A day of readings at the Kashmir Fiction Writers Guild - Hindustan Times

A day of readings at the Kashmir Fiction Writers Guild

ByHilal Mir
May 28, 2024 06:08 PM IST

The association, that holds weekly sessions where writers present short stories and excerpts from novels and plays, will soon celebrate its 10th anniversary

On a rainy afternoon, 15 men and two women take seats in a mid-sized room with an ornately crafted Kashmiri khatamband ceiling. Tour promotional posters cover the walls of the venue in Huda Aash Hotel at Lal Chowk, Srinagar’s busiest hub. Despite its highly urban setting, the meeting place is tranquil – it was a home once – and well suited to freewheeling discussions on freshly penned fiction. The scene is somewhat like it would be at a writers’ workshop conducted in a quieter corner of a Chandni Chowk haveli.

A writer reads out her short fiction at a meeting of the Kashmir Fiction Writers Guild. (Hilal Mir)
A writer reads out her short fiction at a meeting of the Kashmir Fiction Writers Guild. (Hilal Mir)

For the past 10 years, every Saturday, the Jammu Kashmir Fiction Writers Guild has been organizing such meetings in this room over tea or kahwa and an assortment of locally baked biscuits. Many people, who couldn’t pursue writing full time but never let their creative flame die, recite their works in a tradition similar to that of a mushaira. A sadr (president) lords over the session. All the impromptu criticism is to be addressed to him, as an expression of the sentiment that there is nothing personal even in the most dispiriting comments. He also gets to sum up a reading session.

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From a veterinarian, who also has a PhD in existentialism, to a communications professor at a fashion institute, today’s group is quite varied.

In keeping with the programme, one of the women reads out a short story. The central character, an old woman, wakes up one day to the sound of predawn azaans, her eyes fixed on a dusty picture of her and her deceased husband as newlyweds. Some time later, she walks into a garden where a bird is feeding worms to nestlings and she reminisces about happier times. On the day of their father’s death, her sons had tricked the grieving mother into signing the property in their name. Each builds a house of his own and hosts the mother for a month in turn. But they would rather not have her at all. On this fateful day, irritation takes hold of one of the brothers who believes his turn has come too soon. The mother then takes what will be her final walk. In the evening, a news channel broadcasts a video of men carrying the body of an unidentified woman, chanting “Ram naam satya hai”.

The moderator solicits comments, which came aplenty. In fact, one of the participants had been writing notes on his WhatsApp while the writer was reading her story from A4 sheets. “Flat narrative”, “reminds me of Bollywood film Baghban”, “a woman never gets to distribute property in the first place”, and “characters haven’t been allowed to develop; hard to fathom why all the sons are so uniformly pathetic” An award-winning Kashmiri writer says the ending appeared to be forced, especially the “Ram naam” chant, even insinuating that it could have been plagiarized from one of his stories. He suggests that the writer read more widely.

The president’s words eloquently draw the curtain over the session. Invoking “the writer’s truth” and “the willing suspension of disbelief”, he says that, at the basic level, all stories are the same but the ones that stand out are those told from a “new angle”. For example, this particular story could have begun at the moment the woman’s death was announced on TV. Criticism only benefits the writer, he says, adding that, in light of suggestions made at sessions, he had reworked many of his own stories before sending them out for publication.

The moderator remarks that the Guild is like a factory where “raw product is turned into finished goods”. The idea of the Guild was conceived by writers and critics, Salim Salik, Ghulam Nabi Shahid, and Nasir Zameer at a nearby park in the summer of 2014. Others joined, including its current president Nazir Muhstaq, who was the founding vice-president. A few sessions were held in the park itself before a room was rented at Hotel Huda Aash – the current rent is a highly discounted 7,000 a month. In a few weeks, the Guild, with 30 permanent and 100 loosely associated members, will celebrate its tenth year of existence. It has hosted many major Kashmiri literary figures as guests and has benefited dozens of students and teachers who are writing and translating fiction. There is a huge, but hugely resisted, demand from poets to open the guild to poetry. “There are so many poets out there,” a member says in exasperation. Right now, only short stories, excerpts from novels and plays are entertained.

“It was a dream of the founders and we are trying, in our humble way, to keep it alive,” said Mushtaq, who is currently editing a collection of short stories and plays that have gone through the Guild’s rigorous Saturday grind. The publication will mark the Guild’s tenth anniversary and more than 300 sessions.

Writers listening to a reading at the 291st meeting of the Kashmir Fiction Writers Guild. (Hilal Mir)
Writers listening to a reading at the 291st meeting of the Kashmir Fiction Writers Guild. (Hilal Mir)

Today’s was the 291st. The second reading of the day is Surrender, a Kashmiri short story by the award-winning writer who had suggested that the first presenter read more. It is about a divorced inter religious couple who get married in New York after years of living together. The marriage soon turns sour, we are told, largely because of Riya’s unaccommodating nature. After the divorce, Kaif moves to India and Riya to Boston. The only child from the marriage, Sarah stays with the mother. Riya’s father, who was opposed to the marriage at first, is not happy with the divorce and wills his property to Sarah. Towards the end, we are told Kaif suffers from some illness and has been served an evacuation notice by his landlord. Sarah persuades him to move to the house she has inherited from her grandfather. Riya’s second husband, Swapan Chatterjee, meets Kaif and instantly takes a liking to him. He calls Riya to admonish her for having failed to “truly understand” a great man. Stirred, she flies to India only to find Kaif dead. “Kaif, I finally surrender before you,” she utters over his dead body.

The jury instantly deems it one of the author’s lesser works. In the race towards the end, characters and the circumstances of their falling out remain sketchy; do they really need to be from different faiths? Isn’t a live-in relationship followed by a marriage between an inter religious couple surrender enough? In the writer’s defence, the vet-philosopher said the surrender of the ego was the noblest of surrenders. An English translation of the story by the writer’s granddaughter, who read it during the session, is unanimously considered good since its is her first attempt at translation.

The president had a subtle message for the writer in the form of this couplet:

Nahi hai khel koi un se guftugu karnaSukhan wo jumbishe lab ke bagair chahte hai.”

(It is not a child’s play to converse with thoseWho demand words without the agitation of lips)

Some things need to be said without actually saying them.

During Zero Hour, the discussion is thrown open. Taking advantage of the relative freedom it offers, a young participant says the award winning author’s story left nothing to the imagination.

Tea is served. The participants pay donations, in cash or through apps, which makes the moderator remark that this is the only guild in the Valley where people pay to listen to readings. Finally, on the tile mosaic stairs of the hotel, everyone poses for the customary photograph amid potted plantain lilies, ferns, hydrangeas, aucubas and roses soaked in fresh spring rain.

Hilal Mir is an independent writer. He lives in Kashmir.

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