‘Meaninglessness that conflict breeds lends profounder meanings to life’

  • Gowhar Geelani
  • Publish Date: Nov 27 2017 8:30PM
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  • Updated Date: Nov 27 2017 8:30PM
‘Meaninglessness that conflict breeds lends profounder meanings to life’


Mir Khalid, author of Jaffna Street, was born in 1974 in downtown Safakadal, Srinagar. In his debut non-fiction work, the author has woven peoples’ stories deftly and written about ravages of war. The traditional shopfront gatherings, known as Waane Pyaend in local parlance, would act as intellectual and cathartic spaces in downtown Srinagar where people debated pros and cons of their continued battle for existence and identity. It is exactly where Khalid got exposed to literature and politics primarily because of his insightful interactions with a Marxist-intellectual Nazir Gaash and rich library that the author’s father had maintained and preserved well. Author’s unbiased commentary makes readers realise the socio-psychological and economic impact of war on the ordinary people and how conflict can sometimes act as a catalyst for human evolution, for good or for bad. His writing is both evocative and provocative. Interestingly, the author is a surgeon by profession who lived and worked in Dublin, London and Jeddah. Kashmir Ink’s Gowhar Geelani caught up with Mir Khalid to know more about his scholarly and literary pursuit and his views on Kashmir’s literature in English language

There are diverse motivations for different writers to write. What instigated the writer in you?

Personally, the realisation that I had a way with words commenced in tandem with a schoolboy’s journey riffling through his prized stack of Archie-Betty juvenilia. In school they taught us Classics inculcating a serious literary sensibility for English language. This, I think, provided a spur for true understanding of literary significance and aesthetics-interactive pattern dynamics, and the intellectual and emotional stimuli embedded within the wordplays- of one’s inspirations and reads.

For any aspiring author, a spur is important. I came of age the moment writers like Michael Ondaatje, Ben Okri, Vikram Seth and Kazuo Ishiguro burst upon the scene. This was an eclectic bunch of reads with profound writing quality, its imaginative clarity it felt hard not wanting to aspire writing in the same league. These inspiring works propelled my fingers on the keyboard and the pen, and became the ubiquitous marker of my literary coming of age in hindsight; I guess I would have morphed into an author sooner or later in any case.


Was writing only a cathartic exercise for you, or, given your literary sensibility at an early age, it was aimed at making a meaningful contribution to English literature?

Having lived through the violent 1990s in the vale and the turbulent 2000s in Europe made me realize that grief, alienation, violence and existential angst are essentially universal human phenomena. 

Was I seeking closure? I don’t know. Mine was an effort at understanding the times by gaining an insight into the lives of co-sojourners. It felt like coming to terms with my own alienated self, though much enriched in experience.

Yes, when I wrote it I did have a wider English speaking world in my mind as an audience, as for the literary contribution thing, that only a trained literary critique can tell us.


As a surgeon you use scalpel for performing surgeries. As a writer you had to use the pen. Tell us how was this experience, the experience of diagnosing a political conflict as complex as Kashmir?

The violence with its blurred frontlines and the banality of violence gestated pathologized life patterns whose ramifications haunt the vale denizens to this day. It radically altered our perceptions, ourselves, our ways of life and how we look at things, where we stood in this world even as we grappled with its aftermath.

The experience was like someone wanting an elusive moment of being at a point of some better outcome, which I find is an impossible one in any perpetual conflict-ridden zone.


Did your travels to diverse places like Dublin, London and Jeddah and being abroad for a long time for work help you look at Kashmir from a different perspective?

I think travel for any purpose helps one gain a very cosmopolitan and dispassionate perspective on things. It opens up broader horizons in every sphere, creating a wider psychological canvas to work on. Going out wasn’t just a de-stressing process for me, it helped me envisage and see things beyond identitarian and political narratives.

Western authors have grappled with these issues much before than us, providing an overview of the general human condition. Since these conditions have been inflicted and suffered elsewhere in every nook and corner of the world, the contextualization helped aid my understanding better. I realized that I had been an attendant observer of a big human tragedy that exacted severe psycho-social ramifications on our society for bystanders and combatants alike but at the same time sensitized me towards the suffering of others and helped me to transcend binaries to look at the bigger picture.


