khatoon have all written in Kashmiri. But given the decline of Kashmiri, we’re trying to bring it back with the help of these translations. 

Mohammad Iqbal Kitab (Proprietor of Ghulam Mohd. Noor Mohd. Tajrani Kutab, one of the first publishing houses of Kashmir)

My shop was established in 1890 by my grandfather Ghulam Mohammad Kitab during Maharaja Pratap Singh’s rule. In that time, he traveled from hamlet to hamlet, to collect almost 75 percent of the literature that is available today. He traveled to Lahore or Lucknow to print what he obtained from ulemas, poets, adeebs, and qalamqars and then sell it back here.

Back then, even if people were not literate, they read Kashmiri literature, whether it was Sufi poetry or folk stories. But, today even when people are educated, there is not much demand for these books. There is very less readership and even publishers don’t print them anymore. They care more about publishing books that earn them a better profit. 

We have published more than 250 books, ranging from Sufi poetry to masnavis and short stories to history, purely in Kashmiri. But now we reprint only a few books, which have demand out in the market. We were the first publishing house in Kashmir but now we have stopped publishing.

Kashmir bookstore
Mohammad Iqbal Kitab, the proprietor of Ghulam Mohd. Noor Mohd. Tajrani Kutab, is one of the first publishing houses in Kashmir. Photograph by Mukaram Shakeel for The Kashmir Walla.

The government should allot funds to the [Cultural] Academy so that they can publish more books in Kashmiri. Since the introduction of Kashmiri in the school curriculum, there has been an increase in the demand for Kashmiri literature. 

Professor Aadil Amin Kak (Dean, School of Arts, Languages, and Literature, University of Kashmir)

Most of the people are able to understand and speak Kashmiri but not many can read it. We have to look at it from the point of view of linguistics. People tend to follow things which have prestige associated with them.

At first there was no department for the Kashmiri language in the universities. However, after a proper department was built, job opportunities came up and people became more interested in studying Kashmiri.

As far as availability is concerned, the things that have a demand come up in the market. The demand will increase when the respect for our language will increase.

Language and identity are intricately intertwined, but for us, they run parallel. When have our leaders given a speech in Kashmiri? Even our slogans are not in Kashmiri. Sheherbeen is a very popular radio program. It’s ridiculous that even that is aired in Urdu. Our religion is in Arabic and our language is Kashmiri. How did Urdu find such significance in our lives? Funny how our Urdu isn’t even proper Urdu, it’s a broken mixture of multiple languages which doesn’t make any sense.

Schools and teachers play an important role in how they impart the language and culture to the students. Elite schools take interviews in either English or Urdu. It should be made a prerequisite to give admission on the basis of Kashmiri also. I think this would bring a great change.

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