In June, I asked many Kashmiri language experts about the number of novels written in Kashmiri. The consensus figure seems to be 12 to 13. Charles Dickens alone has written more. Except for a couple of them, these novels are known only to Kashmiri academics and a miniscule number of the lovers of this language that 95 percent of Kashmiris can’t read.
One of these rarities, a novel that famously stands out for its provocative dedication, was recommended to me. The novel was written in 1975 and published for the first time in 2002. The dedication, which is often misquoted, has become part of the Kashmiri political discourse during the 27 years of anti-India insurgency.
Tas nawjawanas nazrana yus yi samaj paak karne khaetre godnyuk bandook chalavi
“An offering to that youth who will fire the first gun to purify this society”, the dedication reads.
It is also the only Kashmiri novel that was available in the market. Not in any bookshop though, but in the half-empty top shelf of a photocopying-cum-stationery shop run by the novelist’s middle-aged son near a college in Srinagar. The son has the publishing rights.
At Rs 150 for a hardbound edition, Jahnmuk Panun Panun Naar, One’s Own Hell, written by the late Akhtar Mohiuddin, is light on the pocket. But reading this 143-page novel felt like plodding through War and Peace twice over. Not because it is a difficult read but because of the linguistic handicap that I -- like many Kashmiris who struggle with reading their own mother tongue – suffer from.
I was reading a Kashmiri novel for the first time. So I read it twice, gaining fluency over diacritics in the aching, halting first reading that stretched over several days. I achieved a comfortable level of fluency in the second. The luxury of time was afforded by a ban imposed on Gandhi Jayanti on the Kashmir Reader, the newspaper I had been editing for a year.
The setting of the novel is 1970s Kashmir, a time of great political and social ferment. Mohiuddin calls it a ‘constellation where the corrupt ex-minister, contractor, superintendent of police are the suns around whom various lesser moons revolve’. The force that holds this universe together is the diabolical Haakim-e-Aala, chief ruler.
Mr X, a once nondescript clerk has been catapulted into this universe by the chief ruler himself. He is now a big contractor. He also draws salary from his clerical post. As the novel progresses, Mr X diversifies into charas smuggling. At the same time, he feels alienated and seriously contemplates starting a normal life with his wife, Mrs X. Hitherto she has merely been a big-eyed, curvy woman, partnering in his deals—offering herself to officials to get tenders passed, and watching him record and then listen to tapes of the shrieks and moans of teenage girls being deflowered by rich and powerful men whom Mr X needs to trap in his quest for money and power. Among these people is a noted journalist identified only by the Urdu letter Sheen.
The girls come from that part of the city “where people resemble each other in physical features and the shared wretchedness of their cramped lives. All of them look toward the ‘colonies’ now inhabited by the likes of Mr X”. A music school in the ‘lower part’ of the city provides a steady supply of girls. X is the school’s benefactor.
Once, the girls and the music teacher are handed suitcases and flown to ‘Eastern Port’, ostensibly for a performance. But the troupe’s visit is actually meant to deliver a consignment of charas. Once the mission is accomplished, the music teacher who leads the group is told to pack up and return home. The teacher wonders ‘at the wasteful habits of the rich’.
While Mr X contemplates the prospect of a normal life where ‘the noise of children will animate the house’, Mrs X is in the throes of suicidal despair. Before being married off to Mr X, Mrs X was a college student from the ‘lower part of the city’. The chief ruler’s son had seduced her. But before he could think of a long-term relationship, the chief ruler had married her off to Mr X who had, after the marriage proposal, poisoned his first wife. X moves with Mrs X into a house gifted by the ruler himself in a ‘colony’ in the ‘upper part’ of the town.
The night Mr X comes home to talk about his plans of a happy life, Mrs X has consumed poison and slept, never to wake up again. Next morning, when he finds her dead, Mr X runs off to the chief ruler who assures him calmly, “Last rites performed.”
