Of memories, linguistics and literature: The House on the River

Shoeb Hamid is an unconventional scribe-storyteller from Srinagar—who doesn’t seem to carry the typical author’s air. His mannerism makes him street-smart with a commoner’s worldview. He apparently abhors the limelight created by marketing and cult following. The self-effacing wordsmith is the latest addition to the list of the writers who emerged on the post-90 English literature landscape in Kashmir.

Bereft of the fussy writer’s attitude, plain-speaking Hamid reckons that lived experiences and memories form the soul of serious literature. As someone who grew up witnessing a different Battle of the Hydaspes at Srinagar’s Rajbagh—his birthplace, where the ‘failed’ rebel strike in late eighties heralded the armed uprising in Kashmir—the writer weaves a plot around a boy, who grows up to become a militant to avenge the killing of his best friend at the hands of a renegade.

But the protagonist, quite intriguingly, spares the pariah, in a wounded state—and thus, perhaps, hinting at the protracted nature of the political conflict in Kashmir.

Samir, the protagonist, is perhaps the representative character of thousands of Kashmiris whose life took a different trajectory due to the circumstances created around them.

With his deft head and hand, the new novelist in town weaves a riveting narrative—which looks like a clear departure from the usual—and therefore, recreates some of the forgotten horrors of the past which shaped up his generation and his imagination as a writer.

Hamid’s social media pun-intending and thought-provoking feeds apart, his debut fiction published by Partridge seems a serious attempt at literature, recreating a blast from the past.

In a straightforward talk, the author of The House on the River: Insurrection delves into the world of literature, talks about his impressions as a writer and the inspiration behind his book.


Before we talk about your book, can you speak about the time you grew up in, and how did that shape up your writing.

Right now, I’m 38 years old. The most vicious period of Kashmir started from the 90s. I was young then, a child. There were certain things that I witnessed and personally felt. And for a long time, some of these experiences, some of these memories I’ve kept intact.

I always had certain fears and apprehensions that as time passes, some of them may be lost. There is something I always wanted to do, apart from writing. I wanted to capture the moment, in fact capture an era, which this book has attempted.

Was there a particular reason or moment in your life which made you believe that you have to tell this story?

The way I identify people in my own field, there’re always givers and takers. As a giver, a storyteller is always observing or seeing things. You need to formalize them, preserve them and at least give them back to the people.

If there’s a story, it shouldn’t get lost. And there’re certain forces, powerful institutions and agencies that would be happy if stories don’t come to the fore.

But then as storytellers, we’ve the responsibility to give those stories a shape of a book, a novel or an article. That’s how you pass on the story.

This is my personal opinion that we sometimes pass on certain information verbally, which I think is not a good way. Why, because, the spoken word is always vulnerable to aberrations.

Like, when you say something, after 10 years something else gets mixed into it. Once you write it down, those words remain there. You cannot fabricate anything, although meanings or interpretations might change with situations.

Overall, whatever content is in a particular story it remains there. This, I also feel, is the biggest difference between religious scriptures and mythologies.

So, I believe, we need to preserve the stories which we’ve been a part of, experienced or even heard. I think that is where my inspiration came from.

As someone growing amid guns and clampdowns, what lived experiences became the part of your book?

As Kashmiris, we all have witnessed certain common things: killings, disappearances, crackdowns, raids, torture, rise and fall of renegades. But, personally, when a certain tragedy happened in our locality, Rajbagh, I thought to explore the best way to minimize its effect.

The best way, which I thought for years, was to write about it. So that people would understand and somehow relate to it, and eventually place the blame for it. You need to have a case in hand for placing the blame. You cannot have a case in your hand by speaking about it. You need to have it in record. That way you’re doing justice to something which happened a long time ago. That is what I’ve tried to do in the book.

So, that tragedy has now become the larger plot of this book?

Yes, but if I reveal about it, then I would be revealing about the book. I’ve tried to keep it away from public scrutiny.

But some of the characters in the book have been adopted and the inspiration has come from real people. Their names are different. I don’t want to reveal their identities. However, the book is a representation of that. And for some reason, I had to keep it as a fiction. But yes, the timeline in the book and the timeline of the actual tragedy are different.

The actual incident, the climax in the story, happened somewhere in 1999. Again, it was a very vicious time. You had the former Ikhwanis whom the state was trying to project as political leaders. I believe that was the most unfortunate thing that happened with Kashmir dispute. The killers were actually given sanction by the state. As a sensible and educated person, you couldn’t take that. That was the turning point, the watershed moment.

I knew, I would’ve to write about it. It was happening in the immediate neighbourhood. And it was wrong. As an impressionable youngster, I made up my mind to pen it down and call it wrong one day.

During that terrible time, how was the conflict affecting your education and that of your contemporaries?

