Book Review: Doors to Future

Through media we have seen how clasping a few rags, desperate migrants and refugees, forced by excruciatingly hard circumstances, boarded those brittle crafts and rubber boats and embarked on perilous sea journey; many drowned on the way and many succeeded in reaching the safe shores of Fortress Europe. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West while tracing the complicated journey that migrants surmount after fleeing their home countries, recreates the complex universe of their experiences and the convoluted emotions and tensions of separation from one’s homeland and the dear ones. His vigorous novel, thus, is the story that media images cannot tell us.   

The novel is timely: it is about refugees or migration. It is more about migration actually. “We are all migrants through time,” Hamid tries to tell us. And, as we travel from the war-ravaged — unnamed — country of Saeed and Nadia, the protagonists, to the Greek island of Mykonos and then to metropolitan cities of London and San Francisco, where they end up after passing through mysterious doors, their intimate migrant experiences, albeit inflected by their varying temperaments, is revealed to us in its attendant complexity.

“It was said in those days,” says the narrator of Exit West half way through the novel,“that the passage was both like dying and like being born, and indeed Nadia experienced a kind of extinguishing as she entered the blackness and a gasping struggle as she fought to exit it, and she felt cold and bruised and damp as she lay on the floor of the room at the other side.”

This brief passage through a rectangular dark door, which mysteriously takes people to faraway places, is all there is about the journey from the home country to the country of refuge. But this brevity is deliberate, as it serves to keep the narrative focused on subjective experiences of migration rather than its outwardly, almost Homeric, image of courageous sea journey — what in media we have seen umpteen times already. However, even within this minimalist description, we can feel those dramatic elements that mark a migrant’s arduous travel: Nadia’s “gasping struggle” and her exit from the door as “cold and bruised and damp.”

Saeed (an adman) and Nadia (an insurance agent) have a dissimilar attitude towards life. If Nadia is pragmatic, Saeed has a stronger sense of nostalgia. He is attached to his family, while Nadia has left hers and lives a rebelliously independent life. Despite being somewhat different people, they find love for each other. But, as they are forced by circumstances to flee their country, and get enmeshed in the vagaries of migrant life, they begin to drift apart and become emotionally aloof — as if they just happen to share a common shelter. Yet, Nadia tells herself, Saeed was “just out of rhythm with her in this moment.”

Nadia is a strong character who wills to life, and this becomes starkly apparent in her attitude to the very mundane. When Saeed turns nervous and impatient because Nadia had taken too long in the washroom of a London house where they had ended up and asks her “What the hell are you doing?”Nadia holds her ground, and we see: “What she was doing, what she had just done, was for her not about frivolity, it was about the essential, about being human, living as a human being, reminding oneself of what one was, as so it mattered, and if necessary was worth a fight.”

Nadia’s pragmatic attitude would allow her to tackle the roughness in the house which they were sharing with many other migrants because Nadia believed that “in life roughness had to be managed.” And this roughness emanated from prejudices and suspicions within the migrant community as much from the white natives, whose social landscape was disturbed by the sudden intrusion of foreigners. If it was not Nadia, Saeed would be lost in this new situation, because his nostalgia for his homeland never really left him, and Nadia realised that the more they moved away from their country of birth, “the more he sought to strengthen his connection to it, tying ropes to the air of an era that for her was unambiguously gone.”  

This pain of separation from one’s homeland and grudging adjustments to new reality borne out of migration is the main theme of the novel. And yet, under Saeed and Nadia’s bitter-sweet love story runs a parallel current: universality, or inevitability, of migration. Through this idea, Hamid seeks to counter what he, at a public talk, called “nostalgic political impulses,” which animates the mushrooming nativist parties in the western countries. Hamid wants to affirm that “everyone is a migrant — even people who are in the same place because that place changes over decades.” For me, this idea conjures up Ludo, the protagonist of 2013 novel A General Theory of Oblivion which I had read over the last summer. Ludo, a Portuguese woman, bricks herself in her apartment in the wake of the Angolan war against the Portuguese authorities, and she sustains in that apartment for thirty years, all the while receiving news from outside in bits and pieces. In these three decades, Luanda, the capital city, has changed, the world has changed. And thus, even though staying in the same apartment for three decades Ludo had migrated through time.

