I got to know about Nitasha Kaul through her first novel Residue, the book’s spine peeped at me from among the other books kept on my roommate’s table in the girl’s hostel in Kashmir University. The name and the cover of the book attracted me the time but I did not read it just then. I read the novel after coming back home. I found the protagonist and other characters very familiar to me from my experience in Kashmir. Leon Ali typifies a common Kashmiri person who is alienated in his own land, and in other places wrestles with his memories. My interest grew in knowing more about Nitasha. I read her other writings about Kashmir and gender issues- to many people these articles would be considered merely scholarly but to me these are gems that provide a different perspective on things.
Before knowing Nitasha Kaul, the only other Kashmiri author I knew was Salman Rushdie. So Nitasha was unique not only for the fact that her novel Residue was shortlisted for Man Asian literary award, but also for her stance on the rights of Kashmiris. It is difficult to describe Nitasha Kaul in a few words. The description on her website can give an idea about her: “She is a Kashmiri novelist, academic, poet, economist, artist who lives in London. She often finds herself speaking to, engaged with, writing and addressing, and part of, specific audiences who do not speak much to each other: economists, novelists, poets, feminists, economic social and political justice activists, politics and international relations theorists, musicians and filmmakers, Bhutan scholars, Kashmiris, street-artists, academic philosophers (to name a few).” She is a polymath and also multilingual. For all these reasons, I wanted to interview her for Prachya Review as I believe most of our readers should know more about Kashmiri authors. I am very thankful to Riyaz Ahangar who helped me to contact Nitasha for the interview. The interview was recorded orally through whatsapp, and the transcription retains that conversational quality.
Shafinur Shafin: You are a novelist, economist, and educator. You are also very vocal about Kashmir issues. One could even identify you as a political activist. Which identity gives you more comfort?
Nitasha Kaul: Hi Shafinur and the Prachya Review team. So your first question to me concerns the fact that I have multiple identities as a novelist, economist, academic and so on and you want to know which identity is most comfortable for me. There is no straightforward answer to this. Each of those identities that I have or wish to possess are equally dear to me and they become salient in different contexts. They allow me to engage with the world analytically as well as affectively so as to be able to analyze and make sense of what I see as well as to be able to look at my experiences- the raw sensation of the world- and I think that comes through in my academic work and scholarly work on the one hand and my creative, poetic and literary work on the other. So there isn’t an identity that is more comfortable than any others; it depends on the context, the world is multiple, it has many modes of being and I inhabit some of them and very often these modes intersect and that for me is how I would want to be.
Shafinur: When and how did you start writing and are there any particular writers that influenced you?
Nitasha: So I would like to actually begin by saying that I can’t remember when it was that I fell in love with words and the way in which they made the world. And the significance, I think, of stories is that they are narratives that shape our understanding of the world and what we perceive to be doing. We often actually act on the basis of narrative and stories that we’ve told ourselves. We come to believe stories and that is the magic of narrative, of stories, and literally of words which are the basic blocks, the cells of thought, just as the body is made up of cells. And you know, just as the world is made up of particles of physical matter, particles of our lives are made up of words and in so many ways, big and small, all we do is trade words- interact with words, live in words and so the idea of when I started writing really is very closely tied to when I started reading. In very early childhood when I wanted to make sense of the world around me, I turned to words. I would also read a lot as a child. I was, at any time, the member of multiple libraries even during schooldays, so I would read a lot, when I would finish reading a book or stories or novel whatever, I would always end up wondering about what happened to these characters. Afterwards, I would make up stories in my mind and I think that facility for transporting oneself in time, that ability to imagine things that books give us, is really fundamental and something to be cherished and something that is beyond compare. Because there are many other ways in which we can engage with images and words, but I think just the act of reading and writing is…. there is something very magical about it. It really is the beginning of something when we put pen to paper, or these days, type something on a screen- words which can begin stories. Are there particular writers that influenced me? Oh ! Several! Numerous! An incredibly large number to even think about! I think what I would really like to do is go through hundreds of names instead of having a list of writers. I think I would like to emphasize is that I always liked reading, and letting myself be influenced by writers who write from drastically different traditions. So at any time there were European authors, South