A lot of Kashmiris in the 90s started receiving good education. As government schools weren’t providing good education, a lot of private institutions came into existence. The education I received is also somehow responsible in making of this book. We received education in an open and free environment. Although there were rules and regulations in school as well as in home, mostly we had the freedom to question authority.

As schoolboys, we had started questioning our participation in the state parades. So education, in the 90s, reached to a point where the new generation was somehow able to question certain things which was not the case earlier. Somehow political consciousness had grown. That awakening was closely linked to the kind of education we were receiving.

Do you agree when Indian literary circles say that Kashmir’s English writing is mainly journalism driven?

If most of the writers in Kashmir have a journalistic style now, it’s perhaps the sign of the larger societal expression based on facts, records and numbers. When you’ve a conflict in the society, the first focus is on the resolution of the conflict. When you try to explore means for the resolution of the conflict, you rely lot on facts because then you build a very strong case.

Like, for example, there were mass rapes in Kashmir. You say it happened in the particular night, committed by the particular army unit. There’re facts and records involved in the case. Writing about it means to include these journalistic elements. Maybe, that is the reason why most of the writers have a journalistic style now.

Before becoming a novelist, what was your journey as a journalist like?

It has been a very hard journey. I was an idealist in the beginning. And expectations were very low. I used to see those frugal journalists with large bags slung on their shoulders and tell myself, “OK, this is what you’re going to be! You aren’t going to ride a Mercedes. This is what you’ve chosen.” But saying and following are two different things.

When you try to follow it, it becomes harder. Because when such things happen in real life, you find yourself at crossroads whether you should go on that road, or abandon it and opt for greener pastures.

When I completed my Masters in Journalism from the University of Kashmir, I went for a day to the Indian Express. I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to compromise on my principles. At that time internet was still growing. I learnt that quickly. I worked for different alternate media organizations and that was mostly outside Kashmir.

Then I came back and joined Rising Kashmir. I thought, I need to get a mainstream view now. And that’s how I got stuck since 2013.

As an emerging novelist, how do you see the English literature that was produced from Kashmir after the 90s?

If we go by the old school philosophy, we cannot judge two works of literature or art. But then, I don’t have to go by that.

You see, once, we had an interaction with a historian and some of her claims were contested as they were based on mythology rather than facts. I asked her a question that if her argument is based on myths, what kind of history does it make? I asked her whether the state was sponsoring such paradigms. Her response was, “when did the state not sponsor a particular paradigm or particular history.”

Since 90s, the state is a very big agency, very powerful. Obviously you’ve their interference in some of the literature produced. You can always contest it as the authors have skillfully left certain parts. Since 90s, the first thing people see is whether you’re sponsored or not sponsored…

That means storytellers from Kashmir work under tremendous pressure?

Yes, but then, their resilience is also the reason for some of the great stories ever told.

You see, there’re tales against the kings. If people then had felt the same pressures, the stories wouldn’t have been there.

So, when a person decides that he’s free from external control, that is when you’re free to produce something original.

As a writer do you see art in contemporary literature or is it just repackaging?

One of the things that has happened is we’ve imitated more than the style. It has made us feel a certain way that may not be in accordance with the local culture. That has had an effect on the quality of work and has affected the overall literature that we produce.

The literature has to be personalized as we’ve to focus on the area of concern. There has to be an understanding that we are Kashmiris and we react in a particular way and let’s put it in words. Western literature has its own way. We’ve to have our own style. Then only it’ll give you the exact reaction or character of the people.

Are you saying most of our literature is just an imitation?

There is always a way to find how much originality is there. Human reactions and emotions to certain situations are universal, but at the same time different cultures react differently. We’ve to see what those differences are. Then only we can truly depict a localized character.

Is obsession for imitation the reason why Kashmiri literature has largely failed to strike chords with global readership?

You see, I’ve written a book in English language. And again there is a reason for that. We’ve Kashmiri language here, but we’ve limited its usage to such a small extend that you won’t be able to describe a particular situation or a range of emotions in your own language because people didn’t work on it, expand it. Because of this compulsion, we’re dependent on some other language. This expression in non-native language is to justify taking western ideas.

The point is, we shouldn’t all together rule out using everything that is western. But when you’re writing something about local, you obviously have to make minimum usage of everything that appears to be foreign, including the language.

But my main point was despite producing piles of writings, why aren’t we hitting the global stands? 

I think it depends on the work that has been produced. People who are not from this place have not been able to relate to many of our works. They are not able to identify with it.

But, yes, we can’t generalize. There’re definitely certain elements which we keep in mind that people identify with. I would say it depends on the work only. The work determines its range and reach.

Or is it because we don’t have a marketing strategy?

Yes, in times of globalization, content marketing is key. Recently we’ve seen some literature, say for example, Hunger Games. It has been able to strike chords with the younger generation, as it is rebellious. It is also because, that particular generation is watching more or less the same content. The responses towards entertainment of youth in America and South Asia are almost the same.

