Whatever literature, small or big, is wrought out in Kashmir, is largely either in English or occasionally in Urdu. Not many writers take to Kashmiri, their first language.
Absorbing the questions, perceptively framing the replies, succinct smiles, and sorting the assorted thoughts, Asif wears a constant demeanor.
Soaking in the sunlight coming piercing through into the room, he revisits his own times in mind with shades of contentment on his face. He carefully measures the outpour of thoughts, when asked about the latest trend of young people readily getting to publishing, while the recognition not being anywhere proportional to the bulk produced.
“Writing a book might be easy,” Asif quips, “but writing a good book is not.”
For one to be able to write even a short story, he says, one must have read at least a hundred, and should have an immersive reading experience.
Talking about youngsters, he says, it could be that their prompt in itself is not to produce good literature, it might well be that their elders or parents are telling them to publish something for people to know them across and beyond.
“About youngsters getting to publishing so quickly, I reckon that perhaps there is a lack of ‘sabr’ (patience),” he says. “Perhaps, great effort and energy are not put into reading as much, or to know if such work has been produced before. If yes, then what makes theirs different?”
Not much thought might be given to what must be the appealing aspect of their work, or whether is it even worthwhile to be producing the same kind of work, will it hold any value, he reckons. “A writer must always bring something new to the readers. Also, the role of publishing houses is quite pronounced. It all boils down to business after all and certain self-publishing houses do not even bother to tell these novices that perhaps they need to rework, or their books need to be refurbished. If only they would take it more seriously, work with the authors on their manuscript, gauge its credentials and caliber, and refine it again and again then maybe a good piece might be produced. It shall help people as well in deciding whether or not writing is their realm and if they should explore other areas. Substantiating what I mentioned, refining is a process that demands immense patience.”
Aged 25, Asif Tariq Bhat is the youngest to author a novel in Kashmiri at times when Kashmiri as a language is more or less dwindling.
The first edition of the book published by ‘Ali Mohammad & Sons’ is all sold out with the second edition under process, bearing insightful critiques and remarks.
Recollecting his small journey of publishing, Asif had three publishers in mind- Gulshan, Ali Mohammad & Sons, and Meezan.
“Unfortunately,” he says, “some of these publishers brushed me away saying they already have a lot of work in progress and there is no room for more, some blatantly said that they have stopped publishing in Kashmiri.”
However, destiny had its own play and he culminated at Ali Mohammad & Sons.
“It was not a cakewalk there,” he says. “I presented the draft of my manuscript, and they returned it 11 times, saying it needs more refinement, needs more undergirding, needs more editing. It was at the 12th time that they were satisfied with the draft and waved a green flag. It was only then that I was able to get to publishing, and only then my book turned out so well. Had I not undergone that process, perhaps I wouldn’t have produced a book that sold out all of the first editions.”
Having chosen a nonconformist and idiosyncratic approach at a fairly young age, Asif stirs some thought about the ‘why’ of it.
“I’ve been a fervid reader of Kashmiri literature all along,” he says. “There is a void in the genre of novel writing in Kashmiri literature. Not that novels have not been written but just a few, and that is a meager quantity. I wanted to reignite the embers of novel writing and thus I aimed at writing one.”
He does see quite a lot of poems in Kashmiri being published by magazines or newspapers, here and there.
“Poetry is vivacious in Kashmiri but prose yet needs significant attention,” he says. “Having absorbed a multitude of novels and prose in literature, I always felt despondent about the precarious condition of novel writing in Kashmir. Highly fond of Russian literature, particularly of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, I’ve read most of his work, which was originally written in the Russian language. Some of his books like ‘Cancer Ward’ or ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ (he won the Nobel Prize for) have fared exceptionally well, and still continue to be translated. People are ardently following his work. Such instances piqued me to think that if literature originally written in Russian can cause such strong undying currents throughout the world, what can possibly stop Kashmiri literature?”
Undoubtedly, he says, Russia is a mammoth community but still, the language is not as domineering as English or other global languages.
“Not going too far for another example, Paulo Coelho’s ‘The Alchemist’ is the talk of every town. It is foreign to none, and must nearly be on everybody’s bookshelf. Nevertheless, not many would be aware that it was originally written in Portuguese, and was later translated into other languages. I asked myself if they can do it, what can possibly stop us, or what is stopping us.”
Literature of other lesser-known languages is taking the world by storm, Asif says, then perhaps Kashmiri literature also has unexplored potential.