Among the brief vignettes that Hamid adroitly places in his narrative, there is a story of an old woman from Palo Alto—who “lived in the same house her entire life”—which conveys this message of migration through time.    

But there is a dystopian angle to migration as well, or so it seems, as one moves toward the later part of the novel: the white natives rise against the migrants, the government beefs up surveillance, and pushes the migrants from city spaces to its peripheries. Though ethnically diverse, the migrants also organise themselves and fight back. This is a scenario, a worst nightmare which Hamid forces us to visualise beforehand, perhaps to underline its inevitability, and, at the same time, by constructing it in a certain way, anticipating it as less alarming.

“Harrowing photographs,” writes Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others, “do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand.” It is narratives, then, that help. For a telling example, one can safely juxtapose the heart-rending picture of lifeless toddler Aylan Kurdi and Exit West: the former really haunt us while the latter attempts to make us understand. If the poignant picture of Aylan Kurdi moved us, stirred our conscience and sympathy for refugees, Exit West has potential to make us understand their complex lives. So, to slightly misquote Sontag, “To understand is, more and more, not to call up a picture but to be able to recall a narrative.” In the context of the recent refugee crisis, one can name Exit West as that defining book.

On a certain Friday night, when I sat to write this review I counted, just out of curiosity, the number of orange sticky flags I had expended during the reading of Exit West. It was exactly twenty. Re-reading those marked pages after one month immediately revived the moments and feelings in which they were previously read. That I could easily, almost seamlessly, reconnect with the plot and the storyline of the novel speaks of its brilliance. Hamid’s understated eloquence is almost poetic and his style of description sparse yet compelling.


This review was first published in Kashmir Narrator on 29 Mar 2018:


A Bloody Night in Pampore

Don’t tell me Papa Kishtwari looked ferocious,
And his eyes had all the fire of terror;
That his hairs were dyed dark ginger
And he walked with intimidating airs.

Tell me about that January night in 1996,
Which was the Night of Salvation,
When his armed pack of savage men,
After having slain a man at the door of a mosque,
Dragged a saffron trader from his home and tied
Him to an almond tree in his own courtyard.
And set his house on fire, his elderly mother still inside.
In her trembling pleas to Papa Kishtwari,
What did Samad’s wife tell him?
Did she faint terror-stricken
And sank to the January’s cold ground?
Or did she run to save
Her husband’s elderly mother,
Who was trapped
Inside the slowly burning house?

Tell me what she did when Papa Kishtwari shot
Samad Dar in front of his sons and daughters?
And rendered her a (yet another) widow of the dirty war?
Did her eyes freeze in the womb of that darkest night
And made her a piece of cold stone?
Did she feel the burning steel rip her heart?
And she was blown in the whirlwind of death?
Or, she untied her husband’s blood-soaked body
Off the almond tree which they had planted years ago?

Note: The poem is based on a true incident.



This poem was first published by Kashmir Lit in Mar 2018:


Zulmich Shaam

Yi zulmich shaam ti zahn samsaar gasya 

Zanh gasya mazloom yemi naar nish azaad

Ja’abir jabr ti karri ti insaaf ti karri

Yi appuz wanan woal ti zahn sharmsaar gasya 

Zanh gasya yuth ki dimav naad andri

Ti peathi ababeel wassan 

Zahn ti wan tiuth walgaaar gasya 


Yemis bujjaras do’kh ti ruud na waen

Yemis acchen gaash ti nivukh

Yemis lokchaar ti maklyov qe’d khaanan manz 

Yemis wizi wizi yaad pevaan wanduk sua mokur anigott

Yemis kuthi manz mahraaz nivukh 

Su naad di kamis, su gasi kottt

Su baavi kya su bavi kamis, ga’r zaanan manz

Yi yemis tengul peov jigrass

Temis ti su zahn baar wasya…

Mushkil Wattan Manz

Yelli shab zuul mutzraai
Kul asmaan wasith gasi
Nabb feari rang ti gowher simaab gasi
Dazzan waar waar kainaatik raaz
Yelli su akh sitar khasith gasi

Lar traavi darwazas, kalle bari fernas andar
Pati andri andri kath karaan, akhir pris’es:

