Shabir Ahmad Mir, a writer and poet based in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, has come up with his debut novel: The Plague Upon Us. Published by Hachette, the book is based on the stories of four childhood friends whose lives were altered due to the on-going Kashmir conflict.
Through the book, Mr. Mir has brought forward his memories of the nineties. Apprehending the world around himself through stories told to him, Mr. Mir started creating different worlds through his writing; initially through poetry, then later through fiction. He also finished as the first runner-up in FON South Asia Short Story Contest for his short story, The Djinn who fell from the walnut tree in 2016. Subsequently, he also won the Reuel International Prize for Fiction in 2017.
The Kashmir Walla spoke with him over email. Here are the edited excerpts of the interview.
TKW: From poetry, then short stories to your debut novel, could you tell us about your journey as a writer?
Shabir Ahmad Mir: We all float on and within a nebula of sensations, of memories and stories, of meanings and apprehensions, of fantasies and longing. Writing for me is to partake of this nebula, to try to shape up something out of it. And it has always been so, ever since I can remember. I apprehended the world around me through stories that were told to me and over the time I began to shape up one world after another with the stories that I started to tell myself. Somewhere along I just started to write some portions of it. Sometimes in verse, sometimes in prose. Sometimes in a meaningful genre and sometimes it turned out to be no more than a word-salad. That is how I started to write and that is how and why I write.
You’ve said this novel is a loose reimagining of Oedipus, and that what you wanted to explore and the end result are not the same. What were the different shapes that the novel took during its making?
I have said this elsewhere as well the novel had its beginning in what I call a sort of Tiresias exploration of the wasteland of Kashmir. But gradually the characters took their own reins and I just let them roam. A poem is never finished, just abandoned; as someone has put it so succinctly. I believe the same holds true for novel writing. I too abandoned my novel at some point and at that point realised that it was no longer about Tiresias. So I revisited the opening chapter and rewrote it taking away all the traces of Tiresias. The novel had taken a shape of its own. It had put on its own bone and flesh.
The novel has also been an exercise in engaging with the past, you have said in interviews. How do you look back at the 90s?
The 90s for me exists as these sepia-tinted images of Kafkaesque horror. The disproportionate, white jackboots crunching red Chinar leaves underneath during a crackdown. The eyes of an Ikhwan as they were forged in the hellfire of rumours and stories. The milk spilling from mother’s hand as she receives the news of a cousin killed by ‘unknown’ gunmen overnight, the leeches sucking bad blood from the blue-black thighs of father after an encounter, the untied, broken brown laces of the shoes of a rebel cousin as he is readied for burial… There are so many of those; a complete album of horrors.
Why did you choose a pellet survivor as a narrator for the story?
The narrator of my novel is not a pellet [survivor] in a strict sense. True, his eyes are struck blind by the pellets at the climax of the novel but it is not of the kind that we have seen on our streets and at our windows. He is not a victim of indiscriminate pellet firing. He rather walks into the pellets. It is more of a deliberate act. It is actually a sort of reenactment of Oedipus gouging out his own eyes and is in consonance with one of the important themes of the novel which is sight and blindness. What we choose to see and what we don’t. The novel finishes playing on the same theme: “The darkness seeps in, and I see.”
In your interviews, you have said that the book has been shaped by the memories of the conflict. We meet only two women characters in the story, who are shown to play a passive role in the conflict. Don’t you think that the representation in the book is a fraction of the actual role of women in the Kashmir conflict?
First a factual correction. There are not just two female characters in the novel. Coming back to your main question. Women have played, women are playing and women have to play a significant role in the Kashmir conflict. The Kashmir conflict affects them doubly-as Kashmiri and as women. There is no doubt about that. The women in this particular novel do not do justice to that historical role. You may say it is a weak link of the novel but, in my defense, the novel is narrated from a male perspective, and from the narrator’s typical, overbearing patriarchal perspective the women have been reduced to passive receptacles of a male reclamation of past which is in perfect consonance with the narrator’s character.
Are Indian publishers receptive to stories set in Kashmir? Are there any redlines?
I think I am not qualified to answer this question because my perspective on this is based on dealings with a single publisher-Hachette. I shared a wonderful working relationship with my editor Poulomie Chaterjee and between us, there were no redlines. I faced no censorship or anything of the sort with her and with Hachette. But I am not in a position to say whether this holds good across all publishers.
As far as the receptivity of Indian publishers vis-a-vis stories set in Kashmir is concerned I think every publisher has its own set of criteria to evaluate the prospects of a manuscript. You may or may not agree with those criteria but just because a story is set in Kashmir doesn’t change much about that evaluation. A manuscript has to have its own merit, Kashmir, or no Kashmir notwithstanding.
The interview originally appeared in our 5-11 October 2020 print edition.