In your debut book Jaffna Street, a non-fiction, what research technique did you rely on to tell stories of ordinary people in an extraordinary way? Did oral history help as a technique for data preservation?

For research I used a combination of anecdotes, personal memories and extended interviews whilst taking extra care to avoid presumptions and consequent ‘writers’ intrusions’ into the profiled individual’s “thought process”.

Following my own bent of mind and the accumulated research material I realized that the resultant writing process could culminate into a work of Inspired Sociology. But that meant melding clarity with brevity to vividly explain the connections between the events, politics and violence and the complex inner lives of the profiled individuals with depth and clarity.

Avoiding the temptation of some half-baked journalistic venture with meretricious passages thrown in for effect, I felt impelled to resort to literary non-fiction as this is one genre wherein language morphs into art as it proceeds to explicate profounder meanings of human experience. From the point of view of a writing apprentice, I wanted to go the whole hog and rise up to the challenge.


Does conflict also contribute or act as a catalyst for people’s evolution, for good or for bad?

 Conflict cannot rein in human evolution, the meaninglessness that conflict breeds for its victims inherently provides new profounder meanings to life, whether it leads to redemption or despair isn’t fully our own volition, a lot depends on the affected individuals, their psyche and societal mores. This is true for other conflicts as its for the Kashmir conflict. Look at post WW-II Europe for example.

When a feared Srinagar’s upper Cityside college gangster jailed for armed rebellion envisages the violence inflicted on him those dungeons as a form of ‘negative intimacy’; you know then and there that his own personal world has taken a step, at a big price though.


What were your influences apart from the great writers you have mentioned already? Any role models you looked up to while growing up as a schoolboy or a college graduate?

I read a lot of Shakespeare, Chekhov and G.B. Shaw beyond what the school curricula envisaged, thanks to the perpetual access to my dad’s library, who early on discerned my literary inclinations.  On the Safakadal shop-fronts I was handed books of Camus, Sartre and Kundera. But among them Camus acquired a perpetual literary and philosophical presence in my own library and reading habits for some lengthy period of time before giving way to Richard Flanagan, Lawrence Wright and David Remnick.

I missed over-arching literary figures within our own society, there was no Orhan Pamuk to look upto.


Downtown Srinagar has a rich tradition of insightful shop-front discussions on politics and social fabric. Did your exposure to this practice as a downtown lad contribute in any way to make you a better storyteller?

 I think the art of being raconteurs par excellence has been perfected as some innate trait by downtowners over the centuries. Having grown up conditioned in that story-telling street milieu, I see Jaffna Street as a continuum of the same downtown raconteur tradition though done in a different way and different medium.


In your book you extensively talk about downtown of your imagination, syncretic Sufi culture of Kashmir, the 1947 Jammu Massacre which members of your family witnessed firsthand, armed conflict, pre-conflict days, and how the conflict changed peoples’ lives and ravages of war. What prompted you to write the chapterThe Saint of Shalimar and specifically about a revered spiritual master Ama Sahib, aka Masterji of Safakadal?

Anyone, including Sufis with their large societal footprint could not have remained immune to the Kashmiri society’s political moorings, given the curiously Hibernian/ethno-religious character of twentieth century Kashmiri politics, defining its contours since 1931.

Given this context, it is hard to put a finger on the posterity of the late Ama Sahib, this fine man, a remarkable individual of saintly stature. On one hand, people remember a very gentlemanly schoolteacher whose family got sundered in the post 1947 persecution of pro-Pakistani elements by the NC Emergency Administration, others see him as a leading though reluctant luminary of the Anjuman Nusratul Islam but mostly his reputation as a grandmaster of Kubrawiya Sufi order precedes everything else.

For me, personally, he was an embodiment of the very inclusive mystical philosophy of Ala Dawla Simnani– the 13th century Iranian Kubrawiya order grandee widely researched in the West -whose mystical and philosophical interactions with Buddhist and Zoroastrian monks is quite well known. As a Kubrawiya grandmaster, Simnani imparted a very cosmopolitan hue on his Sufi order. 

