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'Kashmiri doesn't come naturally to most people': Neerja Mattoo

Writer Neerja Mattoo talks about her new book, women poets, why Kashmiris are not writing short stories and the state of the language

Neerja Mattoo during a session at the 2017 Jaipur Literature Festival.
Neerja Mattoo during a session at the 2017 Jaipur Literature Festival. (JLF on YouTube)

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When Neerja Mattoo took her first collection of Kashmiri short stories translated in English—The Stranger Beside Me: Short Stories From Kashmir (1994)—to the publisher in Delhi, he said, "Okay, we will think about it, but can you suggest someone who can write a book on Kashmiri cookery". Mattoo decided to write the book herself, consulting her mother, who was an excellent cook. "People tell me the recipes work well," she chuckles.

Mattoo has published six books, including The Mystic And The Lyric in 2019, where she has translated the four women poets of Kashmir (14th-18th centuries): Lal Ded, Habba Khatoon, Rupa Bhawani and Arnimal. Her new book, The Greatest Kashmiri Stories Ever Told: Selected And Translated By Neerja Mattoo (Aleph Book Company), features early practitioners of the craft like Diananth Nadim—his Reply-paid Card (1948) is considered to be the first Kashmiri short story—Somnath Zutshi, Sufi Ghulam Mohammad and contemporary writers like Dheeba Nazir.

Speaking on the phone from Srinagar, Mattoo, now 83, says: “I thought by translating stories into English, Kashmiris themselves would have more respect for their literature. Many of them have read these writers for the first time in translation only.”

Also Read: 'Kashmiris are easy to intimidate and subdue'

Once, she recalls, a Delhi University professor told her that he did not know that a Kashmiri language existed. “I was both shocked and surprised. We Kashmiris are proud of the fact that our language is probably one of the oldest languages in India. I realised that people need to know that there is this language and it has a very old literature, recorded from 14th century onwards.”

In her new book, you see the stories evolving, from serving up realistic sketches of Kashmiri life to reflecting broader themes and changing times. For instance, Poshikuj in Deepak Kaul’s Radhakrishna’s Cat, who is always stuck to her post at the window, could be the nosy woman in any neighbourhood. Hriday Kaul Bharati departs from the traditional mould with his Kafkaesque The Stranger Beside Me, while Bashir Akhtar’s Some Tableaux, Some Snaps is an attempt at modernism, and Ghulam Nabi Shakir writes subtly about a woman’s desire in Unquenched Thirst.

Mattoo taught English literature for four decades at the Government College for Women in Srinagar. When she joined the college at the age of 20, at the insistence of the then principal, Mehmooda Ahmed Ali Shah, there was chaos in the family—it was not the norm for Kashmiri Pandit women to take up a job. “My father, though he was modern, was worried that now nobody would marry me. But I stuck to my guns and I am glad I did that,” she laughs. Edited excerpts from the interview:

What was the criteria for selecting these stories, given the title says “greatest”?

The best short stories (in Kashmiri) were written sometime ago—these are authors who have really done something remarkable. I was more guided by that I wanted these authors to be represented. I think I have chosen the best they had to offer. Short-story writing requires a sense of technique, a sense of structure, a kind of discipline. Today, you find very few people who are writing good stories. They find it easier to write in verse, where they don’t have to submit to a certain structure.

The Greatest Kashmiri Stories Ever Told: Selected and Translated by Neerja Mattoo, Aleph Book Company, 164 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699.
The Greatest Kashmiri Stories Ever Told: Selected and Translated by Neerja Mattoo, Aleph Book Company, 164 pages, 699.

What struck me is that there are only two women writers out of 25 in the book.

That also required a lot of research. I felt bad that as far as poetry is concerned, there are these wonderful women voices (like Lal Ded and Habba Khatoon). Prose in Kashmir came late and short story came in the middle of the last century. That time women wrote but not short stories, except for Taj Begum Renzu, who was exceptional that she wrote in the late 1940s and early 1950s. As far as short stories are concerned, I could only find one contemporary writer, Dheeba Nazir. These days there are good women poets.

In many of the stories, the writings reflect a shared Kashmiri culture and identity. How did 1990 and thereafter change things?

You will see it more in the people who have left the Valley. Most of their work is in one way or the other related to the loss of their homeland. There was no divide before 1990—the vocabulary of the authors was the same. But if you now read things by Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims, you will find the vocabulary has undergone a change. The vocabulary used in the Valley has become more Persianised, Arabic words are also predominant—they are used to thinking in Urdu, which has many of these terms. The language of the people who have left the Valley is a bit Sanskritised. There is the problem of the script. People outside the Valley use the Devanagari script with modifications while those in the Valley use Persian Nastaliq with various changes, which has now become the official script. The interaction not being there, I feel is going to affect the ability of one community to understand what the other community is saying in their writings.

Given that Kashmiri was not even taught in schools till some years back, what is the state of the language today?

The unfortunate thing is that students find this the most difficult part of their curriculum because they don't speak the language at home. They are only spoken to in Urdu or English, because they (parents) think these are the languages for progress. You will not find a child of four-five years old—in urban setting—who will speak naturally in Kashmiri. Parents also don't speak. That's a pity and a huge loss. It is something that should be rectified.

You took up translation seriously in 1990...

In the early 1990s, when there was so much destruction in Kashmir, I thought we would lose everything, because people were running away. The whole cultural fabric had broken up and I thought I had to do something. And I decided to translate some short stories—fortunately I knew most of these writers. The title of the first collection was borrowed from Hriday Kaul Bharati's story in the book.

You have also translated the four women poets of Kashmir.

I realised the two main streams of Kashmiri poetry, mysticism and lyricism, were both introduced by women. Lal Ded was the first practitioner of mystic poetry and Habba Khatoon of romantic lyric poetry. The two other women followed in their trail. Rupa Bhawani in the mystic way, and Arnimal in the lyrical stream. I found these women had a distinct voice. They were quite exceptional because the age in which they lived, they didn't allow society to throttle them. They spoke out loud and clear. They in a way were one of the first proponents of the idea that a woman has her own sensibilities and she needs to talk about it.

That's the reverse of what happened in the 1990s?

Exactly. That's what I feel so bad about. In my own lifetime I have seen things going into reverse gear. Because when we were students, the whole world was there for us. The sky was the limit as far as our aspirations were concerned. Kashmiri students are deprived of all that today. It's a remarkable thing that they study and achieve things despite all the difficulties. We were privileged in that sense.

How do you capture the peculiarities of a language without losing the essence while translating?

I grew up with these two languages—it is possible for me to think simultaneously in Kashmiri and English. At home we used to speak Kashmiri. My father, who was a professor of English, used to make us listen to BBC—we had a Marconi radio—and the language of serious discussion in the house was English. Also, he was very fond of Kashmiri music, we used to have these sessions of Sufiana music. So, I was familiar with Kashmiri poetry. I must have probably absorbed the character of both the languages.

Is there an audience for Kashmiri writing?

A lot is being written in Kashmiri but see the language doesn't come naturally to most people. It's an academic kind of exercise. People prefer to write in English because it has a wider audience. They feel who will read in Kashmiri.

What are you planning next?

I may do something about present-day women poets like Naseem Shafaie and Nighat Sahiba, who write in Kashmiri. They have a feminist voice, use the modern idiom and are understandable. It is not a distinctly Hindu or Muslim voice. Women, I feel, have a broader outlook.

Also Read: A Kashmiri Pandit reckons with an irreversible cultural loss

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