On A Strange Call from the Mountain

Palvashay & Feroz


Palvashay Sethi and Feroz Rather discussed “A Strange Call from the Mountain” on Google Hangouts, in two parts.


Part 1

Palvashay: Hey again!

Feroz: Hey! I was going to tell you something about the talking points we already have. But I also want to know your own response to the story. So feel free to start with that.

Palvashay: Batain, batain—your own talking points and which direction you want this conversation to proceed in.

Feroz: Aap batain, aap ka first response kya that?

Palvashay: I have many questions and was intrigued by the story. Beginning with the title of course—"A Strange Call From the Mountain”—and that reminded me of both James Baldwin and Agha Shahid Ali. Baldwin because of his book Go Tell It on the Mountain and Ali because of the missing muezzin and the repeated use of call in The Country Without a Post Office.

Feroz: To be honest I always have a difficult time coming up with a title. This one I stole, kind of…

Palvashay: I know you've written about and have an interest in Ali but is that a comparison or allusion that grates or do you feel you owe him or rather your story-telling owes him a debt of sorts? In terms of my own reaction to the story, I was struck by how it was simultaneously spare yet lyrical.

Feroz: But kisi ko mat batana 🙂

Palvashay: Haha, please bataiye. Or at at least provide some insight as to how it came about!

Feroz: from Robert Olen Butler's book. Wo hamare Professor hain. Unki book ka title: A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.

Palvashay: That's a wonderful title but I think I enjoy your riff on it even more because it does immediately evoke Ali, and whether that was intentional or not it functions then both as a title and then an epigraph. Double trouble ho gaya.

Feroz: Hehe! Han your associations with the title make sense because Baldwin and Shahid are artists I very much look towards. But in this case, I guess I was trying to stick to my own voice.  

Palvashay: Artists in a sense who did not shy away from the politics attendant to and that arose from the language they deployed. Coming to your own aesthetic, like I said earlier it oscillates between lyrical and spare.

Feroz: Yes, that was intentional. I wanted to be as spare as possible

Palvashay: Kyoun? What was the reason behind that?

Feroz: First, because we had a word limit 🙂

Palvashay: Haha, yes we did.

Feroz: But also I guess write in a way that was concentrated but also come up with images that are sharp and burnished. Aapko sabse precise image konse lage?

Palvashay: I had to read the story several times because while seemingly straight-forward it's actually a bit of a mindfuck—Kamil, can we say that?—because there's a specific line in the opening paragraph and a beautiful run-on that serves as a climax (I won't mention that here in case anyone reads your interview first) that kind of tip the reader of to the fact that there is some kind of temporal glitch, or back and forth going on. Right at the beginning this sentence: "But without delivering the load of 300 apple crates he ferried over the shoulders of the Himalayas to Hindustan, he decides to return home." It seems to take on a different valence once you re-read the story. Am I imagining that?

Feroz: Yeah, I think so. Because that line embodies the entirety of his desire.  I mean he does not want to deliver the apples but it becomes clearer later that he is actually in love and cannot stand separation from Kashmir even for a moment.

Palvashay: I suppose, what I'm trying to get at is ke kabhi kabhi lagta hai ke time iss kahani mein linear nahin hai. Because of the flashbacks or because of the way images are written? Haan, sorry, my internet crashed. Cross-continental guftugu ke masaail

Feroz: Oh no! Koi bat nahi

Palvashay: Both because of the flashbacks and the ways the images are written. The flashbacks are incredibly subtle and I was wondering why you used that particular technique?

Feroz: I was not consciously doing that. In summer when the plains become hot as hell, you long for Kashmir so much. You may say it's because of his comprehensive longing that makes him embark on the journey home

Palvashay: Can you comment more on the relationship between longing and violence that this story so successfully evokes?

Feroz: Sure! I think this is a story about exile, however brief the duration.

Palvashay: (The climactic run-on was truly one of my favourite jumlas)

Feroz: Thank you! The driver more than anything else fears he might die in the horrid heat of Jammu and no one will notice his death—him dying and no one will notice how is body disintegrates. Are you talking about the jumla when he imagines being run down by the bus?

Palvashay: Yes!

Feroz: Haan. Yeah!

Palvashay: Favorite is an odd word for gore but I think your aesthetic choice of spare prose for the rest of the story really allowed this one to shine in a grisly fashion.

Feroz: It is kind of horrifying. Well, it's horrifying!

Palvashay: But, I want to also return to the notion of exile because in a way you are challenging the traditional narratives of exile that we see or have seen in the past I kind of love this jumla too: "I think this is a story about exile, however brief the duration."

