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Peace Watch » Featured, Kashmir-Talk » Prof. Hameedah Nayeem Looks at Significance of the Story of Downtown Boy

Prof. Hameedah Nayeem Looks at Significance of the Story of Downtown Boy



What is in a Title?

Significance of the title Story of Downtown Boy— and the Issues thereof

Prof. Hameedah Nayeem

Last week when two books were released in the university’s Ibni Khaldoon Hall, It set me thinking about the significance of the title of G M Zahid ‘s (Z.G. Muhammad’s) book- Srinagar, the City of Culture and Resistance: Story of Downtown Boy as a pointer to understand its genre. On the one hand, it is about Srinagar, the city of culture and resistance, seemingly a sociological document and on the other, story of down town boy which should qualify it as an autobiography. But a closer look at the book reveals that it is different from a methodical sociological analysis of Srinagar and more nuanced than an autobiography. Ordinarily autobiography is the account of the life of a person from a particular moment in time while the diary moves through a series of moments in time. It takes stock of the autobiographer’s life from the moment of composition. It may rely on a variety of perspectives but is mostly based on the writer’s memory. A memoir on the other hand, is closely associated with autobiography but tends to focus less on self and more on impersonal things. Autobiography could be about author’s spiritual journey, it could be fictional or confessional. But the double title gives the book a dialogic structure. In discourses such as this one,there can’t be any character existing prior to the linguistic, social operations of the dialogue with the other. Before we can use words for self expression, we must have developed language through dialogue with other people. I am not using dialogue in the usual sense but trying to address the prior issue as to how such dialogues are in the first place enabled or even made possible. They are so because language is constitutively intersubjective, therefore social and logically precedes subjectivity.( Bakhtin) It is never neutral, unaddressed, exempt from the aspirations of others. Thus it is dialogic. ‘Our hallowed autonomous individuality is an illusion’ ( Bakhtin), that in fact the ‘I’ that speaks is speaking simultaneously a ‘ polyphony of languages’ derived from diverse social contexts and origins. In reality each of us is a ‘we’ and not an ‘I’. This fact of life has an exalted, almost religious value. However, the dialogical text remains the exception rather than the norm. This kind of text technically dismantles the dictatorial authorial voice that regulates and resolves any interplay of other voices in the text. It has a long and rich historical foundation in the genre of Socratic Dialogues and the ancient Menippean Satire which is directly rooted in the carnival folklore. In the carnival,the social hierarchies of everyday life, their solemnities and pieties; etiquettes as well as ready- made truths are profaned and literally outspoken by normally suppressed voices and energies demanding equal dialogic status. A text written along these lines is the product of sociological imagination. C.Wright Mills, a fundamental figure in Sociology, defined sociological imagination as ‘the intersection of history and biography.It enables us to grasp history and biography or micro history and the relation between the two within society’. No matter , how unique we are, we are also products of our time. Social history, thus, concentrates upon the social, economic and cultural institutions and cultural life of a people. An account of the personal and social details of a person’s life serves to identify the person, place of birth, religion, race, education and current living situation. In short it looks at the lived experience of the past. English historian G M Trevelgan saw social history as the bridging point between economic and political history reflecting that ‘without social history, economic history is barren and political history unintelligible. It is history with the people put back in’.


Jurgen Kocka finds two meanings to social history.At the simplest level,it is the sub division of historiography that focuses on social structures and processes.It stands in contrast to political or economic history. The second meaning is broader. It is the history of an entire society from a socio- cultural perspective. The individual conduct is seen as closely enmeshed in a particular social and historical context. In the 1960s and 1970s, “social history became a central concept and a rallying point of historiographic revisionism. It gave priority to the study of particular phenomena such as classes and movements, urbanization and industrialization, family and education, work and leisure, mobility, inequality, conflicts and revolutions.. It stressed structures and processes over actors and events to debunk monumental dominant histories.


Story of Down Town Boy falls in this category as it gives a view from below, the worm’s eye view of cultural history where the dominant narrative is insignificant to the people below. As an autobiography it does not trace the growth of a consciousness or different stages in the author’s physical or mental development or the journey in quest of a spiritual meaning in life nor is it written merely out of love for self expression. Story of downtown boy is not preoccupied with any of these objectives but primarily written as a memoir, in a serial form over the past few years under the heading of ‘Nostalgia’ in the Daily Greater Kashmir. It is written out of a passionate concern for a way of life, a time of being, a whole culture of a people in the city of Srinagar where the boy grew up and in which he has been a participant. It is of course nostalgic of a way and manner of living in his youthful days which has fast vanished and only its remnants could be discerned on the margins of this society. The boy is nostalgic about that culture which he solely reproduces from memory and which has been gradually replaced by a way of life technologically rich with all the modern gadgetry and materialistic thirst but impoverished socially and spiritually as it has replaced a sacred way of life soaked in living faith and accompanying vibrant rituals, fellow feeling and cohesiveness in the society. Some of the rituals are still there but bereft of the spirit they once had. It introduces the idea of folklore, oral history and “thick description” in Kashmir history which is otherwise mostly absent from the dominant official historical documents.


Nostalgia is at the heart of many great works of art which try to recreate a cherished past. There is poignant nostalgia about a way of life that has fast disappeared from England in the Wessex novels of Hardy or Malgudi Days of R K Narrayan, the fictional county Yoknapatawpha in William Faulkner’s novels, Agha Shahid’s nostalgic poetry about a whole culture that has been brutally disrupted in Kashmir or Mehmood Darvesh’s poetry written on the period before Naqbah( disaster)or Toni Morrison’s twin novels -Beloved and Jazz that imaginatively reconstruct a cultural past of African Americans, and Orhan Pamukh’s ‘Istambul’. In fact, the longing to return to a lost homeland becomes a central feature of the western literary tradition long before the term ‘’nostalgia’’ was coined to describe it. Nostalgia is derived from a Homeric term ’nostos’ which means homecoming. Homer’s first image of Odysseus is of him weeping, pining for his beloved Ithaca. Despite offer of marriage and happy life by Goddess Calypso and forewarnings of the hardships on the way to his home, Odysseus desires nothing more than return to the place of his birth. This first ‘’narrative of return’’ establishes an archetypal pattern that continues to compel writers even today whether major or minor and this ‘return’ has taken symbolic overtones in the sense that there is longing for return not only to a home but to a cherished past. In the last century, some distinguished writers across the globe have rewritten the Homeric tale. But nostalgia in the 20th century is characterised as a form of amnesia. “Memory” signifies intimate personal experience which often counters institutional histories, ”nostalgia’’ signifies inauthentic or commodified experiences inculcated by capitalist or nationalist interests. Indeed cultural critics like bell hooks have insisted that the study of memory demands a rigorous rejection of nostalgia calling for a politicization of memory that distinguishes nostalgia- that longing for something to be as it once was, a kind of useless act, from that remembering that serves to illuminate and transform the present. For instance, BJP-RSS’s mythical inauthentic nostalgia for a Hindu Raj that never was, to recreate it now and exclude or homogenise other communities with it and Donald Trump’s inauthentic nostalgia of a mythical past of America for Americans alone, is fraught with dangerous consequences for humanity. Western nations have historically concealed their oppression of other populations by appropriating their experiences and representing them in sentimentalized terms. That actually generates “imperialist nostalgia”. Such representations of the past do not question mainstream versions of history- as acts of memory can but legitimize them by concealing complicity with often brutal domination.


However, dismissal of authentic nostalgia risks occluding crucial aspects of contemporary Anglophone literature, chronicles and micro histories of suppressed races where Memory and nostalgia are intertwined as in Toni Morrison’s Beloved or even in the book under discussion. Nostalgia encourages an imaginative exploration of how present systems of social relations fail to address human needs and the specific objects of nostalgia-lost or imagined homelands- represent efforts to articulate alternatives. Novels such as Beloved reclaim and represent experiences or perceptions that have been actively or passively forgotten. If memory becomes the term to describe these unrecognised or unrecorded experiences or perceptions of the world, then novels such as Beloved and Jazz and memoirs like Story of Down Town Boy imaginatively reconstruct and thereby ‘secure’ collective histories that have been lost to contemporary African Americans or Kashmiris of Down Town Srinagar.These books at the same time open up new interpretations of these histories and thereby enable characters and readers to revise their own longings in ways that enable more healthy relationships. 