So yes, marketing and the overall content that we are exposed to, has shaped our personalities on similar patterns. So I guess, that answers your previous question. The next question was…

Let me rephrase my question. An introvert person, say Shoeb Hamid comes out with a book without thinking about arranged talks or book release functions. But on the other hand, a well-introduced writer driven by a cult following comes up with a book, so to say, and it reaches to places…

This is a very personal question and it again depends upon how a person takes it.

An artist only produces something. He doesn’t care about who’s going to like it. Sometimes, the whole inspiration and motivation to produce something is within. If people have that, then they don’t need to be concerned about marketing and all.

But yes, realistic perspective is that people mostly write because they want to touch somebody. They also want to receive an input from their readers. That is one of the motivations why a person writes. It is for somebody. You cannot write a book for yourself. And when you do, it’s always at the back of your mind how would people react.

With that thing in mind, you want to reach the maximum people. There in, the realistic perspective comes into play. If I’ve produced a book and it has to be read by maximum people, then I’ve to opt for some realistic measures. Marketing and all. It helps because the big industry runs like that. Unless you’re a celebrity.

So, based on what an author expects, it might turn out different from what eventually it turns out to be. And then again some of the literature has been rediscovered after 100 years. So, yes, we cannot be sure.

What kind of audience you had in mind when you were writing this book?

I had only Kashmiris in mind when I wrote it. Because the things I’ve mentioned in the book, Kashmiris will be more comfortable reading about them and identifying with them. People who are non-Kashmiris, they might’ve to get a feel of it, get an understanding of it.

I’ll give you an example. I’ve written about how marriages happen here. Somebody who’s not acquainted with the process, will take time to understand. So, the first readership of my book are the Kashmiri people.

But then, some of your audience is already exposed to so much of non-fiction, which in case of Kashmir, is strangely stranger than fiction. As a fiction writer, did this idea strike you or challenge you?

That is a very interesting question. I’ll try to explain it with an analogy.

We’ve digital cameras now. And I’m a big fan of photography. Sometimes I take my camera and I want to capture a particular frame which I see. Lately, I’ve been seeing that some of the digital cameras we have, have a better picture quality than what we already have.

When you’re a writer, you’ve to describe a particular scene. You always have a choice whether to reproduce it the way it happened, or add some spice to make it appealing and palatable to the audience.

That would be ethically wrong. Because I believe a true picture sells more than a photoshopped one. But sometimes author gets a feeling that if it doesn’t have drama, if it doesn’t have spicy content, readers won’t like it. But you cannot take a human character for granted…

But don’t you think it’s a challenge for emerging novelists from Kashmir to create acceptance in the ‘outspoken’ generation who read and debate Camus, Dostoevsky and other literary giants, like never before?

See these prejudices would always be there. We’ve seen how two people produce good stuff, but neither of them appreciate each other’s work. This thing is becoming more and more acute in the new generation.

I don’t know, if it is happening at the societal level or some larger level. But we’ve become excessively individualistic. Lack of appreciation is something that is affecting how we value people, authors and literature now.

So, in these times, how big is the challenge for a writer like you to deliver the message?

It’s a very big challenge actually. Because you’ve a generation who doesn’t know that past that I’m privy to, and when you’re trying to show them that past, you aren’t sure whether they would appreciate it or not.

And at the same time, you’ve kept your expectations very low from the generation who’ll say, “I can write a better poem or a piece”.

Coming back to your book, how much time did it take you to write it?

It took me 10 years to preserve the story and 2 months to write it down. The biggest challenge for me was to preserve the story. The point is, when you have the story in your head, it takes lesser time to type it.

But to get the details, to keep them there, to remove certain elements, that was all going in my head for 10 years.

So, in a way, it was a daily struggle to preserve and tell this story?

It wasn’t a struggle, but there were certain periods when I had to go through the whole storyline. I might’ve lost some important developments in the 10 year period. At the end of the day, it also depends on the reader.

If a reader tells me, remember the 90s, there used to be this particular thing, then I realize that I should’ve kept it there. Again, the most important thing for a writer is that he should keep his memories intact because when he sits down, if he doesn’t have all the good memories, he won’t be able to produce a good manuscript.

While you were safekeeping those memories, which authors shaped your writing?

In school only, we used to have a book by Orient Longman. It was a British standard book. It was back then called GulMohar English. It had a very fine compilation of short stories of American and European authors. It had a slight slant towards British literature. So I cannot say precisely, which author inspired and shaped my writing.

But yes, I would say that the book had an impact on me. It was the collective perspective of all those authors in that book that inspired me. Moreover, it has also inspired my colleagues.

To conclude, how did Srinagar influence you as a writer?

Srinagar holds a very important place in Kashmir. Not only because it has been a political centre for hundreds of years, it has also influenced people many ways. One of the ways is that it has ensured some kind of freedom to ask questions.

Shoeb Hamid, it was lovely talking to you!

My pleasure.


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