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Basharat Peer: A wanderer with no fixed address

Journalist and writer Basharat Peer talks to Aasim Akhtar about his book Curfewed Night, George Orwell and his collaboration with Vishal Bhardwaj on Haider

Basharat Peer: A wanderer with no fixed address

Basharat Peer is an intellectual rebel, an articulate revolutionary — a romantic personality that in some way resonates with us all. From the Crossword Prize winner Curfewed Night to his most recent collaborative screenplay of Haider, Peer has never ceased to create escapist, fantastical visions which function as alternative ‘spaces’ to the reality of the world today.

Born in 1977 in Seer, Anant Nag in Jammu and Kashmir, during the socio-economic stagnation of the era, Peer reached maturity at an unprecedented moment in history. Rather than welcoming in the capitalist project and the prospect of liberty, he instead began to question social and political structures in order to identify his place in the system through his writings.

After studying Political Science at Aligarh and Journalism at Columbia, he relocated to Delhi, and launched a career as a reporter with Rediff and Tehelka. He soon came to embody the spirited counterculture, representing a faction of society that demanded a different approach to the changing socio-political landscape of the time, working for some time as assistant editor at Foreign Affairs, and later contributing to Caravan, Guardian, FT Magazine, Granta and The New Yorker.

A wanderer with no fixed address, Peer talks to TNS on the occasion of Lahore Literature Festival 2015 in a characteristically unapologetic tone. Excerpts:

The News on Sunday: Was Curfewed Night an attempt to put the story of Kashmir in the right perspective?

Basharat Peer: You start to read and think properly when you are in college. As you progress reading writers who you admire and your engagement with literature grows, you realise that it doesn’t only teach you how a novel should be written but also reflect on what has not been written.

When I read George Orwell and James Baldwin or various Palestinian authors towards the end of my graduation days, I began to realise that we didn’t have any literature that told the story of an ordinary person — not from the points of view of two governments but through the experiences of an ordinary Kashmiri citizen. I would often go to the bookstores wherever I would be living, and find racks upon racks of books on Kashmir but there was nothing I could ‘recognise’ as the voice of the people — of people like myself or of people I had known or of things that had actually happened or the ones I had seen as a journalist, for that matter.

After my graduation, I joined a law school but dropped out to become a journalist. That is when I started travelling to Kashmir to write about it. I felt a distinct lag between what friends, family, and neighbours knew about the ‘lived’ experience and what one saw in newspapers or in the kind of books written by visiting outsiders with a sympathetic albeit a political agenda. All writings like all conflicts are motivated by implicit reasons. That was the basic impulse. The next difficult thing was writing the book itself.

TNS: How had George Orwell been an influence in crafting the novel?

BP: The process took a long time. Even as a young man, I had meant to write a book. I started out as a journalist in my early twenties, and by the age of twenty-five, I already knew how to write this book but it took a while. (It was published when I was thirty-one but I had to train myself). As I read more and more, I realised the joy of the written word. In my context, there was something beyond just the lure of the craft of writing: there was also a political experience of the place.

Also read: Haider and the hazards of truth-telling

Orwell was the biggest influence on me in those years. What he wrote about Catalonia was so beautiful. I had also read Conrad but not too deeply. He’s a difficult writer, and one needs to grow up to understand him well. In the past three years, however, I’ve been reading Conrad obsessively. But Curfewed Night was more Orwellian in tone. (Orwell is a saint I can look up to every single day). The way he writes about power and imperialism in Shooting the Elephant is, in my opinion, the greatest critique of imperialism in merely 3300 words. There are libraries full of academic studies on imperialism but Orwell knew how to use an ordinary image to deal with big ideas. That’s what is appealing about his narrative apart from the deceptive simplicity of his approach. There’s a lot to learn from him.

TNS: In terms of genre, there are two kinds of literature on Kashmir that have been filling in the racks recently: one that relates to Kashmir as a hotbed of militaristic struggle, and the other based on a romantic vision of Kashmir as a vale of shikaras and Dal Lake — the Victorian novel. What, in your opinion, is the Western writer’s and reader’s interest in Kashmir?