Feroz: Hmm...Let us say he experiences what one experiences in exile.

Palvashay: Jo aap ne abhi farmaya because it reworks the notion of a prolonged, protracted, indefinite period of no return.

Feroz: A disconnect who he is as a person internally and the landscape and the people that surround him. He is moving so to say in a realm of constant negation.

Palvashay: Could you elaborate on that a little more: realm of constant negation, specifically.

Feroz: Human beings are happiest when they see the values they embody being reproduced in the society. These values they are enacted have something to do with the landscape (both human and physical). In Hindustan, the Kashmiri driver experiences a moral chafing. But what he does to transcend that is his faith: he gives water to the hobo and gives him money so that he can buy food.

Palvashay: Yes, the sense of discomfort in the first few paragraphs is palpable. There is a sense of both disorientation and frenzy in lines like these: "The country is foreign and bewilders. Multitudes of men and women crawling like ants in the hypnotic heat; subdued cities and towns that look like heaps of charred bones; frequent sandstorms stirred by the wicked, afternoon wind; and the mirages that could become lethal while, on a road straight like alif ." Coming back to the question of exile though what made you want to rework the idea on the scale of a small journey?

Feroz: Yes, that's true. Dilli gaye ho kabhi aap? I guess Karachi is very hot too

Palvashay: Buhat saal pehlay aik school ki trip pe jab haalat buhat behtar thay. Khair, Pakistan aur India ke beech mein behtar thay but I do not dare to presume to speak for Kashmiris on either side of the border.

Feroz: But the way he experiences the landscape is informed by his subtle desire for love. Acha. Jab main gaya pehle bar…

Palvashay: Tell me more. The desire to go home?

Feroz: Ji. Traveled in a bus from Jammu to Dilli then Dilli to Aligarh. Literally disorienting. The story is about his desire to return home and the closer he comes physically deeper the desire but along the way we get to know who he is in terms culture, religion, and civilization even in exile one's sense of who one is accentuated.

Palvashay: That’s an incredibly interesting observation and maybe links to the commentary on the politics of language that you make through Hussain when he says: "Mohammad Wani greets Hussain, cutting his syllables short, emphasizing d sounds. Hussain recalls Mohammad Wani is from the southern district of Anantnag. But does it matter? Does that make Hussain snicker like other heady people from the city of Srinagar who secretly loathe people from Anantnag and elsewhere? Ridiculing and denigrating them. Fucking rustics who call kangir kangid. Fucking idiots who call zulr zarul."

Feroz: Was thinking the same thing. Thank you!

Palvashay: But it's such an important part of the piece because when we sterilize language in classrooms, or at least teach them in ways that are devoid of history, we forget language can be so contentious and contested.

Feroz: What do you mean?

Palvashay: How do you conceive of your own relationship with and to Kashmir these days?

Feroz: In academic discourses? Well, Kashmir is home. So far I am incapable of writing about any other place. And it has not crossed my mind to write about any other people than my own. 

Palvashay: No, no, in the very every day, banal sense. Hearing, speaking differently, be it dialect or just in a different language inadvertently creates barriers that can often lead to hostility.

Feroz: What do you mean? I am from a village in the South. So people from the city of Srinagar, some of them for sure loathe us for speaking somewhat differently, since the vernacular and pronunciation varies.

Palvashay: Yes! That is more or less what I meant. That language becomes a source of such dispute. Pakistan has experienced this in one sense vis-à-vis the independence of Bangladesh.

Feroz: Yes, any people whose sense of who they are in terms of nation/nationality brood over language in these ways. Waise ek bat batata hon. I have a friend from Srinagar…

Palvashay: Bataiye

Feroz: For many years we talked and then recently he tried to talk to me as though I was a country bumpkin and he a city smartass. I laughed. He is very unlike my hero.

Palvashay: Haha, waisay, aap ki maadri zubaan hai kya?

Feroz: Kashmiri. We call it Koshur and Kashmir is Kasheer in Koshur :) Aapki?

Palvashay: Interesting! Which linguistic family is it a part of? Bhai, hum bohat burger hain - I don’t know if you guys ever used that phrase across the border - but English and Urdu both I would say

Feroz: It has Sanskrit words but also Persian, Urdu and local words. Accha!

Palvashay: But how does it feel to relay all these rich, textured, and deeply political stories in Angrezi?

Feroz: That is a good question, rhetorically speaking.  I think I am writing towards my own people. They are my primary audience. There is a certain satisfaction in that. I also traveled a lot like this driver. Though not in lorries but rickety, run-down buses. I do not want to lose any of my experiences against time.

