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‘The Plague Upon Us’: Of betrayal, loss of love and friendship

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Srinagar: From the pastoral pockets of Pulwama, Kashmir valley’s rich literary landscape is about to witness the rise of a new novelist.

Shabir Ahmad Mir’s debut novel ‘The Plague Upon Us’ is all set to hit the stands soon. Published by Hachette India, the book has already generated quite a buzz after Kashmir’s celebrated novelist Mirza Waheed described it as “a heartrending story of betrayal and the loss of love and friendship in times of war”.

‘The Plague Upon Us’: Of betrayal, loss of love and friendship

The novel took birth in the raging summer of 2016, when Kashmir had plunged into another phase of protests over the killing of the popular militant commander, Burhan Wani.

But for the 34-year-old author, whose short stories are already popular among netizens, publishing the debut novel wasn’t a cakewalk.

In a candid chat with The Kashmir Monitor, ‘The Plague Upon Us’ writer talks about his upcoming book, his idea of writing, and how readership crisis can be tackled in the valley. Excerpts:

KM: Before this book happened to you, how was life?

Shabir: Well, I grew up as a commoner in a non-descript Gudoora village of Pulwama district. Like most of us in Kashmir, I was born and brought up in the tumultuous times full of uncertainty. Life was all about schooling and a strict home routine. As a youngster growing under the shade of the lingering strife has its grooming to impart.

Once done with schooling in my hometown, I did my Masters in Veterinary Sciences before becoming faculty at SKUAST-Kashmir.

KM: Since you mentioned trying times in Kashmir, how did they help you to write this book?

Shabir: The novel was written during the civil uprising of 2016. I was restricted to my room due to knee surgery and the civil curfew all around.

It started with my exploration of the Greek myth of Tiresias and gradually the plot veered off to the Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and from there on it just took a life of its own and became a kind of my engagement with Kashmir’s brutal recent history while focusing on the survival of a common man.

‘The Plague Upon Us’: Of betrayal, loss of love and friendship

KM: Since you are part of the post-2010 creative boom in the valley, how did you find expression in writing?

Shabir: Well, as a creative and cathartic engagement, I reckon writing is a part of my life expression. For days, I would just procrastinate and end up writing nothing. But then, when I start to write, I would go on writing nonstop. I often write in my head first.

KM: What’s this novel all about? And how did you go about publishing the book?

Shabir: Let me sum it up using Mirza Waheed’s generous blurb for the book: “A heartrending story of betrayal and the loss of love and friendship in times of war. A loose reimagining of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, The Plague Upon Us shines a bright light on the unspeakable horrors of the dirty war that the state has waged in Kashmir for decades.”

I finished writing this novel by the end of 2016 and afterward sent queries to almost every publishing house as well as literary agencies/agents whose contact information I could gather from the net. Most of the responses were stock rejections. Only a few gave personalized rejections.

Then after a year or so, Suhail Mathur from The Book Bakers Agency liked the manuscript and we signed a contract. A couple of months later he came up with an offer from Hachette. And that was it.

KM: Does the writer have any responsibility towards being a spokesperson for traumatized people?

Shabir: When you reduce a writer to a spokesperson, you also degrade his writing to mere propaganda or polemic. I believe the first and foremost allegiance of a writer, or for that matter any artist, is to his/her art. And within that allegiance, he/she has an inescapable responsibility to stand up for his people.

KM: Many say there’s a serious readership crisis in the society today. Do you agree?

Shabir: The most obvious reason for the lack of serious readership is the onslaught of social media which has reduced our reading span to a mere ‘post’ or ‘tweet’.

Everyday scrolling down and reading hundreds of posts and tweets conditions our reading habit to a cursory, superficial type wherein we are processed to not to invest in the text beyond a certain limit and level. The engagement with a text longer than a post or tweet becomes impossible.

It can be tackled by producing good literature. Literature that makes a reader understand why it is worth for him/her to invest his time and energy in such a text in place of Facebook or Twitter. And once a reader is hooked he sure will not turn back.