BP: The Western writers’ and readers’ interest in Kashmir is actually the interest in colonial times. We live in the miserably hot plains of Lahore and Delhi. Even back in Jehangir’s times, people would run away from the summer heat to escape to Kashmir. They did not engage with the political reality of that time. And why would a colonial officer or a memsahib care about the condition created by him? They were, after all, the ruling class. For them, Kashmir was a refuge — a summer palace with wooden boats and beautiful lakes, and they couldn’t care less about what was happening to the people living there. That genre of literature is gone now. I can’t think of any significant European writer in the longest time who’s written anything on Kashmir.

If you wish to think of significant accounts of Kashmir, there is Pankaj Mishra’s Temptations of the West — very serious and rigorous literary and political essays that deal with the historical roots of the conflict in the 1990s and the early 2000s. Among the journalists who wrote during the early years of the conflict, Victoria Schofield’s book is a significant contribution. Sumantra Bose (who teaches at the London School of Economics) and Schofield produced two of the better journalistic books on Kashmir in the mid-nineties.

Then there were Agha Shahid Ali’s landmark books of poetry, Country without a Post Office and Rooms are never Finished followed by Mishra’s three essays that first appeared in The New York Review of Books, and later formed half of his book. I think that was the most important literary and political intervention on Kashmir.

The Indian establishment hounded Pankaj; people accused him of all sorts of things but that was the first time that a very important young Indian writer crossed the line to write not from the state’s perspective. The kind of impact his writings had on the discourse around Kashmir was remarkable. Even when I read them today, they appear to be extraordinary pieces of writing that cut through the fog and the haze.

People should be worried about how history is going to record them. I think all political players and everyone in power should think about how the world will remember them. 

And then came along Salman Rushdie with Shalimar the Clown. There are moments and passages in that book that made me cry. He’s said it at various functions (once the book came out) that even he cried while writing about the mass rape in a village, based on a true incident. Rushdie is at his best when writing about two things: Bombay and Kashmir, because that’s where his family came from. You could see that Kashmiri soul in the book: he writes about militarisation, about a big military camp in Srinagar that he calls Elasticnagar because of how it stretches. He talks about the torture cell with graffiti on the walls scribbled by a prisoner with his blood.

For my generation, it meant a lot to have these writers around because they opened a door and gave us courage to think that to write on topics such as these is legitimate, that even this can be literature.

After my book, Mirza Waheed’s very powerful, very Conradian novel, The Collaborator set on the Line of Control, came out. When Waheed, who has worked for the BBC Urdu Service in London for the longest time, gave a reading in Srinagar, there were old men in the audience who began to cry. Somebody stood up and said: “What’s this? You had said it’s fiction. It’s not fiction: it actually happened!” Now that’s validation when the young and the old accept it as their own reality.

TNS: With the armed movement of the 1990s as its backdrop, does the film Haider tend to vilify or malign the army and its presence in Kashmir?

BP: These are not the terms in which writers work. When you write you tell a story, and you don’t tell a story to vilify people! We tell stories to build characters. Of course, our stories come from real life. If a Pakistani writer writes about a cleric, would it be akin to vilifying Islam? Or if he writes against the military, does it mean he’s anti-national? Or that he wants to break the integrity and sovereignty of Pakistan? Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a great critique of Zia’s times. Hanif wrote about the world he knew because Zia had shaped Pakistan in many significant ways.

We don’t set out to vilify or glorify anything. We look around us and see the big trends or the stories that have repeated themselves thousands of times. Five years from now on, the same characters would want to do the most glorious things human beings can do. We try to be mirrors. Writers are insignificant because they don’t really do anything; they are not actors. People should be worried about how history is going to record them. I think all political players and everyone in power should think about how the world will remember them.

TNS: Tell us about your collaboration with Vishal Bhardwaj on Haider, and about how the film is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet?

BP: Vishal had already done two adaptations of Shakespeare plays – one of Macbeth and the other of Othello — set in different Indian contexts. He wanted to complete the trilogy. He had another writer in mind to adapt Hamlet but he wasn’t happy with the result. Meanwhile, his wife, Rekha, was reading my book on Kashmir. She was much moved and recommended Vishal to read it. He went through Curfewed Night and decided to look me up. (He thought I was still in New York when I had moved back to Delhi). He came in contact with me in Delhi, and requested me to finish the trilogy. “Can we possibly set it in Kashmir — I am really moved!” He suggested either Hamlet or King Lear but I chose Hamlet.

