Kashmiri literature exists in something of a vacuum at present. Correction. It existed in a vacuum for the longest time, till translations by, among others, Neerja Mattoo, Ranjana Kaul, Trilokinath Raina, Ranjit Hoskote, and Shafi Shauq introduced non-Kashmiri readers to the fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from the region. This year, a new collection of short stories, For Now, It Is Night, has enriched the canon of Kashmiri literature.

The book brings together short stories written between 1970 and 2000 by the prominent Kashmiri author and playwright Hari Krishna Kaul. It also contains a few previously translated stories that have appeared in various Kashmiri short stories collections edited and translated by Neerja Mattoo such as Kath: Stories from Kashmir (2011), The Greatest Kashmiri Stories Ever Told (2022), and In This Metropolis (2011) translated by Ranjana Kaul and published by Sahitya Akademi.

Rediscovering Hari Krishna Kaul

Unlike most collections featuring multiple translators, where each story is translated by only one of the translators, this collection is a collaborative effort. Each story has been discovered with painstaking effort, restored, audio-recorded, and discussed at length by the translators – the outcome of which is clearly visible in the masterful translations by the team comprising Kalpana Raina, Tanveer Ajsi, Gowhar Fazili, and Gowhar Yaqoob.

Kalpana Raina is Hari Krishan Kaul’s niece. What began as curiosity about her uncle’s fiction turned into a project that has not only restored the works of the author, but also introduced Kaul to a new generation of readers.

According to Raina, the stories in this collection have taken a village to translate. This is how most Kashmiri Pandits in exile work with the language and translation. They use the auditory medium to guide them to meaning. Raina describes the struggle of being a Kashmiri who can understand the language but cannot read the Nastaliq script very well. Being physically distant from the language also makes it difficult to understand metaphors, innuendos, and other figures of speech.

Born in 1934 in Srinagar, Hari Krishna Kaul became a household name in Kashmir for his brilliant radio dramas, plays, and short stories. His writings are lyrical in their prose and piercing in their wit – even Kafkaesque. With the publication of his first short story “Taaph” (Sunshine) in 1972, Kaul changed the concerns of the Kashmiri short story and made the genre meditative and inward-looking. He experimented with style and language and introduced readers to stream of consciousness writing and how it affects our external worlds.

In “Sunshine”, the opening short story in For Now, It is Night, Kaul questions the Kashmiri desire to escape the harsh winter of Kashmir through his character Poshkuj, who is unable to adjust to life in Delhi during just one winter away from Kashmir. The story was originally featured in the book Pat Laraan Parbat (The Mountains Will Chase) where Kaul wrote about homesickness and the attachment of Kashmiris to the valley. Published in the 1970s, this theme later became acutely painful and persistent in his and other Kashmiri writers’ and poets’ works after the 1990s.

Kaul’s writings can be divided into the pre-exile and post-exile era, but his subjects and concerns have always focused on Kashmiris regardless of religion, community, or caste. Everything that influenced his own life, including the trauma of exile, became a subject in his work, including how it is an innate part of human nature. Like The Wizard of Oz, his stories are populated with characters finding their way out of things missing from their lives – both material and psychological.

Beyond the morality of meaning

Sahitya Akademi published a collection of Kaul’s short stories titled In this Metropolis, translated by Ranjana Kaul in 2011. In the preface, Ranjana Kaul poses an important question to readers of short stories and, specifically, to readers of Kashmiri short stories. She asks whether critics, writers and commentators attempt the understand Kashmiri short stories in the same way they attempt to understand, say, Hemingway’s The Killers.

She insists that the Kashmiri short story needs to be looked at beyond the ideas of morality or meaning. She suggests that we look at the nuances in Kaul’s stories, and I agree because that is where we deviate from the tradition of oral storytelling – telling stories to serve as lessons on good and evil, to distinguish between the moral and amoral.

For Kaul, stories were a medium of self-expression. He carved out portraits of everyday living, and if you look closely, his stories reveal a world of desire and yearnings that Kashmiris often do not acknowledge in their prose. The translator Gowhar Fazili further notes that Kaul’s stories subvert the binaries of good and evil, friend and enemy, self and other. It is for this precise reason that his prose stands out from other Kashmiri writings in this genre.

Kashmiri translations have long suffered the hand of academic English – a rigid, formal use of the English language that creates a barrier between the way the story was intended to be told and its translated version. Instead of lamenting the state of Kashmiri literary translations, with this book, this collective of translators has demonstrated how translations of Kashmiri short stories can be creativeven while remaining faithful to the author’s style. I sincerely hope this is just the beginning of a phenomenal change for Kashmiri literature, its writers, translators, and readers.

For Now, It Is Night: Stories, Hari Krishna Kaul, translated from the Kashmiri by Kalpana Raina, Tanveer Ajsi, Gowhar Fazili, Gowhar Yaqoob, HarperCollins India.