“The best thing about any first language is that one tends to think in that language. It is the language of your thoughts in your head. Therefore, when you think and also write in the same language, the organic essence of your thought is preserved in a magical way. The work comes along more intricately with refined artistry. With all these thoughts, I ventured into the world of literature. Not many would read my work but I’m very content with all those who will. Tem chini sirf paran vael kihn, tem chi saran vael (because they are not only readers, they are prudent and sagacious readers.”
So invested in preserving and maintaining the essence and quiddity of the Kashmiri language, Asif has also launched an online program for teaching Kashmiri to the enthusiasts of the language.
Reminiscing the late Rehman Rahi, with a grim expression, Asif calls on the veteran’s words expressing love for his language and wanting Kashmiri to be taken to newer horizons so that people would be able to appreciate its beauty and finesse more.
Hooked on the same thought, Asif says he conceived the idea of starting his Kashmiri Speaking Classes (formerly named – Kashir Booel). Doling out free classes at first, Asif wanted to set about a welcoming space for the enthusiasts of the language.
“But certain people would join just for the purpose of poking fun at others or for the merry chase, without any zeal or interest to learn. Therefore, I arrived at charging money for the classes to keep away all the nuisance,” remarks Asif. “I’ve had students from distant places like Goa and New Zealand. Eleven successful batches have been accomplished hitherto, while not charging for the first four batches. I’ve observed fervor and assiduity in a lot of learners of Kashmiri as a language. I’ve regained the momentum now, and the ongoing batch is of 27 students and we are going well.”
These Kashmiri Speaking Classes are the first of their kind and Asif says that he wants to get them to prominence and make many more people aware.
Studying Kashmiri Literature, Asif is pursuing Masters at Central University Kashmir. To start with, he wrote for Sangarmal and Cultural Academy, sometimes short stories and poetry at others.
Reflecting on the rejections faced by writers with publishing houses, Asif evinces, “Rejection is a cure for any writer. It allows a writer to whittle out gems from gold. It pushes a writer to add so much more depth and profusion of vision, leading a writer to higher levels of confidence. At this stage, writers also develop great faith in their work, and patience propels them to make much more attempts. It is then that they know, perhaps some will reject but not all will or if today is not the time, tomorrow it has to be. Manifold, I was also rejected, however, today Khwaban Khyalan Manz is undergoing translation and we shall be reaching out to Harper Collins for it.”
The young Kashmiri author considers reading as oxygen for a writer. “One has to have an ocean of books within,” he says. “Often while reading, a writer comes to realize their style of writing and finds resonance with other writers. As I was reading Akhtar Moihuddin and Sadat Hassan Manto, I really resonated with their form and style of writing. Having explored that, I absorbed their work more extensively and also refined and improvised on my writing as well. That’s how reading makes a difference.”
Accentuating his words clearly for a stronger emphasis, Asif talks about hastened publishing, editing and mentorship in Kashmir.
“It took me six months to write the book but took me three years to taste satisfaction or to roll onto the stage where I felt ready to publish,” he recalls. “In those three years, I ground away all that I could for the book. I reshaped and revamped the characters, made changes to important climactic events, and read and wrote over and over. I’m not a great writer, I’ve a lot to learn yet, but I keep trying. I believe a writer should beam with contentment when they see their work on paper, and if that happens, it is only after that they should think of publishing. A writer must be happy and content with their work for others to like it.”
Mentorship in Kashmir, he believes, needs attention. “Our natural reflex is to run to our teachers for help. We tend to think they will rectify our mistakes and review our work. However, the worst I got to hear was that you have written a book, so do you think that is the end of the world? When things tell upon your self-respect, it does pull you down rendering you demotivated. I did think of giving up on the idea of publishing my book until I met Shafi Shauq and he guided my way forward. I was fortunate enough to cross paths with Shabir Ahmed Ganaie, who I could turn to for help with editing. Had I not crossed paths with them at a science fiction symposium, perhaps I would not have published.”
To market a book efficiently, critiques and reviews are fairly paramount, Asif avers. “It stirs the talks about the book in the literary circles and things follow from there onwards. The extra onus, I feel, also falls upon the writer, and the writer must be areligious and apolitical in their work.”
Culminating into the talk about the book, Asif’s voice filled with zeal and passion and gleam in the eyes.
“My book is an allegory and a factual fiction, as I call it, and it’s about a boy who is dismissed and disdained by his community as a bad omen. The turn of events is such that the boy happens to be a blessing for another community at a place he travels to. Arham, the name of the boy meets a girl Isra, and both of them find a reflection of their lives in each other. The story is set in an Arabian setting and ends with a great climax, thence the name Khwaban Khayalan Manz.”