Shahnaz Bashir has certainly achieved very few have been able to from the entire state with his sharp and powerful writing. An Assistant Professor teaching Journalism in Central University of Kashmir, Shahnaz has done so well for himself to be known beyond his professional designation.
Shahnaz was born and grew up in a small suburb of Srinagar called Natipora. To be born in this family was a blessing as Shahnaz shares, “My parents had everything: a couple of small farms, happiness and innocence. Unlike people who are born in protective, privileged, affluent families—born of parents educated enough to be oblivious and prim about the realities of the ground—my kind of familial and social backgrounds were different. My background provided me a chance to look elsewhere too. It allowed me to be intimately grounded in the ordinary.”
Much like others in Kashmir, Shahnaz went to a normal, low-profile English-medium school that, like many other schools, didn’t encourage innovation or originality. “We had to rote-learn everything from a language subject to sciences to social sciences. I wouldn’t understand an atom of what I was taught. But there were many good things about it. We had teachers who were very strong in morals,” Shahnaz recalls. Shahnaz’s parents wanted him to be a doctor, something he even attempted twice with no success, but his interest lied in Literature and not in anything else.
“I attempted the medical entrance examination twice and brought disappointment both times. Because in those days when it was a fashion to become a doctor, I was interested in reading Shakespeare’s sonnets than spend time in solving the indecipherable numerical problems in physics. I had started writing in my college days only. But the university years brought a hiatus. I took a diversion to learning and knowing history, philosophy and politics. That helped me accentuate my understanding about things and enabled me to shape my worldview,” he shares. Shahnaz graduated in Arts and Social Sciences: political science, history and English literature privately while he taught at many private schools and tuitions. While professionally, he studied Mass Communication & Journalism from MERC, University of Kashmir and is also a gold medalist in the same. Shahnaz was also awarded the Shamim Ahmad Shamim Memorial Kashmir Times 2007 Award for excelling in media studies.
A topper in his Course from, he has nearly a decade of working experience in the media domain. Currently, he is working as His love for writing led him to work in local newspapers without salary for months together, before he was selected for teaching at a university at Hyderabad. Shahnaz’s initial reluctance to go away from his parents went away only after they insisted him to leave for Hyderabad for a better life. As the luck would have it, Shahnaz was invited a few years later by Central University Kashmir to as it looked to establish the Journalism Department in campus. Shahnaz is currently working as Assistant Professor at Department of Convergent Journalism, School of Media Studies in CUK and teaches creative journalism and narrative and literary reportage as the Coordinator of the postgraduate media studies’ programme.
His coming back to Kashmir was the beginning of a new chapter in Shahnaz’s life as a writer. All the writing he did all his college years began getting published, only to be appreciated widely by readers all around him. His short fiction, memoir essays, poetry and reportage have been anthologised or published in many popular books, some of the most notable among them being ‘Of Occupation and Resistance–Writings from Kashmir’ (2013) and ‘Extraordinary Short Stories from the 19th Century to the Present’ (2014) and many more before he completely changed the equation with his debut novel.
He tells more, “Writing is my basic instinct. It was always in me but the conflict and suffering we all have gone through has definitely shaped my writing. My early writings were non-fictional. I wrote columns in the local dailies for a decade on issues ranging from political to social to cultural to literary and so on. But I always craved for creative writing that consequently led to my first book ‘The Half Mother’.”
The Half Mother is the story of Haleema-a mother and a daughter yesterday, a ‘half mother’ and an orphan today, tormented by not knowing whether her son Imran is dead or alive, torn apart by her own lonely existence. While she battles for answers and seeks out torture camps, jails and morgues for any signs of Imran, Kashmir suffers. The novel which came out in 2014 was a sensational hit in all parts of the country as it was widely reviewed and critically lauded by the writing and reading fraternity alike. The book created history as it won Shahnaz the Muse India Young Writer Award for the year 2015. A major weekly tabloid from Kashmir has profiled Shahnaz as ‘one of the nine impact-makers to stand out in the J&K’ in 2016.
So how did ‘The Half Mother’ happen? Shahnaz replies, “In this strife-torn valley, I have always been tormented by feelings of indefinite and eternal uncertainty. The Half Mother is an outcome of those feelings. We all have heard the stories of Half-widows in Kashmir, those whose husbands never came back once they were arrested by Forces. The Half Mother tries to paint the other side of the picture.” While the book can be categorized as a fiction, Shahnaz asserts that it is more than merely a work of imagination. “The Half Mother is the reality of Kashmir. It’s is a realistic novel. While there might be use of fiction in expressing the story, the subject is very much real, something I have closely witnessed. It is the story of a woman who represents thousands of such women in Kashmir who are lonely and suffering in waiting for their loved ones to return.”
In a place like Kashmir, it is not the first thing on anybody’s mind by long miles to write or to publish what has been written. Shahnaz confirms that things were no different for him either. “It is always difficult to get published when you are unsolicited. But that does not mean I would back down. I got a number of rejections from several publication houses for my first book. But I believed in my writing and didn’t lose heart. The result of my consistency and commitment is before you,” he emphasizes on not losing hope.
Being a celebrated author, Shahnaz is an avid reader also. His most favourite authors hitherto are Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov while his favourite books are Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, The Death of Ivan Illych and many others. He is of the belief that without reading one cannot write. “I believe if one has to write one book, one should have read at least three dozens of them. I personally cannot write without reading. I need a literary warm up always before writing,” he says.
Shahnaz has now come out with his new book ‘Scattered Souls’, a collection of short stories in English that bring out the reality of Kashmir to masses. The book is already garnering rave reviews from the language aficionados. He tells us more about the book, “This is a collection of interlinked stories that brings together the stories of some of those people probing the quandaries of their precarious existence. There is that ex-militant whose past continues to stalk his present; the wife who begins to dress like her husband after losing him to crossfire. There is the boy who obsessively follows President Obama’s India visit, hoping to hear him mention the ‘K’ word and the man whose transistor triggers paranoia in his neighbourhood. And there are more such stories.”
Shahnaz finds the hardest thing about writing to actually sit down and write while the easiest for him is when he is in the middle of the writing, absorbed. He tells more, “My greatest stress is when I have to delay writing for other moral and social responsibilities and obligations. My constant greatest stress is to work in an atmosphere where there is no real work culture. An atmosphere where work culture has only the following meanings: coming on time and flipping through files, doing letter-letter whole day, attending meetings, and not being creative, not being productive; talking and boasting and doing nothing on the ground. It always becomes increasingly difficult to deal with it because this nuisance is systemic. I don’t really relax.”
We asked Shahnaz of his hobbies to which he has this to reply, “I am consumed by wanderlust, I love to travel to new places. I enjoy shopping, I revel in get-togethers with my students, I love to spend hours in browsing books in bookstores, and I enjoy changing diapers of my kids. I teach kids at University but then I also play random games in the streets. I am also the unofficial plumber of my house, and some carpentry and digging here and there. Basically I do a lot of things but then my first love is writing.”
Shahnaz is keeping suspense on his future projects as he shares very little, “I am writing a new book, my third one. What it will be? You’d find out once it is out. But of course, it is going to be very different than my previous books.”