Asian authors, nineteen century German authors, ancient people who wrote in Rome, people who wrote at the time of enlightenment Europe, people who wrote in the twentieth century. As they say I read like a butterfly and I think that from very early on that was something I consciously tried to do. My interest in the authors I like, or have been influenced by, or would like to cite, would range the entire gamut from Premchand to Shishkin to Mishima to Dante to Sartre to Ralph Ellison, too numerous, far too numerous a set of names. However, there are two things I do want to point out in this context and those two things are that growing up and in fact up until my graduation, I read a lot but I wasn’t really aware that I was mostly reading men, and secondly that there were specific literatures that were underrepresented in South Asian libraries at the time, for instance, African literature. There was something systemic and something institutional happening there that in the last decades we have decoded, understood, and addressed. How certain kinds of stories circulate and how certain authors circulate. So I think that is a conscious step. Not one of the writers I just named to you is Muslim or a woman. So, in later years, I actively sought out and read women, people from everywhere else and those who were obscure, outside the canon or forgotten. Even in my novel I tried to foreground in one of the conversations between the characters, on how so often the stories that circulate so much more are the stories written by men or privileged men or men from a certain part of the world. I think that the more aware we are of this kind of thing- the issues of the location of the author- the better it is, because it allows us to then consciously go against the grain of a conventional idea of who the author is and what ‘he’ does? To discover other interesting stories and so in recent times I have tried much more to read works by other kinds of authors with identities that have been submerged because of geography or gender or sexuality or so on. So that is something that I wish I could have had more of in early years.
Shafinur: How was your childhood? Any particular incident that remains vivid in your mind?
Nitasha: Oh!… I mean that is an enormous question and I am not sure how would one answer that in an interview. How was my childhood… like perhaps many other childhoods it was marked by the good and the bad, the sorrowful and the joyous, the mundane and the extraordinary? So, it is… I suppose in the space of an interview answer it’s hard to come up with any sensible generalization about my childhood… However, it was marked by a sense of the complexity of my identity and that is something that I could make sense of much later after growing up, because you know we are Kashmiris but we are not in Kashmir and I think that meant something that wasn’t understandable to me or properly comprehensible to me as a child, that happened much later. In terms of incidents that remain vivid, those are numerous… what do I tell you?… Since you asked me this question, I will literally just pull randomly out of my head, a memory that might be of interest to your readers… there was once this time that- at Dussehra the statues of Ravan and all the fireworks, these go up in flames- I remember once that I attended this big spectacle of fireworks and I came back with a doll that was almost the same size as me and the next day I wanted to see it all again and my parents, my mother and father both, told me that it only happens on one day of the year, it doesn’t happen every day and I refused to believe them. My father was downstairs in the building where we lived and my mother was upstairs, so I told my mother that I am going to downstairs to be with my dad and I told my dad that I am actually going upstairs and somehow in all of that… Because I refused to trust them that it wouldn’t happen again and I was so convinced that I wanted to find my way back to where the fireworks would be there again and I wanted to watch that incredible spectacle again. So, clutching my doll I ran away from home and I must have been, I don’t know… very small at the time… six… five… I don’t know… small… less than ten anyway and I remember that… and of course I had no idea the sheer panic that I would cause everyone and I made my way through some streets, running somewhere and eventually at some point I heard my… I heard somebody, you know my dad somehow managed to locate me on the street, and he asked the cyclist who was on that street to go ahead and stop me from reaching the main road where obviously I could have been an accident victim because it was a busy main road I had come a fair distance away from my home… I wanted to run away to see that spectacle and I suppose that draws the attention to how captivated I was by the spectacle and I wanted to see it again. That little me had a complex relationship with time and trust and now I can look back upon that memory and smile. I think that writers in general have a very complex relationship to time and people. In my case, of course, over the years, it has been this kind of exile and nostalgia that have added to that sense of having a complicated relationship with the past that is not straightforwardly accessible at all and that cannot be repeated and that is so fraught. So, again I would like to add that children everywhere, writer or not, do lots of, have lots of, instances that they do think that they later look back and see how whimsical they were.
Shafinur: Was there any particular story behind writing Residue?