Ay! Gaash tse mitzrakh na wani ghand
Tse karakh na azaad
Tim pareshaan makeen
Yim fasith gamit wandhkis mandhlis manz
Yim dilf’ett banith mushkil wattan manz
Rattith cheani aaash har dam chi asaan
Yim dil daarith chi wuchaan asmaan
Patti wizzi wizzi baraan dham chi asaan
Yelli ti kahn prisaan chukh
Tim wanan, chuss aadam wumaid chum
Beyi kuss sahari aasem gar yitti na ro’zem
Yelli kahn prisaan chukh khayaaluk dhokhh akhir ti kuuta
Tim wanan, agar na kehn ti ro’zem, bus akh khudai ro’zem…

Naari Wathh (Path of Fire)

Aaz soonch aechh bandh karith
Traav dil ken khayaalan manz goant
Lithhi lor kar dil ken khubaban
Naar zaal pannis ashqikis makaanas

Yuth dazzi jigras nov armaan
Tithuu paraan paraan gas
Andri gallith gass, magar wuchaan gass
Gar mushkil chi naari wath, pakaan gass

Bozaan gass larr travith darr-e-zindaan
Yelli raath dalith aftab khassi challith asmaan
Tse naad di temis, su aalav wapas diiyin ya na diiyin
Na suui yee na tse gasakh kun, magar pakaan gass
Wuchaan gass kya chua’nni naari watti pakaan pakaan…

Letter to Young Kashmiris

In this letter, I will try to explain how we acquired our language: Kashur/Kashmiri. But, before telling you particular story of Kashmiris it is better, for a broader perspective, to understand the general picture of the evolution of human language; because our (Kashmiri) language did not develop on its own.

We, as hunter-gatherers, must have used gestures (like Chimpanzees and Bonobos do) to communicate with each other, and then those gestures must have evolved into a crude form of verbal communication (like cries, hoots, grunts, whispers, and other sounds). Later, over many centuries of demographic, social and cultural changes and outside influences, our crude verbal communication system must have evolved into a full-fledged language. (Before I proceed further, it is important to mention that there are many theories and speculations on how humans acquired language, but there is no record or direct evidence available to conclusively prove any theory. And, it is a very difficult subject area which was once considered as “unsuitable for serious study.” So, what I will tell you in the remaining part of this letter is not absolute truth but only a reasoned speculation).

According to researchers, we the modern humans (homo sapiens: ‘wise man’) originated in Africa, from where we begin to leave around 60,000-70,000 years ago and migrated around different parts of the world. Due to great climatic changes, a lot of us had died, reducing our population to around 10,000 people. But after improvements in climate, our population grew and some of us migrated, in different groups at different times, through Bab-al-Mandab Strait, which separates African continent and Arabian Peninsula. This theory is based on scientific studies on fossils of modern homo sapiens (found in Ethiopia), DNA testing on present-day populations, and examination of sea cores (Though recent discoveries of fossils of earliest homo sapiens in Morocco, China, and Israel may change or modify this theory. But till that happens let us go with the one I have just told you.)

Some 50,000 years ago, one of the migrant groups from Africa had settled around the Middle East and southern Central Asia and it was probably some people from this group who later entered the Kashmir Valley and made it their home. Since we come from the same migrant group our languages have similarities. This is found by many philologists also who have developed a language model called Proto Indo-European (PIE), which is considered as the oldest common language spoken by people around 4500-2500 BC (Neolithic Age). The word Proto comes from Greek protos meaning ‘first’ (also: primitive or original) and Indo-European indicates languages covered in geographical distance from the Indian continent to Europe. Thus, Proto Indo-European means primitive language spoken from Europe to the Indian subcontinent. Some theorists say PIE was mainly spoken around Eastern Europe and as some speakers of this language migrated (thanks to the domestication of horses and wheeled carriers) to other parts their dialect underwent a change over the years. So, from this common language (PIE) has derived many other languages called Indo-European languages. Philologists use comparative method to tell us the commonalities between languages. For example, the German word for father is ‘Vater’ which sounds similar to English ‘Father’, Greek and Latin ‘Pater’, Sanskrit ‘Pitr’, and Persian ‘Pedar’. Similarly, we can see resemblances in the initial consonants of the following terms: Vidya (Sanskrit), Idea (Greek), Videt (Russian), Videre (Latin), Vedere (Italian), Vedea (Romanian), Ver (Spanish), Voir (French) Witen (old English).

