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For Manav Kaul, travel and writing go together

The playwright and actor who is staging his new play, ‘Tumhaare Baare Mein’, talks about his birthplace, Kashmir, and why he travels to the mountains to write

Manav Kaul in Aru valley, Kashmir, 2022.
Manav Kaul in Aru valley, Kashmir, 2022. (Sugandha Garg)

Manav Kaul says his memory is rooted in spaces and food. “If I picture Khwaja Bagh,” he says, referring to the colony in Baramulla, Kashmir, where he was born, “I can actually draw each and every lane of my colony. I forget people but not places and taste.”

White walls, blue door and blue skies—these are the memories that the 46-year-old author, playwright, actor and director has of Khwaja Bagh, where he lived till he was in class IV. The family moved to Hoshangabad—Kaul’s maternal home—in Madhya Pradesh, though his father continued to work in Kashmir till militancy struck. Kaul says his childhood memories are mixed up with Kashmir and Hoshangabad, where he grew up. “They both feel the same sometimes.”

Growing up, Kaul visited Kashmir only once after leaving the Valley. It took him another 27 years to travel back, in 2016. He returned again in 2022—in between, his father had died and the colony in Khwaja Bagh had been demolished. For Kaul, Kashmir and his father are inextricably linked. “Were my father and the home at Khwaja Bagh actually one?” he reflects in his stream-of-consciousness novel Rooh, the culmination of his two trips to Kashmir. Published in Hindi last year, its English translation, by Pooja Priyamvada, is out now.

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Kaul, who has authored 10 books in Hindi, inhabits a lot of spaces because he’s “afraid of getting bored”. He is in theatre mode right now; his new experimental play, Tumhaare Baare Mein—not adapted from his novel of the same name—opens at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai on 27-28 May and will travel to Jaipur, Pune and Bengaluru. Kaul also gets into an “acting rut”, where he only “acts and reads”. And when he’s not doing theatre or films, he travels—”travel and writing go well together”. Edited excerpts from an interview:

‘Rooh’, though fiction, reads like a personal account, almost autobiographical.

If you read my other books, they all sound very personal. I like that kind of writing—like in Albert Camus’ The Outsider. I find it mesmerising when I read fiction that sounds like a personal journey. It’s a conscious choice to write like that. And, yes, when I am talking about Kashmir, it should sound more personal than my other writing.

The trips to Kashmir, were they about going back to your roots?

Khwaja Bagh always used to come in my dreams—a place where the sky was absolutely blue. Because we left when I was very young, I had no idea when I was talking about Kashmir and when I was talking about my father. And when my father died, that loss of Kashmir and my father hit me hard. When I was writing (Rooh), I had no idea what I was actually writing about—was I discovering or rediscovering my father? Or was it that I wanted to smell my father? It’s a very thin line.... There is so much in your subconscious. I had no idea I had so much in me to write about.

Was writing the book cathartic?

You can say that. The English version of Rooh has an epilogue. It is the first thing that I wrote after my father died. I thought it would be interesting to include it in the book, which is on Kashmir and my father. The reader will understand the loss, the irony and the pathos.

What influences you?

I have done theatre all my life but my influences have always been literature and films. My playwriting is also very literature-driven. Even when I am developing my scenes, they are very visual. And, I am always reading. I have finished reading A Book Of Light, edited by Jerry Pinto, and Sex At Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha; now I am reading Elena Ferrante’s Troubling Love. I mostly watch international cinema; I love MUBI, the channel, it has some of the best curated films. I consume a little bit here and there but not too much.

Rooh, by Manav Kaul, Penguin Random House India, 149 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499.
Rooh, by Manav Kaul, Penguin Random House India, 149 pages, 499.

You say your writing begins when you are thoroughly bored.

I don’t mean boredom in the general sense. It is the boredom when I am up in the mountains, somewhere in Uttarakhand or Himachal, and I am staying there for two-three months, especially when it’s raining. You live a very basic life. You have so much time and so much silence and that is when something out of the ordinary happens (in writing). That is the writing I like. And for that you have to wait; you have to give it a lot of time and space.

Is that the reason you travel?

Yes, that’s why I travel solo a lot and usually to the mountains/forests or to places where not many people can recognise me. For instance, on my last trip, I was in Scandinavia for two months.

The pandemic-induced lockdowns must have been productive then?

I wrote my first novel (Antima); Shirt Ka Teesra Button (also a novel); a poetry collection, Karta Ne Karm Se; and a short story collection, Chalta Phirta Pret, during that time. And I read a lot, lot and lot.

You don’t discard anything you write...

I have a lot of folders on my laptop and I keep dumping whatever I write there. I started writing short stories around the same time that I started writing plays (2001-02). I must have written 21-22 short stories and I had no idea that these were short stories and I could publish them. I published my first collection in 2016 (Theek Tumhare Peechhe). These stories were always on my laptop. When I am editing, say for the 15th or the 18th time, that is the only time I am deleting things.

You mention you were an outsider in Hoshangabad, trying to fit in by hiding your Kashmiri-ness? What does being a Kashmiri mean to you?

It’s not about Kashmiri people or the Kashmir everyone talks about. My Kashmir is very personal—it’s rooted in the kitchen of our home in Khwaja Bagh, sitting with my father, mother and brother and having kehwa (tea) and lavasa (bread). It’s a very emotional and missing-the-house kind of Kashmiri-ness. It’s my childhood that I miss.

Kashmiri food staples like ‘sheerchai’ (pink tea), ‘lavasa’, ‘haakh-batta’ (collard greens and rice) come up often in the book.

It's my childhood taste; it's always there in my head. When I went back and had lavasa, I was missing this taste... because you don't get these things anywhere else. It's the same like samosa and jalebi from Hoshangabad, you cannot get that kind of taste anywhere else.

You write in ‘Rooh’ that “Kashmir is sounding like my life, which is not heading anywhere”.

I don’t know how to articulate this. Writing, in the end, doesn’t give you anything. Be it any form of art, you are never going to be fully satisfied. I have published 10 books till now, I can see them, but they don’t give me anything.... You always want to strive for something else, something new. That’s what an artistic life is. What gives me joy is the act of writing. Every day I get up at 4.30am or 5.30am and I sit in front of my laptop with a cup of coffee. That is the happiest I am.

Do you regret not being able to speak Kashmiri?

I regret that a lot—especially when I was in Kashmir. I could understand the language but I could not communicate, and this frustrated me. In Hoshangabad, we were so busy adapting to the place and making sure that we were accepted...I think these are the reasons we lost the language, for survival there, and nothing else.

Tumhaare Baare Mein will be staged at the NCPA Experimental Theatre, Mumbai, 27-28 May (5pm, 7pm); Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur, 3-4 June; The Box, Pune, 18 June; Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai, 20-22 June; July-end at Ranga Shankara, Bengaluru.

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

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