Nitasha: Let me pick up from where I left off from the last answer. So, in Residue, the central theme in the book is that residue is what remains in us as we move on from events and as we move across national borders. So, in that sense, the idea that remains or the traces of the past continue to live in the present and in the future and the way in which no past is utterly absolutely final and traceless. In a scholarly context, as Gramsci said, there are an infinity of traces and it’s true that is what we are. We are an infinity of traces and in various kinds of complicated and knotted ways. So, there are two central elements to that kind of conceptual story behind Residue. The first one is this idea of what remains in us in terms of a temporal past when we move on from things and when we move across borders as a spatial movement. The second is that, as the name ‘Residue’ indicates, or as it sounds, as if it is something out of chemistry. Goethe’s novel Elective Affinities was something that has a cameo appearance in Residue and it really tackles this question of our affinities to other people, are they chosen or are they somehow automatic and instinctive? This plays a role in Residue as well, to look at this question of how we decide to belong to specific identities… to have affinity with specific kinds of people or issues or identities and so on. So, these were conceptually the important themes behind the writing of Residue. In terms of a story, the characters are of course fictional, but all fiction draws from life to a greater or lesser extent, though not in any straightforward way, so no, I mean a Leon Ali does not exist, but I did live in Berlin during the time that I was… I lived between Berlin and Bristol at the time that I was originally writing it and it was born from a desire to put these stories of the past… of a divided past in the present, and to refer to the absences of… absences in our memory and in our imagination because of divides that are physical. So, Berlin is a divided city. Kashmir is a divided place, divided in the sense of physically divided, but then also divided in the sense that there are a generation of Kashmiri Muslims and Hindus that have grown up literally physically apart from each other and that kind of absence too I think is something that overlays physical divides.
Shafinur: Leon Ali seems to be very similar to you. How far does Residue reflect your own life? Is it in a way an autobiographical novel?
Nitasha: People say that first novels are always somehow autobiographical and in fact perhaps all fiction, as I said just now, is! It’s complicatedly autobiographical though, not straightforwardly. It’s also interesting that you say that Leon Ali is similar to me because he’s a man- people often refer to the similarities between me and the female protagonist Keya and I am always left wondering whether it is because she is a Raina and I am a Kaul and whether it’s a Kashmiri Hindu thing or is it the fact that she is an academic. So it’s interesting that you point out that Leon is similar. And I would probably say that I have overlaps with lots of characters- the sense in which Leon’s being lost, his various cavernous passages to alternative pasts that he’s looking for- are interesting to me but it does not reflect my own life in any straightforward way. There are numerous characters in the book, not just Leon and Keya but also Shula, Abhilash and others, so the characters are partly us, partly the people we meet. So it isn’t an autobiographical novel in that sense, although of course as I said the places that figured in that book are places that I know.
Shafinur: While I was reading Residue, it felt like a movement from one place to another. I felt it related to the displacement of a Kashmiri man, and also related to a global displacement of other people. I can connect this displacement with the protagonist of Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know, Zafar. Both the characters, Leon Ali and Zafar, were once displaced from their homeland, and that movement marked a defining moment in their life, making way to many more movements. Do you feel that displacement is a modern tragedy? What do you feel about accepting displacements, the struggle to re-place oneself, and emplace the new space?