Is Kashmiri language part of Indo-European languages? Yes, indirectly. Because Kashmiri language belongs to what is called Dardic languages, and Dardic languages belong to the Indo-Iranian language family, which is derived from Indo-European languages. Dardic languages are spoken in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir, and they are further divided into three sub-groups: Western, Central and Eastern. Kashmiri belongs to the Eastern Dardic group, and it is the only language within Dardic language family to have been “used extensively for literary purposes.” Over the centuries, Kashmiri language received influences from other languages, like Aramaic, Sanskrit, Punjabi, and Persian.

Sanskrit, which was spoken by Indo-Aryan people who are said to have come to Kashmir around 3000 BC, had a major influence on Kashmiri language. Since Sanskrit already had a script, Indo-Aryan settlers used their script (Sharda and Devanagiri) for Kashmiri language, as they gradually learned it and started speaking it in everyday conversations. But they used Sanskrit for religious and literary purposes; for a long time, Sanskrit literature flourished in Kashmir.

The earliest literary composition in Kashmiri language is attributed to great mystic Lal Ded, who wrote her ‘Vaakh’ poetry (Lal Vaakh) in the 14th century. After Lal Ded’s Vaakhs, another great mystic Sheikh-ul-Alam or Nund Rishi wrote his ‘Shrukhs’ in the 15th century. Thus, Lal Ded and Sheikh-ul-Alam introduced literary trend which influenced generations, both intelligentsia and common people. Among different literary genres, poetry has remained the high point of Kashmiri literature.  Though fictional prose has been written in Europe since the 17th century (like Cervantes’ Don Quixote), it was only by the mid-20th century that Kashmiri writers also started writing short stories and novels. In 1950, Somnath Jutshi wrote, “Yelli Pholl Gash” (When Dawn Cracked), which is considered as the first short story in Kashmiri literature. Seven years later, in 1957, Akhtar Mohiuddin wrote the first Kashmiri novel “Doad Dagg” (Sickness and Pain).

Today, over 5 million people speak Kashmiri, in its three main dialects: Kishtwari, Poguli, and Rambani. Kashmiri Muslims write it in Perso-Arabic script, while as Kashmiri Hindus prefer Sharda letters. Due to many factors (especially westernization), contemporary parents from urban middle-class families do not encourage their kids to speak in their mother tongue. Some schools also discourage conversation in Kashmiri. But, from pre-historic times to the 21st century, Kashmiri language has traversed a long history, witnessing many changes on the way. It will continue to change, and continue to grow. Some are apprehensive it may disappear if newer generations continue to remain indifferent to it. But, the language is still spoken in larger parts of Kashmir and outside, hence it is unlikely that it will become extinct in the near future.

[P.S: In my previous letter, based on the information from Khalid Bashir Ahmad’s book Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative (2017), I had written that first humans existed in Kashmir around 7.8 lakh years ago. But it seems incorrect after I researched more about it. As archeologist Ajmal Shah told me, “The evidence of earliest human existence in Kashmir has not gone beyond 20,000 years BP [before present].”


Yours truly,

Muhammad Tahir




First published in Greater Kashmir on 15 Feb 2018:

Letter to Young Kashmiris II

Dear Young Kashmiris,

That my last epistle (1 Jan 2018) was of some value to you, that it was able to convey a useful message, I continue my next letter. And this time let me guide your focus to something about which you might have already started thinking: who are we Kashmiris? From whence have we come from? And why are we called Kashmiris?

When we ask questions like these we mostly rely on history, or, to be specific, on historiography. Though some people confuse myth and history and accept whatever is said in mythical stories as historical truth. But I want you to have a scientific temper and look at these questions with an open mind. That is to say, not to take what is handed down to you as absolute truth. Because our identities i.e., we as Kashmiris or someone as French or Nigerian or Guatemalan, have complex histories, as what our identity today is was not how it always was, say, two thousand years ago. So, the fundamental idea is that our identity (as Kashmiris) is ‘constructed.’ And, it was constructed by us Kashmiris, but in dialogue with others (non-Kashmiris).

