In Conversation with Nitasha Kaul

Nitasha Kaul’s recently published novel ‘Residue’ (Rupa/Rainlight, 2014) was previously shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. It is available in stores and from online retailers like Amazon and Flipkart worldwide.

murmurs-whispers-conversation-nitasha-kaul

AM) Your novel ‘Residue’ was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize award. Take us through the journey of writing a novel and how much do you value the closeness of an author to literary circles for his work to get recognized? 

NK) Writing a novel is an act of prolonged creative meditation on the themes that a writer finds important to convey and characters that a writer finds fascinating. The journey of writing a novel is a journey into one’s own self, knowing that one may find unexpected things there. ‘Residue’ was born from an accummulation of experiences and memories – of places, of people, of things – that remained with me. Everything begins with putting a word onto a blank sheet or screen, and then letting go, to see where it takes you. ‘Residue’ grew to life at a desk in a wintry room, days and nights, with all the curtains closed and all the clocks stopped. Then, with the seasons, it underwent many transformations, and many interrogations. It was a long tumultous journey, but then, there’s always a time when words reach understanding eyes and ears. I wrote, rewrote, and revised ‘Residue’ before it gained recognition with the Man Asian Literary Prize. Eventually, after the shortlisting, it was recognised. The shortlisting was a brilliant feeling; to know that a book by a debut novelist, without an agent or a publisher, or indeed, any literary connexions, was appreciated by some of the brightest creative minds. At the same time, the fact that I had chosen to identify myself as a Kashmiri author rather than as an Indian in the Guardian coverage of the news, led to me receiving a lot of questions and hate mail.

As for your question about the value of closeness of an author to literary circles – well, that works in many ways. Of course, one doesn’t know anyone to begin with. And one goes through the dark nights of the soul every time someone doesn’t consider your work because you are not ‘somebody’ yet. But, in time, no obstacle can really hold back the telling of someone’s story if it has worth. An author’s gender, race, class, nationality, sexuality, disability, political leanings all have a bearing on how they are perceived. And if one is not privileged, it is harder for the publishing world (much averse to risks and often believing in the self-fulfilling prophecy of a ‘market’) to accept you. Nonetheless, there are always some people driven by talent and moved by the magic of words. And, connected to the literary world or not, if you happen to be recognised by such people, then things begin to fall into place. I don’t think the closeness of an author to literary circles is important for an artist to create. It is often important to get the work recognised, but the lack of such closeness is not an insurmountable barrier. If anything, it is valuable to know people who inspire you, people who make you want to create meaning, and people who will put an honest effort into empathetically and yet critically reading your work.

AM) William Faulkner once while describing his work said an artist is a creature driven by demons who are never satisfied with their work. As an artist, what do you strive for in your fiction?

NK) Well, I think the entire Faulker quote is worth considering here:

“An artist is a creature driven by demons.” He doesn’t know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done. The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies”.

I think this is a very particular masculinist romantic view of the artist as a terribly driven human being. I agree and disagree with it. Yes, artists have a dream that, if unacted upon, will not let them live in peace; art claims its own. I write because I can’t not. But, can and should others be deliberately and unhesitantly trampled over in the pursuit of one’s dreams or objectives? I don’t think so. Hestitating in pursuit is also an artist’s prerogative. The truth and beauty in the life of an artist is her/his most precious work of art.

To answer your question, as an artist, I strive to create meaning by witnessing people and societies, to make ideas new again. An artist, in my view, is a guardian of the inner places of the soul, even a perverse seer of the soul; one who predicts random futures and readings of the past. In my work, I also try to retain the dimension of the ‘otherwise’ – what is not, but can be, ought to be, or might have been, or once was.

AM) You have drawn Leon Ali as a complex character marked by a perpetual sense of ‘otherness’ wherever he goes. Tell us what picture you had in mind while giving shape to Leon Ali’s character? 

NK) Leon Ali is a young Kashmiri Muslim man who is marked by his identity, that which he seeks to disavow, in a furious world riven by prejudices and boundaries. Like many characters in the book, he is caught between the fragile vulnerability of an individual identity and the cast-iron weight of stereotyped collective identity, the I/eye dynamic. He is, like many of his post-millennial generation, beset by confusions, contradictions, and displacements – feelings which are inevitable, given what being a Kashmiri means today in history. Leon wants to be many things, but most of all, he wants to be free. And this aspiration for freedom, to determine one’s self, is a microcosmic reflection of the suffocation of Kashmiris. Like many Kashmiris, Leon feels the incompleteness of his historical and personal identity which is marked by loss and longing. People often underestimate the effect of generationally inherited collective social trauma – what does it mean for young Kashmiris today to inherit separatism, to inherit nostalgia? Yet, these are the inheritances we have for a generation that has seen indifference, inhumanity and distanced stance of the world. And the sad fact is that there are no answers to many of those losses and the missings that Kashmiris face today. Leon tries, time and again, to escape – somewhere, anywhere – where he won’t be faced with the weight of his history. But, of course, there are no escapes. From being a Kashmiri in India, he becomes a Muslim in Britain, or a foreigner in Germany. His journey, and that of his fellow-traveller Keya Raina, raises wider questions about our identity as individuals, recognition in societies, freedom and equality as ideals, and the necessity of living in a long-tailed present. Leon is, in a sense, an ‘innocent’. And I’m interested in the innocents – the holy fools, happy and sad beyond logic, who live life while refusing to accept the givens – in a world full of cynicism and tiredness.

AM) About your non-fiction writings, you talk about the image of a Kashmiri woman in one of your essays. The discourse of Azadi as you and many others see it invests in a woman’s agency as a driving force for a revolution. How do see the place and agency of women in Kashmir’s struggle for freedom shaping up in today’s Kashmir?

NK) Women make existence possible, always and in many ways.

In my essay ‘Everything I cannot tell you about the women of Kashmir’, I pay homage to the struggles of Kashmiri women; women who have faced the brunt of injustice and displacement, and yet, carried on making life possible for others around them. In addition to having their lives shaped by the universally patriarchal gender norms, the women of Kashmir have, in addition, held guns and pelted stones, they have been raped and displaced, they have lost their relatives and siblings to the injustices of a state that has failed them. Their courage in the face of a continued denial of justice is the reason why we now mark 23 February as Kashmiri Women’s Resistance Day. The women of Kashmir, both those who are struggling from within and those who are their sisters outside Kashmir, are a crucial part of the struggle for justice, rights, and freedom. It is especially important to recognise Kashmiri women’s collective contribution to the struggle, and also to cherish their individual triumphs when they become fearless award-winning journalists, or technological entrepreneurs, or musicians, or intellectuals, or campaigners for the cause of the disappeared.

Women make resistance possible, always and in many ways.

AM) Other than a novelist, you are an economist, a scholar and a poet. Tell us more about that side of your life, your memories of Kashmir. Everyone who has lived in and outside of Kashmir has memories. Tell us about yours.

NK) People often tell me I have many strings to my bow. Well, I hope it makes for good music!

Yes, you are right, in addition to being a novelist, I am also an economist, scholar and a poet. I actually do not see these pursuits as being in tension with each other. I want to engage with the world affectively and analytically, and so my expression is sometimes poetic and at other times academic. I trained in Economics and have a PhD jointly in economics and philosophy, and in my further research, publications and scholarly lectures, I have explored my discontent with the dominant regime of neoliberal governmentality, and how mainstream economics as the handmaiden of power structures, enables the turning of people into things under the contemporary capitalist ideology. I am disturbed by, and interested in, the way in which economics, divorced from ethics, cloaks itself with scientism and neglects issues of power and identity. I have written about it at length in my book ‘Imagining Economics Otherwise’ (Routledge, 2008), and also in articles such as ‘Economics Turning People into Things’. ‘Cultural Econo-Mixes of the Bazaar’, and ‘How many zeroes are there in a trillion? On economics, neoliberalism, and economic justice’. I have also written and spoken about the history and transition to democracy in Bhutan, an area of my expertise. As for poetry, it is, for me, uninsured feeling. And also, something that is woven into the sense-fabric of the world. All I can say is that the muses have been kind. In other scholarly work, I write and speak about issues of identity and justice in many veins (links are at www.nitashakaul.com).

Memories about Kashmir…Where do I even begin? It is said that according to Diotima, the (female) teacher of Socrates, love, or Eros, is the contradictory child of Penia (goddess of poverty) and Poros (personification of plenty). And, this poros- is the opposite of ‘aporia’. Kashmir is an ‘aporia’ – untranslatable ancient Greek, literally from a- (without) and poros- (passage) – of my being. There is Kashmir in every day, every memory, food, speech, familiarity, feeling. But, this is a difficult question. I think ‘Residue’ will have to do for now.