Nitasha: This question is really interesting and I welcome the reflection, the chance for reflection that it affords me. You’re absolutely right that the displacement of Leon for example in the book is also related to the global displacement of other people and there is a sense in which when you ask whether displacement is a modern tragedy, I would say that there is a particular way in which modernity in the way which we have known it through especially most of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century… No… Actually let me reverse back a bit and answer that question and begin two sentences previously again… so when you say is displacement a modern tragedy, I would like to think through that and say that is actually the dawn of modernity. Let’s think about the last four centuries – that have made a particular kind of displacement serviceable in the interests of the global elites and tremendously tragic for those who are the displaced. So if we think about previous centuries and centuries, people moved for all sorts of reasons, there were empires, there were trade relationships, there were other kinds of movements of people. However, if we think about the modern period which is the last three/four centuries, we realize that the movement of people is actually top down and done in a way that is almost as if it’s a chessboard where the movement is to calculate the greatest possible benefit for those in power, whether we think about the trajectories of the slave trade, the indentured labor that was moved to plantations in different parts of the world for plantation purposes and so on. To think about all the displacements that happen as a consequence of empire in the first and the second world wars, especially on the eve of the first world war and then at the start of the 21st century, we find large numbers of people in Europe and elsewhere who are globally moved around and then of course we come to the horrors of the experience of partition and other kinds of displacements and as a consequence of these boundary-making processes, the abhorrent level of violence that is faced by people who are then bracketed into political units, where their identities, where their cultural, ethnic and civic identities are almost always in conflict with each other. We see this with partitions of boundaries in Africa, we see this with the ways in which boundaries were drawn in the west Asia, Middle East, we see this in South Asia, and we see this in the case of Kashmir. So there’s a way in which I think the systematicity of modernity in making the world comprehensible by trying to impose an order upon that which is fundamentally not orderable, not amenable to being ordered in that way. So, to classify regions and people and to draw those lines without any concern for the lives that would be affected by it. In that sense I think that we are seeing the aftermath and the continuing effects of global displacements that have been the consequence of a kind of modernist reordering of the world in the last few centuries. And these obviously affect collectivities but then individual people may experience them differently.
Coming back from that sort of bigger point to look at Leon’s case, so he is displaced in multiple ways. He is displaced as a Kashmiri Muslim in India and then he became a sort of Muslim in Europe, a Brown-skinned Muslim man in Europe, so there are multiple displacements and Keya again in her own way is also dealing with identity at a distance through the question of exile.
Now how do I feel about the struggle to replace one’s self, to emplace the new space? So I think that this is really interesting and it makes me think that one way of answering this would be, I don’t know if it satisfactory, but it would be to refer to Edward Said’s quote about how he at one point he says he experiences identity as a cluster of flowing currents and I think that is in a sense true for many, if not most, people that have these increasingly multiple allegiances, and also the advent of technology into so many lives makes it possible to have different kinds of rhizomatic affiliations with people with whom one might share affinities, who might not physically be there. I’m a creature of hope and I think that we can place ourselves in different contexts and that would be to accept the decentering of an automatic relationship between space, location, personal identity that’s not, that’s increasingly not, sustainable and also perhaps one might say there are better ethical outcomes if one thinks about it and if one does decenter that automatic connection between space, place, location, identity, because really why should we only care about that which affects people like us, why should we only care about that which is in our immediate geographical vicinity or our geographical birth-boundary which is to say the nation state? In my personal as well as scholarly work, I was always held this position of my issue being the world. Which is not to say that one should be concerned about abstract global things and not care about the local. I think it’s a way of wanting to reiterate again and again that it is possible to care about the local and the global at the same time. And to put these two things together in the same frame because how we bracket something into one frame and not the other often means that certain kinds of questions, ethical questions and normative concerns drop out of that calculus. And I think holding onto a very resolute, for the want of a better word, anti-nationalist desiderata, this idea that there is a Humanity that we have to care about, that there are human beings to whom we owe our ethical concerns. It doesn’t matter if they look like us and it doesn’t matter if they share our identity markers or not and I think that’s ever more important given the way in which people are sought to be displaced by the violence that is ongoing in the world at the moment.
Shafinur: I stayed in Kashmir for two years, and in my experience Kashmiris live on memories, whether they are living in their own land, or are immigrants. I even felt they often feel like outsiders in their own country, so the memory haunts them. They cherish the golden history and hope to get it back someday. I found this idea reflected in Residue too. What do think about that?
Nitasha: You’ve stayed in Kashmir and that your experience is that Kashmiris live on in your memories and they feel like outsiders in their own country, the memory haunts them. Yes, you see, again going back to the imbroglio that is Kashmir in terms of the territory and the people, so the erstwhile Kashmir, the state of Kashmir would have encompassed a whole range of territories, now they are ever more distanced from each other in terms of sharing concerns and that process of communalizing, distancing of different kinds of Kashmiris from each other is a historic one and it’s one that that bears keeping in mind if we look at Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh and the Pakistan side of Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan and so on.
So this was a diverse region which was part of a zone of contact between different kinds of people along that entire Central Asian, kind of coming down from central Asia, it was at the crossroads in fact of different civilizations and what we find today is that with these kinds of problematic boundaries and forever conflicts, what we find is that people have been divided and their empathies and their concerns have sought to be also cleaved along those lines of those physical divides. So they are of course haunted by a past and especially if we refer today to the extremely communalized and polarized nature of Jammu vs Kashmir or if you look further into the Kashmir Valley in the way in which the histories of the separation of the population play out. A state that failed Kashmiri Hindus who were forced to flee and also was extremely, tremendously violent upon Kashmiri Muslims who lived there and you have a generation of people who have grown up with two and half decades of emergency powers and forced disappearances, rapes etcetera and who are caught in that bind and now, for outsiders, there are two views of Kashmir, and I have referred to this in my work as: Kashmir, The Exotic and Kashmir, The Cruel. Kashmir, the exotic is that picture post card tourist version of Kashmir and Kashmir, the cruel, which is that this is a place of Islamic insurgency which denies the whole human rights and political problem that in fact is the issue. So in that sense the history of a Kashmir which is not marked by violence of this kind is something that would be beautiful to recover, but of course we never recover pure histories. What we do have to do is to reconcile histories in the plural and memories in the plural and that is a task that needs the involvement of various kinds of Kashmiris. But most importantly it needs Goodwill, it needs to be something that happens with good faith and sadly wherever one looks to the administrations and the ruling dispensations, bad faith is all you find, the profitability of conflict is all you find, political opportunism is all you find. So, one wishes that a place like Kashmir can one day have more peace with its haunted pasts and its horrible present, as this place of conflict that can one day be peaceful I hope. Hope is eternal and we hope someday things will be better, but sometimes one hopes also out of hopelessness, because you know there is little else to go on, except to hold on to hope and I think many a time it feels like that.
Shafinur: While most of the Kashmiri Pandits blame and distrust Kashmiri Muslims for their displacement, you portrayed something very different. Instead of playing the blame game, but wrote in a sympathetic tone towards Kashmiri Muslims. How did such an idea come to your mind?
Nitasha: This question points that Kashmiri pandits blame Kashmiri Muslims for their displacement and I have portrayed something different and I don’t want to be part of the blame game and I have written in a sympathetic tone and how did such an idea come to my mind. So, in fact, I would say I would never have thought anything otherwise. Which is not to say that Kashmiri Pandits as a minority were not the victims of a conflict that at a point had turned violent and apart from other things, involved cross-border facilitation of that armed insurgency and its systemization had a key role to play in the way Kashmiri Pandit minority became the target of violence. There is the way in which that Minority and its position in Kashmir is historically unique and also unique in its relation to its proximity to state structures and to the way in which the politicization of Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims in the previous decades has been in parallel and this is something that is a tragedy given that if you think about the history of early to mid-twentieth century Kashmir which was very progressive and where in fact you have Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims coming together at various points for a progressive vision of Kashmir, in fact, far more progressive than in elsewhere. So, history is a complex business and it’s a complex set of stories. However, the problem with this dominant narratives in the present and which are sought to be amplified by the Indian media a lot is that Kashmiri Pandits have been co-opted as a pawn in the games of right-wing Hindu fundamentalists in India and who do not have the interests of Kashmiri Pandits at their heart, for whom this is a conflict that serves a purpose, this is a communalization that serves a purpose and they accordingly created voices that amplified that communalization and the distrust between different Kashmiri communities because in fact if you think about Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims and other kinds of Kashmiris of different kinds from different parts of the state or even the erstwhile region of Kashmir come together and actually talk to each other about their histories and their memories and their traumas and the way forward, that would resolve the conflict, right? And then where would the right wing vote bank be, where would the arms industry that benefits so much from it be? Where would all the vested interest in the conflict be? So, there isn’t a, in a sense that, there isn’t a mystery about why this kind of polarization proceeds. I did want to give a nuanced picture and I have always tried to do that. I could refer to, I would also like to refer you to a piece I wrote about the communalization in Kashmir for Al-Jazeera, previously I have written something for the Wire, I have written pieces in the Open Democracy and all of those articles actually in written in different forums, address this in one way or the other. So this Indian right-wing extremist thing of what about the Kashmiri Pandits is meant not the serve the Kashmiri Pandits at all. It’s meant to keep the communal polarity alive, its meant to demonize and Other the Kashmiris as Muslims and its meant to fan the flames of that communal hatred for their own electoral and other benefits. This is sad and tragic. One wishes sometimes that people would just look at that, or that there were spaces in the media or in people’s narratives to understand the complex history of Kashmir and look beyond these sound-byte narratives of hatred.