Let me give a simple example. Imagine there is a large family and it has two dozen members: grandfather and grandmother, and their children and their children’s children. Let’s call it the Camenzind family. If Camenzinds were living on an isolated island all alone, nobody would call them Camenzinds, because among themselves they were just brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, and cousins. A daughter from this family would not call her father Mr. Camenzind, would she? Or, a son would not ask his mother, “Where are you going, Mrs. Camenzind?”, would he?

Exactly the same way, if we Kashmiris were living all alone in our beautiful landlocked Valley without ever having any contact with the outside world or different people, we wouldn’t be called Kashmiris. Because we didn’t need to have that name for us, as we already knew who we were through our common dialect. The point is our identity or ethnic name as Kashmiris was neither given to us by God nor did we take it voluntarily. Then, how we came to be called Kashmiris? You may ask. Precisely when we had our first contacts with the people who didn’t speak our language. And who were these different people? Nobody knows for sure.

However, what we know, in the light of the archeological discoveries, is that our ancestors first lived at higher places in south Kashmir, like Pahalgam, where a crude hand-ax and flakes were discovered by archeologists in 1969, believed to be from the Middle Pleistocene Age. Through a rough estimation, our earliest ancestors lived 7.8 lakh years ago. However, later, moving towards Karewas (plateaus) in central and north Kashmir, our ancestors established subterranean dwellings i.e., human settlements that were created underground. You might have already heard or read about Burzhom, the archeological site just 5 kilometers from the Shalimar Garden, or about Gofkral in Tral district, 40 kilometers from the Srinagar city. Such dwellings were first discovered in the late 1930’s by a team of foreign archeologists. Just last year, in March 2017, a team of archeologists from the Kashmir University discovered very significant pre-historic sites and objects, which are believed to be 5000 years old. These sites, all in north Kashmir, were found in Harwan (Sopore), Tregam (Kupwor), Turkpur (Bandipur), Vizer Kreeri (Baramullah/Varmul), and Yembarzalwore (Kupwor). As archeologist Ajmal Shah says, “These archaeological sites are having richest cultural material pertaining to the Northern Neolithic Culture of the subcontinent. If excavated, these sites will add a mine-full of information about Kashmir valley’s cultural heritage.”

Based on these settlements and objects, archeologists argue that during the Neolithic (new stone) Age, Kashmiris, primarily settled in north Kashmir, had contacts with the outside world through the old silk route which connected the Kashmir valley with Kashgar (Xinxiang in China) and Central Asia region. Most of our trade, commercial, and travel routes passed through the north—but since 1947, all these historical routes remain out of bounds for us.

At any rate, what we know so far is that we Kashmiris have a 5000-year-old civilization; we were born artisans who were “adept at weaving and intricate craftsmanship”; we bravely faced and adapted to adverse climate by creating underground dwellings; we innovated and made fine and advanced tools, like harvesters, spear-heads, spindle whorls, double-edged picks, copper arrowheads, celts and knife blades; we had international trade links with neighboring regions in China, India, and Afghanistan, selling and buying stuff like beads, pendants, and terracotta bangles. In short, we were a hardworking community of innovators and imaginative craftsmen, and relics of our craftsmanship are visible in many pockets of Kashmir even today.

Which religion we followed 5000 years ago? We were neither Hindus nor Buddhists nor Muslims. Probably, we were animists i.e., we believed in mystical powers of nature, or sun, moon, and sky, or inanimate objects, like trees, mountains, and rivers, or, as with Mongols, thunder and lightning—in the book A Little History of the World, which I recommended in my last letter, you will learn more about ancient beliefs of humans.

So, when exactly were Kashmiris called Kashmiris and how did we acquire our language, Koshur? Now this question might have popped up in your mind, right? Well, for such questions we rely on language experts, or, more specifically, on philology (“The branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development, and relationships of a language or languages”). In my next letter, inshallah, I will try to answer this question. In the meantime, to learn more about our origins, you can read the first chapter (pp. 1-15) of Khalid Bashir Ahmad’s book Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative (Sage: 2017).

Yours truly,

Muhammad Tahir


First published in Greater Kashmir on 15 January 2018: