As the South Asian subcontinent changes at extraordinary speed, there’s no shortage of interest among writers inspired by the region’s fragile borders, captivating landscapes, and endless complexities. To formally recognize that interest and centre on the human story in an area too often associated with images of conflict and strife, the DSC South Asian Literature Festival http://www.richmix.org.uk/aandc_salf.htm – the first of it’s kind in the UK – begins today. Featuring writers, artists, performers and musicians highlighting “the unique storytelling heritage” from the subcontinent, the festival features over 40 authors focusing on Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. Over the course of two weeks, different themed events will outline the diverse range of issues and perspectives that continue to shape outlook on this dynamic region today.
On Friday, RichMix hosts the event “Power of the Pen: A Resolution for Kashmir?” http://www.richmix.org.uk/aandc_salf.htm. Journalist Justine Hardy sits on a panel alongside Lord Meghnad Desai and Victoria Schofield to contemplate the power of prose in finding meaning behind the conflict. Hardy’s own writing has been long inspired by the majestic, yet tragic setting of the Valley – using it as a backdrop in much of her published work. She shares with us some of her insights from years of living and working in South Asia in this interview:
This is Worldtown (TIWT): What was your first experience in Kashmir?
Justine Hardy (JH): I first went when I was very young, travelling with my mother. Those childhood impressions burnt into my psyche and brought me back as a young journalist, in the early days of the current on-going conflict.
TIWT: You’ve been writing about Kashmir for years. Can you describe the setting and theme of your book In the Valley of the Mist?
JH: Well, it’s probably important to point out that it’s not a novel, but the story of the past twenty years, written from the point of view of families that I have known in Kashmir since 1989. It maps how one family in particular, my friends and landlords in Kashmir, have lived through the arc of conflict. The setting is the Valley, with a focus on the lakes, but the threads of the story take the reader right into the most remote rural areas as well, up through the mountains of the Pir Panjal, and into the snow.
TIWT: What did you want to portray about the characters that may shed some light to an audience who may know very little about Kashmir?
JH: The way conflict is portrayed, whether we are talking about Baghdad, Basra, Kabul, Srinagar or anywhere else, is through the prism of both the military and political stories. The real core of conflict is played out through the lives of those on the ground, ordinary people trying to live their lives in the face of raids, bombings, curfews, the breakdown of infrastructures and basic amenities, and all else that comes with war and conflict. The stories of these people and families draws the reader into the story of Kashmir, and the story of surviving conflict, day by day.
TIWT: You chose to portray In the Valley of the Mist through the eyes of one family – the Dars. What was it that drew you to the Dars?
JH: About twelve years ago I was looking for a family business in Kashmir that could help me buying pashmina from local weavers. After several years of reporting from Kashmir I had met extraordinary artisans, such as weavers and embroiders. I wanted to buy stock from weavers at healthy prices for them, and sell them in the UK in order to finance a slum education project that I work with. The Dar family were that family. We worked together, and then they became my landlords and friends as well.
TIWT: Most of your work is centred in South Asia. You’ve detailed some of the challenges you’ve come to know as a British writer in the region – “an outsider within”- in your book “scoop-wallah”. What continues to frustrate, and what continues to compel your writing?
JH: Laughing – my belief is that a writer’s task is to bear witness. We have to really know our subject to be able to do that. And so my relationship with South Asia goes on, and on.