Shafinur: You were the first Kashmiri woman shortlisted for the Man Asian literary award, which is considered the ‘Asian Booker’. How did that feel?
Nitasha: Yes, to be shortlisted for Man Asian literary prize was an incredible sensation. I was actually in Bhutan at the time, I was in Thimpu. I remember receiving this news when I was there and a Guardian UK journalist wrote to me to ask me for my reaction. And you know I remember grappling with trying to make sense of how I felt which was a mix of various kinds of sensations and the fact that this was my first novel that I was not in any way integrated into the literary world, having been an academic before and then being a Kashmiri woman and being a person whose novel wasn’t published at the time, it felt like an incredibly important and vital validation of the stories that I was trying to tell. And that obviously helped. Yeah, I suppose again there are things that were written at the time that testify to it. One thing that I would like to point out is that I did have an incredibly difficult time even then because here was this prize announced they said a Kashmiri woman which is how I identified myself and I had like a barrage of people who said, “how dare you not call yourself Indian!”
In fact for the longest I struggled even with my description provided by others on my Wikipedia entry. I have no idea who made my Wikipedia entry but whoever did lists me as Kashmiri Indian. I always tell people to go to my website and see my CV for my work. So there’s this desperate desire to claim me, a Kashmiri, as an Indian above all. I just want to question the origin of that desire in the context that it’s meant to displace me calling myself a Kashmiri and I wonder what lies at the origin of that desire that I not be able to call myself a Kashmiri and I be required to say that I’m Indian. I think this was one of those clouds behind the silver lining at the time that took me by surprise! This idea of “how dare you call yourself Kashmiri and not Indian”- people even saying that to me that “how can you do that”.
However, subsequently there was this uprising in the summer of 2010 in Kashmir and I wasn’t there at the time but I was at the other end of the Himalayas and I remember being so affected and traumatized by all of this that just focusing on the aftermath of the novel and getting it published almost became a second priority as I was so preoccupied with writing about the politics and the sad loss of lives.
And that’s actually when I wrote “Kashmir: A place of blood and memory” article which is sort of this long piece that was written from a place of great feeling, and which combines again the analytical and the affective modes both to look at how we got to a place where it becomes possible for numerous young people to be treated in this manner that they can be shot. And in fact as I’ve said it other times there’s no linearity to time in Kashmir. The situation doesn’t move forward, it moves forward and backward in every other way with every passing year. So in 2016, six years on from that 2010 protests, we again had the instances of the pellet blinding. So, Kashmir is in my mind and it stays in my mind and of course I write about lots of other things, but injustices are seared upon our thoughts. If we choose to engage with the world that way then that is something that remains there, that memory of injustices. And I hope too recently in the last few years I’ve been mostly working on scholarly non-fiction and other media interventions, but I hope to tell other stories as well in the future.
Shafinur: You are very vocal about Kashmir issues. There were times when you were blamed for being an ISI agent or being bribed by Kashmiri militant groups. What did that feel like? Why do you think that India, one of the largest democratic countries, condemn people who talk about Kashmir rights as spies or militants?
