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'I'm happy people are talking about Kashmiri literature' - Neerja Matoo

Eminent writer, teacher and translator Neerja Mattoo, who taught English for 30 years at Srinagar's Government College for Women, has always felt that the story of modern Kashmir has never been fully told or understood by the rest of the country.

In fact, she says, Kashmiris themselves were doubtful about their real identity after the patriotic fervour that arose during and after the tribal invasion of late 1947 was soon squandered. And the events of the 1990s made her realise that if serious efforts were not made to preserve the Kashmiri language and identity, it may be lost forever. So she devoted herself to translating.

"I have always felt that the story of modern Kashmir was never fully told or understood by the rest of the country. It was like that story about the blind men who tried to identify what an elephant looked like by touching only a part of the elephant's body. I think people in mainland India view Kashmir from their own prisms," Mattoo, whose just-published translation, 'The Greatest Kashmiri Stories Ever Told' (Aleph), spans almost a century of work by some of the finest writers of short fiction in the language, told IANS in an interview.

Thus, the title of her first collection of Kashmiri short stories was "deliberately titled as 'The Stranger Beside Me' because to our fellow citizens, Kashmir remained a stranger. The flood of aspirations and expectations that were let loose in the patriotic fervour during and after the tribal invasion of late 1947 were soon squandered by politics and narrowness of perception", she said.

"This left Kashmiris themselves doubtful about their real identity. Caught in global politics, the syncretic fabric of Kashmiri culture and identity was shattered and the different communities developed a deep suspicion of one another which led to the mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, a miniscule minority that had lived peacefully and in mutual trust with the majority," she added.

The Kashmiri Pandits "did not inhabit ghettos or separate habitations but were part of every mohalla in the city and village. In the 1990s the heroes of one community became the villains of the other and there was no mutual trust anymore. I hope the gulf can be bridged by the assertion of a common language and heritage", Mattoo maintained.

The events of the 1990s, she said, "made me realise that if we don't make serious efforts to preserve our language and identity we may lose it forever. So I devoted myself to translating".

'The Stranger Beside Me', a collection of 15 stories was received well. "After that, since not much academic work was being done in college in the turbulent 1990s, I had enough time to collect as many stories by Kashmiri writers who were only known in Kashmir so that their work could be acknowledged by the rest of the world," Mattoo elaborated.

Subsequently two more collections of stories were published by the Sahitya Academy - 'Contemporary Kashmiri Short Stories' and 'Kath, stories from Kashmir', after which she turned her attention to Kashmiri poetry.

"I had heard the verses and songs of women poets sung by Sufiyana and folk musicians in Kashmir. So I was familiar with the fact that Kashmiri women poets from the 14th century downwards had written great poetry in the mystical and the lyrical style. I wanted these remarkable women to be known outside the Valley," Mattoo said.

She began translating four of them, two in the mystical tradition and two in the romantic lyrical tradition - Lal Ded, Habba Khatoon, Rupa Bhavani and Arnimal from the 14th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries respectively. This book is titled 'The Mystic and The Lyric: Four Women Poets of Kashmir'.

Then, at a literature festival a few years ago, Mattoo met editor and translator Mini Krishnan who was compiling a book of long short stories in different Indian languages and she asked whether there was a long Kashmiri short story.

"I gave her 'The Bulbuls' and it was published in the Anthology, 'Tell Me a Long Long Story' published by Aleph. That is how this publishing house approached me to bring out a collection in their series eThe Greatest Short Stories' written in different languages. The result of my effort is the present volume published in 2022.

"The journey has been good and productive and I am happy that people are talking about Kashmiri literature," Mattoo said.

In fact, what really got her going was a remark by a participant at a seminar some years ago: "Really, is there a Kashmiri language too? I have heard about Dogri but didn't know that Kashmiri language also exists."

"It was only when I heard this remark about Kashmiri language in the Delhi seminar in 1986 that I was provoked to pay serious attention to translating from Kashmiri into English so that the non-Kashmiris would know about the richness of Kashmiri language and literature," Mattoo said.

How did 'The Greatest Kashmiri Short Stories Ever Told' come about?

"When I began in the early 1990s most of our good short story writers were still alive, so I asked them to send me their best so that I could bring out a collection. They were most cooperative and happy to interact with me and give me an opportunity to translate them so that their work would be known outside Kashmir. I read a lot and chose what I thought were the best representatives of the craft as well as the reality of Kashmir from different perspectives," Mattoo explained.

Some stories in the collection are realistic dramas that hold up a startlingly clear mirror to society, such as Sofi Ghulam Mohammad's 'Paper Tigers', or lay bare the pain of losing one's homeland as Ratan Lal Shant does in 'Moss Swimming on the Water'. There are others like Ghulam Nabi Shakir's "Unquenched Thirst" and Umesh Kaul's "The Heart's Bondage" that look beyond the exterior and focus on the complex inner lives of Kashmiri women.

"All these stories, with varied themes born out of the Kashmiri experience, are a record of the history of Kashmir in the modern age. At the same time, they have a timeless, universal appeal," Mattoo writes in the Introduction.

This is a book that will open up a whole new world and deserves to be on the bucket list of every reader.

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