Arguably, the first Kashmiri short story to be written – with a proper record to prove its authorship – was by Dinanath Nadim, in 1948. Prior to this, Kashmiri short stories existed in the oral tradition, as dastans, much like Lal Ded’s vaakhs, Habba Khatoon’s vatsun and rich folk tales passed down from generation to generation.

Kwong Posh (The Saffron Flower), the literary journal run from 1949 to 1952 by the Kashmir Cultural Congress first published Nadim’s Jawabee Kaard (Reply-paid Card), also written in 1948, and Somnath Zutshi’s Yeli Phol Gaash (When the Light Dawned), written in 1949. Both writers belonged to the Progressive Writer’s group in Kashmir, which was influenced by the Russian short story writers like Maxim Gorky.

The Greatest Kashmiri Stories Ever Told, collected and translated by the veteran Kashmiri translator Neerja Mattoo, begins with these two stories. Mattoo has a vast body of translated short stories and poems to her credit, most notably Kath: Stories from Kashmir, Contemporary Kashmiri Short Stories and the seminal text on Kashmir’s women poets, The Mystic and the Lyric: Four Women Poets from Kashmir.

The trajectory of the Kashmiri short story

Nadim wrote the first Kashmiri opera, Bombur tee Yamberzal (Bumblebee and the Narcissus Flower). The songBhumbro Bhumbro” became a favourite song everyone hummed to their children and grandchildren, and was later turned into a popular Bollywood song through the film Mission Kashmir. Nadim’s popularity was essentially the result of his famous operas, but he is also at the helm of the Kashmiri short story tradition.

At the heart of Reply-paid Card is an old woman, Zoon Ded, who is considered “the judge, maulvi, police officer, nambardar, chowkidar, patwari”, and everyone in the village goes to seek her counsel. The story, coinciding with the moment when raids from Pakistan were taking place in 1947 and the progressive movement was at its peak, culminates in Zoon Ded’s decision to pick up arms and join the women’s militia to protect Kashmir from raiders.

Kashmiri poets, short story writers, playwrights and essayists were all influenced by the Progressive Writers’ Movement in India in and after the 1930s. But once disillusioned by the movement, when writing didn’t provide any tangible change in the life of Kashmiris, the writers changed direction to talk about the human condition and social ills.

Following this, an era of experimentation set in. Hari Krishna Kaul’s The Mourners ushers in the stories that specialise in irony, Koshur wit, and a piercing look at the Kashmiri milieu of the late 19th century. The stories going ahead acquired both a surrealistic take on the mundane, the inexplicable, or traumatic events, and a penchant for depicting commonplace, local, rural issues. Later on, the subconscious and the inner psyche became a significant theme towards the end of the 20th century.

The 1990s, which split Kashmiris, also impacted the short story tradition. Playwrights who couldn’t stage their plays any longer turned to short stories. Two previously non-existent and distinct themes emerged – the plight of Kashmiri Pandits and the troubles of Kashmiri Muslims. The militancy, its everyday atrocities, and its psychological overtures found place in stories written about those in Kashmir and in exile.

Traumatic events, the heat, the delirium, the loss of language, the physical and psychological alienation found in stories about Kashmiri Pandits is what marks the later decades. That is, till we reach the last story in the collection, which is starkly different and brings about a new mode of talking about the Kashmiris in the short story form – the return or the search, meetings between long-lost friends, or recalling the time before the 1990s. Memory and mourning become the threads used to weave these stories.

Tracking the trauma

Traumatic events are characteristic by the deafening silence of the traumatised. They find themselves unable to articulate what’s on their mind. In The Enemy by AG Rather, a man tries to cross the border to assist his ailing brother on the other side of the fence, but once caught by the authorities and labelled a spy, he is unable to do anything and simply wonders how those in charge could make enemies out of brothers.

In The Call by Roop Krishen Bhat, an octogenarian Kashmiri Pandit woman misses Kashmir, feeling alienated in Delhi’s heat where one needs to pay for even a water bottle. Her memories come crashing as she recalls her friends and the river bank in her village, and drops of water splashed between friends from an old memory falls on her in the present.

Her hallucinations take a surrealistic turn and eventually, month after month, she gives into their call to return home and leaves her body. This alienation is borne by all Kashmiris alike – in the haunting prose of Majrooh Rashid too, someone lost in the wilderness waits endlessly for “the terrifying black night” to end, but they only hear bloodcurdling creatures, with no indication of any respite.

Curated in the vein of Neerja Mattoo’s previously translated collection of Kashmiri short stories, this one differs from the rest because of one short story: Dheeba Nazir’s The Search. Nazir has received several literary awards from state and national literary circles, including a Yuva Puraskar from the Sahitya Akademi for her first collection of short stories, Zareen Zakham.

The Search first appeared in that collection, and wherever I have heard narrations of this story, it has always left moist eyes and sighs in its wake. In this story, a soon-to-be-married Kashmiri Pandit man returns to Srinagar for the first time since 1990 and goes from neighbourhood to neighbourhood in search for his “muhboli behen”, sworn sister – who belonged to a Kashmiri Muslim family – so he can invite her to his wedding.

This collection of short stories, curated with a sense of the history of the short story in Kashmir, is a testament to the ability of Kashmiris to tell their own stories in their own language even when they had to adopt a new literary form and set up a standardised script under the purview of the Scripts Committee of the J&K Academy for Art, Culture and Languages in 1972. Through the ever-turbulent years, Kashmiris have always managed to tell their stories in subtle, nuanced, haunting prose. This book is an excellent introductory read, translated over the years and carefully put together for anyone who wants to know about Kashmir from Kashmiris themselves.

The Greatest Kashmiri Stories Ever Told, Selected and translated by Neerja Mattoo, Aleph Book Company.