Nitasha: You are asking me about the fallout and the repercussions of being vocal about Kashmir. I must say that this something that is terribly sad. I remember when I wrote in 2010 that article “Kashmir: A place of blood and memory” I remember the aftermath of it, the horrific abuse I got. Since this is an audio interview I can say that to you but I remember receiving these horrendous threats from these people and you have to think about the kind of hatred they have that they would write to you and they would say that they would cut your vagina with razor blades. People would email me and call my parents’ names. They would say, “Your mother is a whore!” and all of that, this kind of absolutely horrendous hate and something very similar again, every time that I actually speak about it in a visible way, I receive that. In 2015, when I challenged Ram Madhav, the RSS supremo on Mehdi Hasan’s Al Jazeera show Head to Head, I had no idea at the time that this is how it would be received that although of course there are a large number of people who in fact come up to me and appreciated what I said, but at the same time it was impossible for me for the next 6 months to be on social media. I just completely logged out for a while because of the nature of the abuse. Of course, there are people who praise your work but the sheer kind of organized trolls are horrible. I tried for a time to have this thing called #HindutvaTrolls and put some of those things together because they are just so vile and so calculated to hurt and spread lies. They go through your online profiles, they spread lies about your work, your previous degrees, everything. It’s just so disturbing and of course then you get, as a woman, targeted also, in terms of, you must be the victim of Love Jihad or you must be a person of poor character or something. They go to your parents, they go to everything. It’s such a psychological assault that at those times in my life that I’ve been in that storm, it’s just been really horrible!
Regarding the other specific things you mention, yes, of course, these trolls are organized and perhaps even paid trolls. Yet, they don’t seem to know the difference between different kinds of allegations, so they will simultaneously accuse you of being a communist, being an ISIS supporter and of being a western supported person and of being a Saudi supported person. So, it’s insane. But nobody really deserves to get rape threats and death threats and vile abuse thrown at them for their views on something that is a political problem and on which one should be allowed to speak about the different perspectives, especially if the country in question claims to be a democracy. Sadly, this is not the case, this is not true in the Indian context, as you probably know. Any talk of Kashmir that does not take the standard line, makes a person be open to charges of sedition, to charges of anti-nationalism as we saw with the protests in 2016, the events following on from the commemoration of hanging of Afzal Guru on the 9th of February. A few years later in 2016 when that was being mentioned at a meeting in JNU, there was this talk of something about Kashmir being mentioned and we know what happened afterwards. There were lawyers in their groups chanting ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ and marching down the streets of Delhi and intimidating and being violent against the JNU students at the center of that. So it’s terribly tragic that this kind of thing happens, but it’s not just spontaneous, in fact, at this point it happens with the strategic silence and the implicit and explicit connivance of the majoritarian Hindu fundamentalists who are center-stage in the country, in India, right now.
And this kind of condemnation of people as spies, militants and as terrorist supporters etc. for talking about human rights, for talking about a political problem, for talking about things that are actually factual and well-known to people outside the country, is just shameful.
Shafinur: In most of the cases, female writers choose their protagonist as female, and your protagonist is male. Did you face any difficulties with that, or was it easier for you to do that?
Nitasha: Well, my being a woman and what effect does that have on my choice of protagonist? Nothing really! I mean, I think I would be equally at ease with a male or a female protagonist, I think it’s the research, it’s the careful thinking through, it’s the empathy that you have to have with the character and the kind of story that you want to tell and all of those factors have a role to play. That’s how you choose a certain character’s gender as male or female or something other or in-between. So, it wasn’t hard for me to know that Leon would be Leon and that Keya would be Keya and that’s how I wanted them to be that is how they emerged in my mind and that is how I see them.
Shafinur: South Asian, Middle Eastern, and African novels deal mostly with the impact of history and politics on the individual, in both local and global scales. Most of American or Western literature, on the other hand, deals with individual ideas within the social structure. Do you agree with that? What do you think about that?
