Dr Mir Khalid was born into a prominent civil services’ family in Safakadal, Srinagar. His clinical research has appeared in the British Journal of Surgery.
Jaffna Street is his first foray into English non-fiction writing. Previously he has published an anthology of Urdu poetry, Asbaat Khudi (2011). He tells Saima Rashid how he began his intellectual journey from shop-fronts in downtown.
Kashmir Life (KL): Your book talks about some less talked about subjects. Is it author’s brute honesty about his immediate society or just a sweeping attempt to stir a hornet’s nest?
Mir Khalid (MK): I would be inclined to agree with your first contention. Since the book was an attempt to understand the times I have/had lived, I don’t think it would be worthwhile to not delve upon what you term ‘uncomfortable truth’. When we seek to introspect the dialectics of any process, both its negative and positive aspects need to be examined. Otherwise it is not possible to honestly reflect or understand the situations we find ourselves in.
KL: Does a story woven around conflict help in selling a book better?
MK: I think that would be a mis-imagined inference on their part. The placement of chapters is chronological, and since Zee’s story peaks in 1990, it would be natural to place him in that order of preference. Zee is a quintessential 1980s Kashmiri lad, smart, sportive, a Reinhold Messner idolising university student, who finds himself trudging the violent fault lines at the very outset of the conflict. His life experience is shaped by the initial days of the conflict, so I am not sure what makes his placement a fashion statement.
KL: When you dismiss a section of youngsters in your book as ‘Edward Said wannabes’ for frequently quoting Iqbal, Camus and others in Srinagar cafes, aren’t you, reinforcing your elitist roots?
MK: Frankly I think that would be out of the context nitpicking. If you carefully read the chapter where I have used these words – the profile of late Nazir Gaash – the leftist from downtown, I hold him an exemplar of what an intellectual sort should be, someone in relentless search of himself and habiting a world of ideas. Gaash, was from a traditional baker family background, someone who dropped out of college to work his bakery shop because his family couldn’t afford his education. As I mention in my book my own intellectual journey began at his shop-front. So I guess the jibe of my flaunting my so called ‘elitist’ leanings or roots doesn’t hold any water.
KL: In one of your stories, you write that boys who took arms in 90s weren’t trained to bear torture.
MK: The lines you quote are from the chapter ‘Redemption Stone’. I am no one to pass a value judgment on the protagonist ‘Mac’s life and times. If he declared that nothing had prepared him to withstand physical violence during incarceration or what he went through, you are missing out the obvious. ‘Mac’ isn’t some namby-pamby guy; he led the ‘City-Side Boys’: one of the most violent and most feared student gang in Srinagar and its college campuses in the late 1980s. What struck me in particular and what you seem to have missed out was not just what he went through, but his introspective vein which in his incarceration saw physical violence as a kind of negative intimacy between humans, which is a very profound thought signifying a very high level of introspection blending in with a sharp analytical sweep, so to say. Here is someone, a street-smart guy, no stranger to violence but helpless in the face of overwhelming violence, not only unhinges him but leads him to another level of understanding of its dynamics. But does that stop him from using violence as a means of expression or redemption in future. No it doesn’t.
The second thing I gauged from interacting with him over the years, as I mention in the book, was seeking an answer to the question as to whether war or conflict acts as some kind of a catalyst for human evolution for good or for bad; Mac is a prime example that it is.
KL: You talk a lot about how insurgents were repeatedly involved in car-jackings and kidnappings. Any particular reason?
MK: While researching I came across individuals who were drawn into the violent politics of 1980s, very different from the ones whom many in today’s generation think were pioneer insurgents.
It became imperative that the aim of the book wouldn’t just be an attempt to delve into times past or offer a window to how everyone around saw through or suffered some of the most violent years in our history. It wasn’t just for the sake of posterity I ventured forth to mention some of these highly politically motivated, ideologically driven individuals who saw violence as a means of political progression leading them to be the first batch cross the LoC, but to understand the whole perspective, go further back, streamline the whole thing. I attempted to create a veritable historical resource drawn from oral sources within JAFFNA STREET for future historians or scholars willing to broach the subject. I don’t think it is a secret that there was also this lot of people who became predators on the harbouring populace, the stories abound everywhere.