AM) You have written on Kashmir’s political awakening post 2010 summer uprising. Where do you see the resistance discourse of Kashmir going? 

NK) Well, my name – Nitasha – means ‘ever-renewing hope’; I’m an optimist, and I think that the critical discourse on Kashmir is getting ever more powerful. I see a greater multiplicity of newer voices and more global awareness about the Kashmir conflict in the future. I think there are several things that the resistance discourse needs to grasp further and engage with in different ways, for example: the ignorance and indifference of Indians, the majoritarian nationalist cultural climate in India at present, the civic political movements in India, the other regional and issue/identity-based resistance movements in India, the progressive voices, the international media and the global human rights discourse, the regional developments in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and China, and the domestic political, class, generational differences within Kashmir. Each of these requires attention because resistance requires critical consciousness, acuity and solidarity, in addition to the inevitable struggles. In recent years, and especially since 2010, there has been a flowering of resistance responses from Kashmir. And technology has also helped enable some of that (though, of course, it has its downside in increased surveillance) in the social/media domain.  And there are numerous excellent scholars whose work on Kashmir is as relevant as that of activists. A discourse of resistance feeds both on ideas and action – and changing things in the mind-world is also important. As a scholar and as a Kashmiri, I have tried in my work and with my voice, to analyse various dynamics at play in essays like ‘Kashmir: a place of blood and memory’, ‘On Loving and Losing Kashmir’, ‘The Idea of India and Kashmir’. In contrast to my emotional response (such as poetry) on Kashmir, in these essays I have sought to write not just as a Kashmiri, but also a scholar who cares about justice, identity, democracy, and politics.

AM) You are a Kashmiri residing in Britain. How does exile shape up your visions of Kashmir, its people and its struggles? 

NK) Identity is a complex issue. We all have, and always have had, multiple identities. I do always stress that distance and privilege is not a simple geographical matter. There are the critical outsiders everywhere. What matters more is imaginative distance, or distance in the mind. One can be at any global latitude and longitude and not be concerned with those around us, or be anywhere and concern oneself with the local and the (specific) global. ‘Glocality’ (global+local) gives additional perspective if combined with empathy, solidarity and hard work. For example, in Britain, the discourse on Kashmir includes not just people from IOK (Indian Occupied Kashmir) but also those from POK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) and their struggles. It draws greater attention to some of the underlying geopolitical issues such as the LoC (Line of Control) and the history of a divided and occupied place whose people have variously suffered in postcolonial modernity.

AM) When did you leave the valley and why? Please tell us about your family? How often do you visit Kashmir now?

NK) Being away from Kashmir and not being able to be there in my youth is an important missing in my life. It will always be a regret that I could never share the actual physical Kashmir with my father beyond my childhood. Various people in my family left Kashmir at different times, and the last of them in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Then, there came a point when the house where they lived in Kashmir was also gone. That represented a final letting go of hope. I have visited Kashmir at various times in the last decade, and once with my grandfather before he passed away  and to whom it had become a long-ago land. In terms of my immediate family, I don’t have many people, just my mother and sister, who have had a life of many struggles and little by way of social support. There is also a silence on Kashmir in a personal context. Over the years, I have noticed that people in my family are hesitant to speak about Kashmir. When I asked the older relatives about the past and what had happened in Kashmir, they responded monosyllabically or changed the topic. As for me going to Kashmir, there’s a story. In summer 2011, exactly a year after the 2010 uprising, I had finished my stay in Bhutan and packed up in London, quit everything, having decided to move by myself to Kashmir and stay there. It was a turning point in my life. I had moved my things back and confirmed my travel arrangements. Then, a couple of weeks before my move, I had an accident and subsequent surgery which left me with use of one arm for nearly two years, significant emotional trauma, and financial burden. The healing was complicated and it was no longer possible for me to undertake the shift. Now that I am well, I hope life takes me to Kashmir soon. To quote Agha Shahid Ali, ‘We shall meet again, in Srinagar, by the gates of the Villa of Peace’.

Originally published here — https://archive.authintmail.com/article/murmurs-whispers/conversation-nitasha-kaul

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