Nitasha: Well, you are saying that South Asian and middle-eastern and African novels deal with the impact of history and politics on the individual and the local and global scales whereas American and western literature deals with individual ideals within the social structure. All generalizations are problematic! Let me begin with that caveat. The writer’s location very often is not straightforwardly the country that was their birth-boundary or even that place where they left, you know, writers I feel are fundamentally migrants of the imagination. It is the job of a writer to be able to feel otherwise, and for me this idea of being able to imagine things beyond that which we know is crucial to being a writer, it’s crucial to writing. However, are there particular parts of the world where history and politics feature more prominently? Perhaps yes! If you ask me why that is the case, I would say because these histories and politics in lots of ways are disguised and undisguised in specific parts of the world. Because of the history of the world as it were, the contemporary boundaries of countries came into being in the aftermath of decolonization and wars. In that sense, in many parts of the world, history and politics is not something that is split from everyday life of writers or people. It’s not something that one can be immune to, those questions are very urgent because they are also tied to the questions of livelihood, the question of existence and identity, even the very possibility of being able to survive certain kinds of violence. However, I would like to say that this is not something intrinsic, it’s not something to do with the western mind or the oriental mind or that kind of thing! Not at all, I mean. It depends on the period of history and the context of a society. At different times or in other contexts even in western literature you find questions of history and politics in social structure to be figuring far more prominently and I think that really depends on the concatenation of political and social forces in a certain context at a point in time. And because as I said countries of the global south have the experience of being colonized that is a specific exercise of power that makes history and politics not be something that is apart from everyday life and so it is very clearly interwoven in with the texture of the literature as well.
Shafinur: Do you think that literature, or authors, can be apolitical? Especially in the current times?
Nitasha: Can they? Can authors choose to be apolitical? Well, I would say authors can certainly choose to take a stand which can be seen as being apolitical. However, not speaking up against the oppression or being silent is itself a support of the status quo in most contexts. So, whether people can choose to be apolitical, yes! Certain authors may think that they don’t speak about anything that’s political and that comes from a place of privilege, it comes through a place where you can afford not to speak about the political and because you are not directly affected by it and the very least that somebody can do is to acknowledge that. Be that any kind of politics. Also, I think the relative invisibility of women writers is something spoken about in recent times and we need to focus on this a lot more. We need to have lot more women writing and being read, we need to have a lot more people with different kinds of identities telling their stories. We don’t want to, for example, be in a situation where, due to the literary world having its own politics, where people only expect certain kinds of things from Indian authors – the stereotype – or only certain kinds of things from Kashmiri authors. And then within that context it’s often the case that the non-west has a tick box space and once you got one person from a non-western country, it’s fine, you don’t need any more. So there is also the politics within the literary world from which no writer can be immune too, because we are in one way or the other interpellated into specific positions within that world. Then, there’s the larger politics and of course again there’s the idea that writers should only write stories which have nothing to do with politics and be safe and “marketable”. I don’t agree with that. In different ways the political world is always a part of the stories we tell because the stories we tell, tell something about us as well; about how we have chosen to slice and cut a world out of the bigger world. So in that sense I think it becomes important for somebody or anybody who has visibility in the public sphere to speak up or at the very least to offer acknowledgement of one’s “sanctioned ignorance” (a term from Spivak) if they’ve chosen to be ignorant and if they think they can afford not to know.
Shafinur: Who are your current favorite authors?
Nitasha: This question is the hardest, who are my current favorite authors? I don’t know by that if you mean who are the authors who are alive that I am reading at the moment? Or if you mean who are the authors that I am reading currently? And I don’t have a good answer to that, I can just tell you that I have been reading a wide range of books, some that I read recently, or picked up while travelling, or am intending to read: Ha Jin, Max Yeh, Eileen Chang, Andrei Makine, Vivek Shanbhag, Simone Schwarz-Bart, Celeste Albaret. I am afraid I really don’t have good answer to this because I really can’t list… You know I often also like reading obscure authors or authors in translation. If you are ever in London, I will happily invite you to my home where there are hundreds and hundreds of books and many of them I love. This is also a very hard question because there are things I like about lots of authors I read and I suppose I can only say that I try to read people and stories that differ from each other and that belong to different parts of the world. But no! I would really hesitate in providing a definitive list of my favorite authors.
Shafinur: It has been almost ten years since the publication of Residue. What’s your next project? When are the readers going to get a new book from you?
Nitasha: Yes, it has been a long time since Residue and readers are going to get another book very soon, I should hope. I have to let you know that in the last ten years there’s just been so much… else that have been doing which is not to say that writing stories is not what I would prefer over doing most things on most days but as an academic, I have been teaching, I have been mentoring people, students and I have been writing other kinds of books and edited collections and articles. You can ask your readers to read all that on www.nitashakaul.com. The new novel is on its way soon and hopefully before too long you will perhaps be interviewing me about that. Thank you for this interview.