KL: You talk about Sufi saint like Ala-al-Dawla Simnani, and his nephew Shah Hamadan and how they defined Kashmir’s future syncretic social and mystical traditions.
You also talk about Saint Qadri’s war predictions and the rebel side of Meerakh Shah Sahab.
MK: It is a pity that much of the Kashmiri academia has not been able to draw upon a wider research canvas especially with regards to influence of the Sufi orders and how they came to define societal mores and the self image of the Kashmiri society per se.
The Kashmiri academia has been too lazy minded to even explore the life and times of Simnani – widely researched in the West, whose mystical, philosophical interactions with Buddhist and Zoroastrian monks is quite well known. As a Kubrawiya grandmaster, he was instrumental in imparting a very cosmopolitan hue on the Sufi order. In decades to come when Shah Hamadan, his nephew, arrived in Kashmir, a subsequent flowering of a syncretic mystical tradition is seen within the vale environs. One has to just join the dots and figure out where it all started. But its somewhat ironic – as I mention in the book that the point guidance to delve into Ala al Dawla Simnani’s life and work came my way on a Safa Kadal shop-front through the utterances of a reclusive octogenarian Sufi of Aminiya Owaisiya order and not from some “meticulous research” or “magnum opus” book written by any academic “worthies” residing in our universities otherwise busy writing forgettable hagiographic treatises.
I think twentieth century Kashmiri politics is curiously Hibernian in character, with ethno-religious affiliation defining its contours since 1931. I don’t think Meerakh Shah Saheb or anyone else with a big societal footprint as his could have remained immune to the society’s political moorings.
KL: Your stories are intriguing, be it Political Coiffeur, Noori Massi, Ija and Aziz. As an author, do you think politics shapes each and every character in Kashmir?
MK: It definitely appears so whether as its products or its victims.
KL: Your characters have wider appeal. The title ‘Jaffna Street’ makes a reader believe that the book is about Sri Lanka and not Kashmir.
MK: You can obviously blame my schooling or the very worldly aware cosmopolitanism of the Srinagar city where I came of age. It is sad that the post 1990 generations missed out the stage where their generational elders would introduce them to Malraux and Camus on downtown shop-fronts or make them feel enamored to Dos Passos and Sartre’s stream of consciousness writing style.
When you are widely travelled, acculturated to multiple societies and in the process have acquired polyglot faculties, it becomes a totally different ball game.
Given this background, I consciously decided on two things when I ventured to write this book. First, it would be an attempt to look at the conflict at the reflective level, through the lens of wider human tragedy/condition where political ideological or affiliations and geographical boundaries cease to matter. What to me seemed important wasn’t the views I hold but the overview I had gained.
Second, English for me is a very beautiful language, a language with which I personally feel connected and expressive best. Being attuned to its literary trends, I felt inspired to write Jaffna Street in a literary non-fiction style. Frankly I don’t think I could envisage constraining my writing into a certain lightweight – Kashmir conflict – book format with Aga Shahid’s lines thrown in for effect.
KL: Have you gone through any of the works by post-90s Kashmiri authors?
MK: I am afraid I would not be able to answer that question honestly, the reason being I haven’t read any of these books or other works by Kashmiri authors. Neither would I claim a placement in that category.
Years ago as a high school student I came across works of Michael Ondaatje, Ben Okri and Kazuo Ishiguro, they represented a wholly new genre: non-English writers writing masterpieces in English but with a particular local milieu sensibility. Frankly I don’t see Ondaatje or Okri’s coming forth in our part of the worlds any time soon.
KL: At the end of every chapter you sing off with a remark like ‘By sundown, downtown will again be ours’. What does it convey?
MK: The epilogue at is self-reflection, loud thought on each profiled individual or what I gleaned from their life and times and perhaps how I place that thought process within. The ‘sundown’ line of course is a public statement, posited within a context which you haven’t mentioned.
I think we should leave it to the readers of Jaffna Street to figure it out.