Private spaces within the public sphere have always been important, which accounts for the significance of literary salons within a society. Kashmir, engulfed by war for decades, has lost the space for discussion. In the years leading up to the 1990s, people often sat for hours outside shop-fronts, on hills and in clearings talking about life and politics.
These places of contact were intellectual forums in a traditional form. Later, as crackdowns, curfews and shootouts became regular, people thought twice before venturing out.
Today, social media has largely replaced those points of contact. However, Peer GN Suhail, a Beijing-educated Kashmiri, now hosts a forum that encourages intellectual dialogue, and the exchange of ideas. Peer’s organization, the Centre for Research and Development Policy (CRDP), runs Kehwa Talk, a unique platform that acquaints people with the work of others, and dwells on issues of public concern.
A collection of these talks entitled Breaking Mazes, edited by Peer, was launched in Srinagar this New Year’s Eve to celebrate the forum’s first anniversary. Brought out by a local publisher, each of the essays in the 223-page book, that evolved from actual talks, focuses on a subject important to Kashmir.
Religious nationalism, the forgotten political history of the Muslims of Jammu, the gradual erosion of the constitution of Jammu and Kashmir, the Indus water treaty and hydropower politics, employment history, language and identity, gender and politics, and trauma are all discussed. Written by journalists, academics, historians, poets and experts, these seventeen essays are the result of Kehwa Talks conducted in cafes, and at colleges and schools. A significant collection with diverse content, the platform has reintroduced dialogue.
Young people do discuss these issues but usually only within their small bubbles. To move beyond the conventional and to think in a broader form, it is important to be exposed to the ideas of thinkers. Stepping back and looking at society as a whole also involves looking at ourselves in the mirror. Until an individual does that, he has little scope to improve life.
Last year, I attended a few of the initiative’s talks where kehwa, the popular Kashmiri drink, was served and felt joy that an unsettled and disjointed society had come up with something new. Kashmir has myths and conspiracies about almost everything. In a torn region, rumours spread like wildfire. To exchange ideas is to lay down the concrete basis for an enriched society. The highlight of this constantly-improving forum is that it invites speakers from varied fields and regions. Some clichés do persist, but Kehwa Talks is only a year old and one hopes those things will change.
The limitations of such initiatives are abundant: How does the outcome trickle down from top to bottom? Do common people know what is being discussed? Does it reach their ears? After all, it is these people who have an impact on society. If the result of something like a Kehwa Talks does not reach them, it would remain an exercise for a particular section. As with many events in Kashmir, the same speakers and the same audience (most of them actual journalists, fake journalists and omnipresent typists) turn up at the usual venues. After a point, such events become clichéd and it is clear they have a negligible impact.
That is why it is important to spread the word about such initiatives, not just in Kashmir but outside too. The written word is growing increasingly important for Kashmir’s narrative. Breaking Mazes must be taken home and read, talked about. Kehwa Talks should not be a one-off venture but should take over the void that has developed in Kashmir and yes, invite fresh minds and common people to participate. It doesn’t take resources to discuss and write. All it takes, really, is to believe in what poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz said: Speak up, for your lips are not sealed.
Are we speaking out loud enough? Do we have patience and tolerance? Perhaps.
Edited by Peer GN Suhail
Ali Mohd & Sons/ AM Heritage Series
Fahad Shah reports from Kashmir and New Delhi. He is the editor of the anthology Of Occupation and Resistance: Writings from Kashmir and the founding editor of the magazine The Kashmir Walla.