A letter written by Mrs X, that reveals the elaborate web of corruption of which she was a part, had reached anti-graft officials. The house is raided. Officials seize the ‘sex tapes’ stacked in shelves marked A, B and C, markers of the power hierarchy. These people are called for questioning.
“A quake creates disturbance, people run but it settles, finally,” the narrator says.
After the quake settles, we find Mr X in a bar, sipping whisky, thinking, “How can I ever repay him. The Bab (father, the ruler) alone stood by me in this moment of grief.”
The novel has never flourished in Kashmir. Having read a single work in this freakishly small body of a dozen odd novels, I am hardly qualified to even attempt something of a review of Jahnmuk Panun Panun Naar.
But this novel’s political content is not lost even on a first-time lay reader.
“The democracy in this city had reached a stage where, one day, it had to take a dangerous turn. The world mistook this turn for an accident but the charlatans who steered the democracy had deftly negotiated the turn. Although this unprincipled and ungodly democracy had been sick since its inception, people had hoped it would grow healthy over time. But while its body emerged whole from that perceived accident, the damage to its soul was permanent,” the narrator says.
The novel alludes to the rule of an authoritarian politician, where corruption has been institutionalized and ministers and officials easily shuttle between epicurean indulgence in “women, wine and money” and the façade of nobleness of their private lives.
Mr X hears the ruler tell a gathering once: “Anyone who can’t rise now will not rise ever.” This line, repackaged in other less explicit idioms, seems to define all subsequent governments. Mohiuddin’s novel, conceived half a century ago, therefore, resonates loudly even today.
Jahnmuk Panun Panun Naar is a prescient diagnosis of how authoritarianism disguised as democracy ends up ravaging lives, creating ruinous divisions in society, and making demigods of political stooges. Those familiar with contemporary Kashmir would, after scratching the surface, find the valley teeming with Mr Xes and Sheens.
The gun Akhtar had desired did finally come and he was alive (he died in 2001) to witness its arrival. It aimed at overthrowing the entire power structure, rather than merely “purifying the society” corrupted by a Hakim-e-Aala, a figure that appears and reappears in various guises. Guns on both sides consumed the writer’s son and son-in-law. He is probably the only Kashmiri writer who captured the tumult of the early 1990s in fine impressionistic short stories.
Incidentally, in 1984, Akhtar returned the Padma Shri, awarded to him in 1968, in protest against the hanging of Maqbool Bhat, the founder of the JKLF.
Jahnmuk Panun Panun Naar is proof that it is possible to write works of great literary value in Kashmiri, a language many of its speakers believe has not produced any worthwhile literature. Akhtar also wrote two other novels. Both have bleak titles: Doad Dug (Illness and Pain), considered his best, and Zuv ti Zolane (Life and Shackles).
There were small but valuable takeaways from reading this novel: I learned a few new Kashmiri words, learnt the correct pronunciation of a few others, and turned nostalgic on reading long-forgotten words that I had last heard in my childhood.
It took 27 years for Jahnmuk Panun Panun Naar to be published, a year after the death of its author. Many copies from the first print run of 500 remain unsold. This is the story of most Kashmiri authors and poets. Kashmiri poet and humorist Zareef Ahmad Zareef revealed that he published a poetry collection 30 years after he wrote it.
Noted Kashmiri writer GN Gowhar said he translated his own novel, Argi Ashud, into English. I asked if the Kashmiri version is available in the market. Only the translation, Torch Bearer in Dark Circles, is available. Another Kashmiri novel, Gul Gulshan Gulfam, by distinguished playwright Pran Kishore, which was adapted into a popular TV serial on Doordarshan in the 1990s, has been translated into English only recently by Shafi Shauq, a noted scholar of Kashmiri.
Why hasn’t the Kashmiri novel grown, I ask. “Why would someone spend four, five years in writing a novel knowing fully well that there won’t be readers after all that effort?” Shauq said.