Journeying Through the Kashmiri Mind: A Review of Vignettes: Short Stories from Kashmir

Zeenat Khan, MCM DAV College for Women, Chandigarh (India)

Tasleem Ahmad War (Translator), Jay Kay Books, Srinagar, 2015, pp. 167 (Hardcover), ISBN: 978-93-83908-50-9, 695 INR

Literature and life are inseparable from each other. Literature mirrors the life of an era as it translates, preserves and immortalises hopes, aspirations and socio-cultural ethos of that particular period of time. On the other hand, life in turn is also greatly transformed by literature. Hence, the vitality of exploration of literary forms or genres to portray life to its best possible essence has always been felt. Dating back to oral traditions of folk tales and ballads, the genre of short story is perhaps the oldest of all. In India, the short story writing was pioneered by Munshi Prem Chand in Hindi and Saadat Hasan Manto in Urdu. Apart from entertainment, the stories are integral part of human growth and learning. They deepen, widen and expand our understanding of life. It will not be extravagant to say that good stories nurture the soul of a human being.

Translated from Kashmiri into English by Tasleem Ahmad War, the book Vignettes: Short Stories from Kashmir takes the reader into a sojourn to the hidden vistas of human mind. Each sip on this set of nineteen stories is like a dip into a new world waiting to be discovered. All the collected stories are penned by different writers and thus each has a flavour of its own. The translation very deftly retains the originality of each and every story, and does not interfere with the individual taste of any. One effortlessly identifies with the characters of the stories that are individuals as well as types belonging to one and all.

The “Introduction to the Short Story in Kashmir” is the soul of this book. It is well researched, significant and informative. It traces the history of short story in Kashmir in a linear manner starting from the Progressive Movement in 1931 through the establishment of ‘Halque Arbab Zauk’ in 1940 to the contemporary times. The contribution of the important writers in the development of the genre of short story has been sketched meticulously. It brings one abreast with the eminent names on the literary canvas of the culturally rich valley of Kashmir. It is a must read part of the book which lays a sound foundation for the stories in the volume. Brief write ups about each writer are also given at the end of the “Introduction.”

The collection begins with “Bear Dance” by Samina Ashraf which brings out pathos in the garb of humour in a subtle way. The way educated but unemployed Shams gets a menial and embarrassing job in a zoo is utterly saddening. The story represents the compromises a person is forced to make when her/his stomach is empty. In a similar league is the story “Poundage” by Amin Kamil which being a brisk satire on the entire system conveys the manipulative nature of money power which can very conveniently tailor any truth into a lie. Another moving story in the collection is “The Pilferer” by Sofi Ghulam Ahmad which at once touches many problems like unemployment, child labour and class exploitation faced by our country today. In this story Muhammad is seen as a ray of hope who tries to enlighten Gani and Abdullah, and makes effort to free them from the clutches of Sultan Sofi. All the above mentioned stories carry strong social messages in them which are very much relevant to the contemporary times. They sensitize one toward the surroundings in which one is living and invoke in her/him compassion for the fellow human beings who are undergoing some sort of struggle in their lives.

The “Short Story” by Gulshan Majid is a mirthful narrative about a lost shoe which puts one in a lighter mood, and similarly “Cock Fight” by Amin Kamil is a gleeful tale with local and regional hue. The striking feature of these stories is the images which transport one to the countryside of the Valley. “Trauma” and “Fortune” by Akhtar Mohiddin also have a pinch of local colour in them. The first one is about a connection with the Divine where the world is seen as a scavenger and is constantly against the innocent. The second one is a highly symbolic story which talks about the role of fate in human life. Though the story has an abrupt ending with no well-defined plot, it leaves one with a yearning for knowing what the writer wants to convey.

Loss and alienation are major themes in the stories “Macabre Thoughts” and “Alter Ego.” The man appears divorced from emotionality and empathy in these two stories. The strange coldness and barrenness of human heart is piercing in both the tales. Hari K Koul’s “The Roasted Fish” is an emblematic tale and carries features of folklore in it. Another story from the same writer “It is Night at the Moment” is a tale of three people from different sections of the society. Koul has presented three different perspectives of life through the character delineation of these three who are caught en route in the difficult terrain of Ramban due to heavy rain and have to spend one night together. There is some philosophic strain too in the story. The story “Some Poses, Some Snaps” by Bashir Akhtar showcases glimpses from different spheres of the Kashmiri life. The repeated lines in the story, “The one who was watching it from above smiled with Himself. I took out my camera and clicked a snap,” trigger a thought process and provides food for thought. Pain and distress are rendered to the extreme by Amin Kamil in “Shroud Thief.” It is a macabre and tragic tale about the meaning of the loss of a son for an old mother. The story uncannily riddles around the elements of horror. On the other hand, “A Revelatory Moment” is about lost glory, lost hopes, mental agony, chaos and void. One witnesses the importance and vitality of faith and belief in “Till I Burnt My Own Fingers” by Bansi Nirdosh. Here, Ganga Dhar, the protagonist, who appears to be eccentric to all his acquaintances, is a representative of the two sides of single person—belief and disbelief. This emotional story demands a deep plunge into the importance of prayer and its repercussions on the human psyche.

The endeavour of War is highly laudable in two respects: firstly, the book draws attention to the local literature which mostly lies unleashed, undiscovered and ignored; secondly, this work of translation gives the readers from all over the world, a chance to enjoy a few good stories. Except for a few typos, Vignettes: Short Stories from Kashmir is a striking book which hopefully will motivate many others to follow the footsteps of War in exploring and promoting the regional literature(s). Congratulations and thank you Tasleem War for providing the rare opportunity to rendezvous with the Kashmiri writing in such an exquisite way.

Zeenat Khan, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of English at MCM DAV College for Women, Chandigarh (India). Her areas of interest are Postcolonialism, Cultural Studies, Contemporary Fiction and Diaspora Literature. Along with research articles in different journals, she has published An Exordium: General English Textbook which is prescribed for the first year engineering students at Baddi University, Solan.