Ama Sahib with his Kashmiri Pandit disciples –mind you not adherents or supplicants – seeking crossovers into Sufi mystical domains represented the latter day holdover of this very Iranian syncretic mystical cosmopolitanism; in effect, Ama Sahib’s politics had no prejudicial bearing on his mystical endeavor -which true to its cosmopolitan spirit he only saw a convergent humanity seeking spiritual guidance beyond politics, beyond identities, beyond the ‘Other’.

When one comes across the Kashmir Pandit/Kashmiri Muslim binaries, the petty bickering that accompanies the various narratives being bandied about with bilious accompaniment in print, social media and elsewhere, one can’t but scoff at their gross pathetic ignorance of Kashmiri society’s community dynamics, its cosmopolitanism-for whatever motives - that over the years found meeting grounds beyond confessional loyalties. I know for certain these attributes have certainly survived the conflict albeit at an individual level.


In your literary journey and scholarly pursuit why you seem very critical of the work done by the fellow natives in English language? What makes you pessimistic about some writers from Kashmir some of whom you describe as “wannabes”? Aren’t literary journeys of Kashmiri writers in English language works in progress which should not be judged so early in the piece?

Any writing emanating from a conflict-ridden populace is an important means of their asserting  voice and agency. What I had seen firsthand and tens of thousands had endured in those stygian conflict years, any attendant observer would have expected a Tour de force/ magnum opus work at par with the best of the conflict literature/ historical resource works available in the world. What came forth through “fellow natives” was lightweight writing stuff riding the back of over-stretched sentimental symbolism.

I am averse to pass a value judgment because I haven’t read any of these ‘fellow natives’ works except in bits and bobs, found the stuff lightweight but hesitated to agree with many of my acquaintances who opined that symbolism apart the books created big hype but scored little with regards to acquiring a certain literary value that could have secured the vale a place on the bigger English literary firmament.

It was on visit home that how right they had been.  Brilliant Tour de force works would have inspired Kashmiri youngsters aspiring to be the next arrivals on the non-English writers in English tarmac, coveting claims to well deserved Bookers and Pulitzers in the future whilst straddling a literary equipoise between their own cultural capital and the wider English literary milieu. Instead whatever got gestated by this writing and the consequent social media discourse had a seriously debilitating corrosive effect on the literary conditioning of both contemporaries and the GenNext; a pathologised literary trend, whose purveyors confound acclaim with achievement and whittle their time acting as vectors for an epidemic of sloppy writing got firmly entrenched in the literary scene.  

Years on amusingly it’s a rarity to find someone gravitating to higher literary pursuits, or enhanced their English language sensibility or writing skills to morph into the next Okri and Saunders or making it to the Bookers long list. But there is no paucity of English poetry dabblers who have never heard of Emily Dickinson and English prose ‘aficionados’ with no inkling of who David Remnick is or what Kazuo Ishiguro’s work corpus entails, or  ‘intellectuals’ indulging mediocre second hand argumentation, platitudinous punch-lines, the petty bickering. One can easily discern the deep embrace and celebration of mediocrity around, having realized that lofty undertakings are beyond their reach.

But then I connect the dots as to the source of this detritus, and that makes me pessimistic. The GenNext deserves better inspiration.


Any suggestions you have for Kashmir’s young aspiring writers? 

Set your sights high and beyond into the wider English speaking world. Avoid dissipating energy on inane argumentation around and useless skeletonising of writing methodologies. At a personal level cultivate a curious mind, a cosmopolitan outlook welded to a wide analytical sweep and develop a signature writing craft.

Outside, avoid insularity by seeking eclectic literary influences from round the world, broaden your literary horizons to create a formidable intellectual wherewithal needed to initiate and sustain an effective learning curve. Attune your literary ambitions to serious effort. All this will go a long way in cultivating an insight and essentials of a good writer. And remember acclaim doesn’t mean achievement, so aim higher.