Zahid’s book is not a work of art though literary touches are discernible here and there. It is reproduced as memories from imagination which are stored as micro history in his mind. He chronicles them not with a longing to return to that past but to remember and celebrate, pay tributes to that culture and above all, to preserve it for posterity as a chronicle of a whole way of life, time of being which once was and is no more . However one constant remains in all this and that is the resistance that has been the most defining marker of downtown city for centuries and not only of his childhood days. .That resistance remains, in fact has assumed newer forms and proportions in view of “ democratic and egalitarian repression.” Earlier resistance was against autocratic despotic monarchies and regimes. Today nothing has changed on the ground except the political elites who are masquerading under euphemistic nomenclature of “ democracy and secularism” but in reality more insidious than the earlier ones whose nature of rule had at least correspondence with the type of rule they openly subscribed to.The generalised title Story of Down Town Boy generalises the experiences and takes it away from the realm of purely subjective domain. It has chronicled cultural events and experiences that are communitarian, collective and dialogic. Hence It is not the autobiographical story of the boy but could be the micro history of any boy from down town. Hence largely objective description of the life he lived in his formative years. In other words, it is a direct presentation of communitarian life of his childhood days. This fact was testified to by many persons of Zahid’s age group in the audience who had read the book and echoed from the audience that it is their story too. This public testimony substantiates my point that Zahid is an intradiegetic narrator in the book- a participant in the action as well as the chronicler of this micro history simultaneously.


Viewed from another angle, this book is an attempt at filling a vacuum of cultural history of Kashmir that has largely remained unrepresented. Because so far the dominant discourse has depicted Kashmir in ‘touristy’ terms. The defining image of Kashmir in collective imagination outside has been a Shikara anchored on the shimmering waters of the Dal lake against the backdrop of Zabarwan hills, accompanied by a shot of snow peaks of Gulmarg and fresh water streams of Pahalgam in all its splendour but sans people. It is not an accidental image but has earned its place over decades of ‘painstaking work by an institutional machinery geared to project and ‘ protect’ Kashmir in ‘touristy’ terms. It confirms the ‘absence of an institutional consciousness about the people’ as this machinery presupposes people extraneous to the commercial project of attracting tourists to the state; one that assumes that the juxtaposition of ‘ignoble’ people’s description and the glorious untouched nature somehow undermines that beauty! Zahid’s book tries to invest people with a self , with a personality, with an identity, in short impregnates an abstract skeleton of Kashmiris with flesh and bones which defines their distinct identity. Most books produced by dominant discourse are homogenising and territorialising discourses aimed at legitimizing and justifying Kashmir as an ‘anonymous’ part of India and nothing is written about people’s lives, or the way they live, about their distinct culture as that could weaken their case. But in recent years Indian state and her media have done a ‘pretty good job’ of defining Kashmiris by othering and criminalising them by her choicest abusive terms like ugarwadis, ulgawadis, anti nationals,terrorists, stone pelters, OGWs, informers, secessionists, separatists and main streamists to bolster her narrative on Kashmir. These falsified and dehumanised reductive perceptions have gained such currency in India that our students or even common Kashmiris are persecuted at the slightest pretext in different states and denied rented accommodation by one and all, not to talk of the hotels, hostels and guest houses. Yet there have not been adequate counter narratives in written form to dismantle these dehumanised reductive objectifications of Kashmiri community. We have some descriptions of people in the older histories like Lawrence’s The Valley of Kashmir but in spite of his sympathetic attitude towards Kashmiris,his formulations about Kashmiris smack of racism. Ironically Kashmiris have taken his words about themselves as gospel truths and these have even been used by the dominant state as a guide to deal with Kashmiris. But at closer scrutiny, those formulations are found to belie our basic nature and distinct ethos as a people who besides suffering enormously over centuries have also a glorious civilization of knowledge, skills and rich cultural life. His book is about his perceptions and not objective truths about us. Zahid does not make any academic formulations to describe us nor does he impose a pattern on his perceptions and experiences. He only chronicles and reconstructs imaginatively from memory an amorphous multi colored cultural past that he has been a participant in, in English language. There could be shortcomings of language. But no one can miss what he wants to communicate and therein lies the value of this book as a first step to chronicle the past socio- cultural life of Kashmir that lends a body and a soul to its people and thereby problematizes the monumental official historical documents.


Author is Professor English at  Kashmir University

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