Mirza Waheed: I will always write about Kashmir

Print edition : November 22, 2019

Mirza Waheed. Photo: The Hindu Archives

“Tell Her Everything” by Mirza Waheed, Context, 2019.

Interview with Mirza Waheed, novelist.

The Kashmir-born, London-based journalist and novelist Mirza Waheed is a man of few words. It is another matter that those words are measured and have more depth than can be discerned at first glance. Waheed’s nuanced writing demands more than one reading. His most recent novel, Tell Her Everything, which has been longlisted for the 2019 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, is about the conversation between a father and his daughter—he is involved in a lot of wrongdoing; she must help him clear his conscience. Amidst his hectic literary engagements, Waheed took a few questions from Frontline. Excerpts from the interview:

Is your nomination for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature the happiest news you have heard in these dark times?

I’m, of course, very pleased with the nomination. The happiest piece of news, however, was when I re-established contact with my ailing parents in Kashmir after weeks of enforced silence. This was even as I was furious that the most ordinary thing in the world—talking to your kin on the phone—had been turned into an event for us in the 21st century!

In another interview, you said that “Tell Her Everything” was a difficult book to write. Why so?

I think I might have said that at times it was a hard book to write. For long periods of time, I tried to inhabit the mind of the character, Dr K, who spent a considerable period of his life as an essential part of the criminal justice system in a culture vastly different from his own. And yet, despite being an instrument in a system of corporal punishments, he is a perfectly ordinary human being. On most days, he is like any father, someone who loves his family, someone who will do anything for his child.

Is not “Tell Her Everything” finally about wiping your conscience clean? Like the father writing to his daughter, probably wishing to get the load off his chest.

In some ways, yes. As Dr K himself says, he wants to sketch a life-portrait for his daughter so that she has the full story in front of her when judging her father. He wants to tell her his “Savanah-e-Umri”, an account of the accidents and occurrences of his life. Equally, because he is tormented and because he feels something “beyond shame”, he is given to self-justification even as he insists that he does not want to justify his actions to his daughter. In the end, he is, quite simply, a father whose central concern in life is whether he has been a good parent, after all that he’s done, after all that he’s been through.

How does the conversational mode lend itself to a novel?

It can be limiting in that you do not have a multiplicity of voices in the form of a large cast of characters at your command. But the form that Tell Her Everything took became both challenging and fascinating for me. As a novelist, I was excited by the form: the narrator giving us an account of his life, in which he “objectively” reports on the lives of others around him, and at the same time he imagines, invents, both the questions and answers on behalf of his absent daughter. He imagines a real character, his own child, and gives her a voice. This was both exciting and satisfying for me.

How much of Dr K’s struggle stems from your personal experience of being a Kashmiri immigrant in England?

Not much, actually. Some of my own experiences as a “freshie”, a new immigrant in London all those years ago might have informed some of Dr K’s reactions, but I invented how someone like him, a hardworking Indian doctor from a lower-middle-class Muslim family, would react and conduct himself.

You talk of moral subjectivity in the novel. How far does cultural relativity help frame the moral framework? And how does one define morals?

That is an important question, and one that I have tried to examine in the novel. As Dr K reflects on his choices and tries to frame his life in a larger context to make sense of, justify or rationalise his actions, he, directly and indirectly, invokes the moral ambiguity that surrounds much of the state or social systems that govern modern life.

At the heart of his reflections, however, is painful discomfort at what he has become in pursuit of material prosperity. He is retrospectively tormented at the choices he could have made. I think I might have said it elsewhere: Dr K probably suffers from moral exhaustion.

As a writer with roots in Kashmir, what do you think the Indian authorities could have done better in the State since August 5 and the revocation of Article 370?

The only thing they could have, should have, done was to not do it in the first place. More crucially, the Indian state should work with Kashmiris, the primary party to the dispute, and Pakistan, to arrive at a solution to one of the world’s longest running conflicts. The Kashmir issue isn’t going anywhere despite this latest attempt to brutalise Kashmiris into submission. History tells us that Kashmiris have always resisted attempts to subjugate them, and in my view, they will continue to do so. You cannot make people agree to a life of indignity, no matter how much force you use.

In Kashmir, the scope for well-reasoned dialogue seems to have virtually disappeared. How does one reclaim the lost avenue for dialogue, debate and dissent?

The Indian government brutally extinguished possibilities of dialogue, debate and dissent the moment it decided to erase Kashmir’s nominal autonomy by unilaterally revoking Article 370. It did not even consult its own errand boys, the unionist political formations in Kashmir, and threw thousands of people, including children, in prison. I don’t see how we can talk about well-reasoned dialogue when the terms are predetermined in the shape of a crushing military siege and a blanket ban on people’s voices. We must also always remember that the story of Kashmir is not about [Article] 370; it’s about the Kashmiri people’s inalienable right to self-determination, a most fundamental human right.

As a writer, how difficult is it to keep Kashmir away from your thoughts?

I don’t keep it away. I was a teenager when the war in Kashmir started. Over the last 30 years, the Kashmiri people have been subjected to unspeakable cruelties by what is essentially a military occupation. As a writer, I feel I must speak up, that I must write, and I do.

Will your next work be set in Kashmir?

I really don’t know. I work slowly, sometimes taking too long to think about a premise, place, characters, sometimes abandoning ideas, and sometimes letting them gestate for years. A writer’s life is full of self-doubt, as it should be, so I’m not sure what I am going to do next. But what I do know is that I will always think and write about Kashmir in one form or another. I do try to write essays from time to time. Equally, I might have other stories to tell, you know, like Tell Her Everything.

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