There are a lot of films on Kashmir produced in Bombay. The fact is that Bombay is not a film industry that trades in realism. Whatever subject it may take up, it creates its own version of. I would never claim Haider to be an exact representation of Kashmir. There were some stories about Kashmir that we could weave into the Shakespearean adaptation.

I’d been thinking about Kashmir for a long time. Of course my political consciousness seeped in but the story was not all mine: it was a collaboration even though I got a good lot of 60-65 per cent of what I wanted to say. It was a way to push the envelope!

Gertrude in Shakespeare’s time was a weak character whereas women in Kashmir are the bravest. It’s not men who’ve kept the pace together — it’s women. They’ve suffered a lot; they’ve borne the greatest grief with great dignity. Some of that dignity that Tabu carries in the film was to give an idea to the viewer, a sense to the audience of how difficult it was. Hers is an ambivalent character. If there’s a Muslim woman, she has to be docile, quiet, without a sense of urgency or desire, and without feelings. I think that too was playing up in my mind while etching out her character. She’s anything but docile. She’s a fiery woman, and she understands. Tabu is an extremely intelligent actor. We talked a lot about the emotional make-up of her character, about the world it came from. We knew from the very beginning that it had to be Tabu to play that character — literally, we couldn’t have done the film without her. Very few actors can transform your words onscreen the way she does. Shahid Kapoor was brilliant in the film but it was her film. As The New York Times review said, “The film should have been called Ghazala, not Haider”.

TNS: How would you reflect upon your situation as part of a global system being a Muslim outside India?

BP: I have never felt, not even for a moment, any unease as a young Muslim in post 9/11 New York. I studied at Columbia University, and was possibly among the very few Muslims in my class. All my teachers were either Jewish or Christian, and I respect them more than most people out there. My advisor was Nicholas Lemann – one of the greatest Jewish writers of America. He wrote one of the most important books on racial politics in America called, The Promised Land on how Black migration changed America. Nick was one of the best teachers you could have — he was a contributor to The New Yorker — and the quality of his journalese had always been the most inspiring thing. My relationship with him was one of a student, and then afterwards when I started to work, we became friends. You could be Jewish, Catholic, Protestant or Muslim, but fundamentally, you were a writer.

I love New York more than any other city in the world. It lives up to its promise. And I am the greatest champion of the myth of New York. You can be ‘anything’ there as long as you are able to work hard. If anyone claims that the Muslims in the West are being targeted, it happened in Europe and not in NYC. There have been some incidents in the Mid-west or in the boondocks (in American Sargodha or in American Bahawalpur), but not in NYC. I have travelled everywhere in the United States on subways, buses, trains and planes; I still continue to write for NYT; and my publisher is in New York. I have never had to face a situation in my professional life where my editor would have had to say: “Basharat, you cannot write this because you are Muslim.”

We all know what our identity is, yet we are comfortable with each other. Everybody knows I am Muslim and that doesn’t hamper me from growing as a writer or a professional. I lost nothing by studying or working in America. If I had to go to a mosque to offer namaz, I could do that. And if I didn’t want to, nobody told me to. My relationship with my religion did not change. The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick said, “Basharat, I want you to go to Makkah and write about Hajj, and about how this glorious ancient city is being transformed by hyper-commercialisation.”

Not many Muslims in Pakistan or India would even say a word about how a great heritage inside Masjid-ul-Haraam is being destroyed by the Saudis. It took a Jewish editor to spend a lot of money on sending and allowing me. It is the most sensitive subject. The New Yorker ran in April 2012 the 15,000 word-long essay that I wrote called, ‘Modern Mecca: Transformation of an Ancient City’. It tells the story of how I performed Hajj, wore the ahraam, and did the tawwaf; how I performed sa’ee, and went outside Makkah to complete the ritual. I wrote it with the feelings and belief of a believer, and nobody changed a word or told me to spin it. I am very proud of that piece, and it’s probably the best thing I’ve written.

Aasim Akhtar

aasim akhtar
The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad.

2 comments

  • What a delightful read! I usually lose interest halfway through long articles but Peer is articulate and intelligent. Must get my hands on his book now.
    Is it available in Pakistan?

  • peer has complimented Rushdie on his writings about kashmir. in the interview he sounds like a practising muslim. i wonder what he thinks about Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, as a novelist and as a muslim.

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