“The Plague Upon Us”, is said to be the best book of 2020 and I couldn’t stop myself from talking to the writer Shabir Ahmad Mir. Shabir is a first timer with books but has a few short stories in his bag. Hailing from Kashmir, he writes bone-chilling stories surrounding the theme of survival keeping in mind sustainability and human conflict. Kashmir in the 1990s, a setting not very different from today is quite evident as blood drips from the pellet-stricken eyes of young men; Oubaid looks at a wave of sightlessness spreading through the streets of his home, Kashmir. The Expression in his head tells him clearly about who brought this plague into his house, but recognizing it would mean Oubaid must challenge his past and the fears he has witnessed. “The Plague upon Us” reveals Oubaid’s memoirs from the standpoints of four people of the Kashmir valley who were once juvenile friends – a militant, a rich man, the daughter of a social climber, and a member of the Brotherhood. As the bits of a tangram puzzle fall into place, there loosens the full tragedy of people looking for comfort and a place to call, home. A searing and power-packed reflection of our times, this brilliantly crafted novel announces the arrival of a striking new voice in modern/contemporary fiction. Here are a few excerpts with the author himself.
Why did you write “The Plague Upon Us”?
Because I had to. Like the protagonist of my novel, there are voices in my head and the only way to exorcise them out is to put them down on paper and hope they are done with me.
You used to write short stories and now you are the author of a book. Tell us about the transition.
This novel started as a tentative short story so the transition was not that much overtly disruptive. And the structure of this novel is more like long stories locked together so in a way I am yet to make the full transition from short stories to the novel. Maybe in my next, I will finally do it.
“The Plague Upon Us”, is said to be the best book of 2020. How does it feel to be the author of the best seller?
Is it? That is news to me. I think I can answer this question only once I start receiving feedback and/or get to read about how readers are taking the novel. So far the response has been good but limited so, in my opinion, it is too early to be talking about this.
What is that you wanted to explore through this book because the book brings out the conflicts of opinions and loyalties.
I have said this elsewhere; I had started this novel as some kind of Tiresias’ exploration of the wasteland that is present-day Kashmir but it outgrew that premise and took a shape of its own. I just let characters lead me to where they wanted. In retrospect, I can say the novel explores the dehumanization of Kashmiris particularly those ones whose instinct to survive overwhelms every other instinct of theirs, be it bravery, integrity, or loyalty.
Did your thoughtfully censor the book?
No, I did not. Not at least consciously.
How was life before and after “The Plague Upon Us”?
The Social Media buzz apart; there is not much of a change. It is the same old. Except that every now and then someone drops in to have an autographed copy, preferably free.
How has Kashmir’s recent brutal history made an impact on you?
I have grown up in that history. It is as much a part of me as I am a part of it. Every Kashmiri’s psyche today is either a response to this brutal history or a reaction to it. I am no different.
How did you develop an interest in writing?
It is not like that I had this dream of being a writer someday; of having books published and circulated far and wide. Writing for me has always been an extension of what is happening in my head. It is a kind of power that I enjoy where I deconstruct and reconstruct universe after universe of memories, stories, sensations, apprehensions, anxieties, fantasies. It is not as if I consciously try to build up a plot or character or scene or story. A universe after universe takes birth in my head every now and then, each universe shines bright and then fades away (but is always lurking somewhere there). Occasionally, I try to put in words whatever part of these universes I can and that is how I started writing and that is how I write.
How tough or easy was it to publish the book?
I had to pay my dues. I was done writing this book by the end of 2016 and I spent the whole of 2017 and almost half of 2018 trying to get a publisher or an agent. I sent email after email, submitted synopsis, and sample chapters to almost everyone who was someone in the publication field. I even tried to solicit feedback from all the established writers from Kashmir and outside whose contact details I could get my hands on. It was rejection from everywhere-some polite, some mechanical. Though there was encouragement from few. I tried to focus on that encouragement and kept on trying till Suhail Mathur from The Book Bakers got interested and he took it from there to Hachette.
“The Plague Upon Us” is the spokesperson for the disturbed people of Kashmir. How responsible did you have to be?
First, let us set the record straight. Kashmiri people are not disturbed but oppressed and they are suffering untold tragedies day in and day out. Now back to the question I don’t claim to be any sort of spokesperson or representative or voice of Kashmir. I am simply a writer trying to tell a story. As an artist, I firmly believe my first allegiance lies with my art and within that allegiance, I have the inescapable responsibility to stand up for my people.
Your future work is also going to be about Kashmir? Will it be about the recent lockdown, if yes?
Right now I am working on a novel that is set in Srinagar but in past. I do not know whether that will be my next published work as I am a very- disciplined writer, I might shelve it and start writing something else. And it may or may not be about the lockdown. Who knows!
Will you still write short stories after this?
I already have. As I told you earlier I finished writing this novel in 2016 and since then short stories are all that I have been writing. A couple of them have been published as well.
How does Greek Mythology inspire you?
It is not just Greek Mythology but Mythology of all sorts holds a special fascination for me. Greek, Indian, Persian, Norse, and even the modern-Tolkien, George Martin- I love Mythology. They are the primordial stories for me, sort of where it all begins.
What are your literary influences?
I believe there is something of everyone that I have ever read that has influenced me. And I don’t think I am in a position to point out specific names, it is a subconscious thing and the best answer would be that of my readers.
What do you think about the political situation in India?
That I cannot answer this question as I would have liked to, should be your answer.
Social media is a boon or a bane for the current situation Kashmir is in?
More of a boon than a bane. It is turning out as a great equalizer of narratives.
Your short stories and the book also are about the conflicts in Kashmir. Why?
That is not factually correct. Not all my short stories are about Kashmir. The Last Act, Survival, Anti-Pygmalion, Magnum Opus are examples of a few of my short stories that have nothing to do with Kashmir. Even The Djinn that fell from the Walnut Tree can be read in a Kashmir-free context. That being said Kashmir and Kashmir’s tragedy occupies the firmament of my imagination like a black Sun, Anything that sprouts in my head grows towards it. This distortion in my imaginative landscape is but natural once you consider how people live and survive in Kashmir.
What other subjects would you want to write about in the future?
Anything and everything that takes my fancy. I would especially love to write some sci-fi someday. Fantasy is also something that I would love to explore.