Palvashay: Has your work found an audience in Kashmir as yet?

Feroz: Yes, it has. Many people did read my book.

Palvashay: Because Pakistan mein putting pen to paper means alienating a sizable chunk of the population because of low literacy rates and very small reading public. I blame the state but this is a conversation for another day. Aur kaisa response mila?

Feroz: Overall accha. Fiction nahi padte log? Mujhe laga shayad padte hain.

Palvashay: Pakistan mein nahin. Matlab Urdu aur doosri vernacular languages mein phir bhi reading publics hain. Not as widespread for English as a result of our grotesque class system, bad governance, political instability. Usual culprits!

Feroz: Masla hae. Chalo aap ki kitab main padonga.

Palvashay: 😂😭 Shukria, but back to your story! Agha Shahid Ali aur James Baldwin ka toh zikr hua tha. What about Kashmiri writers that you've read or other poets perhaps that have influenced you?

Feroz: If I may say so, in this story I was trying to resist any outside influences attempting to write something in my own voice. I can share with you long interviews where I talk about my influences but I wouldn’t want to say anything about Shahid or Baldwin here.

Palvashay: I apologize. I was wondering if there were any literary figures from Kashmir (not writing in English) who may have influenced you. But let’s move away from the question of influence.

Feroz: I’ve talked about that question so many times it’s become hackneyed. But here for instance.

Palvashay: If you had to think about voice, how would you describe your own? The story is in third-person with bits of first-person, so it is skirting indirect discourse, but why didn't you choose to write the story from Hussain's point of view? Haan, bhai, but I can't plagiarize from that interview, Feroz 😛

Feroz: That is a good question. Would you mind resuming the conversation tomorrow?

Palvashay: Sure!

Feroz: I will also try to think about some ideas more clearly.

Palvashay: Awesome. Khudahafiz!

Feroz: Khudahafiz!


Part 2

Palvashay: Hey Feroz!

Feroz: Hey! Kayse hain aap?

Palvashay: Buss, buhat shadeed garmi hai idhar, and still drowning in grading, and terrible (but inevitable) news of the election.

Feroz: Ab amreeka kab aa rahe hain? Phir sab theekh hojayega.

Palvashay: Agar visa laga toh August. Haha, I somehow doubt it. I think we are at pains to find a place/space that isn't hideously dystopic! Okay, so, first of all, I think it’s worth acknowledging that I am a Pakistani writer and you are from Jammu and Kashmir. Your story is replete with the geography of Jammu and Kashmir—how would you like me to refer to the region by way of words, or how do you think of this space?

Feroz: Yar, kya hogaya aapko! Inshallah, mil jaye ga.

Palvashay: Inshallah!

Feroz: Kashmir. Let's refer to it by that name. Aur main soch raha tha…

Palvashay: Okay, can you elaborate on your choice?

Feroz: Well, until 1947 we're an independent country with a dogra despot ruling us.

Palvashay: Jee

Feroz: He did not want to accede either with India or Pakistan but under duress he and pressure from Indian diplomats he succumbed.

Palvashay: Theek

Feroz: Before that we were Kashmir. I also say Kashmir because the valley which has seven million ethnic Kashmiris is the one fighting.

Palvashay: Right, so the deployment of a singular Kashmir is a return to the notion that precedes occupation. Jammu, Ramban, Banihal—all these names becomes points in a cartography of Kashmir that many may not be familiar with. I found it interesting that Hussain doesn’t feel at ease when he enters Jammu, which leads to the question, where is Hussain from? Or is that deliberately ambiguous?

Feroz: Yes! I mean Kashmiris will understand what a Kashmiri feels in Jammu. The residents of the valley of Kashmir who feel a sort of chasm opening up when they cross the tunnel.

Palvashay: A sense of relief; reprieve

Feroz: A sense of relief? When he enters the valley you mean?

Palvashay: Yes. And it evokes a sense of limits, claustrophobia, and surveillance. All of these are common notions when it comes to art concerning occupied land but your story is very subtle in that it invokes them in a manner that veers away from traditional narratives.

Feroz: You know to be honest, now that the pressure of writing a book of the political violence against a defenseless people was off, I just wanted to write a relatively less violent story, or a story that is not directly talking about the violence.

Palvashay: Why was the pressure off?

Feroz: Because the book is already published. It's done.

Palvashay: I see.

Feroz: It was really difficult to write that stuff, but this story happens before 1989 in my imagination and that is the year when insurgency broke out.

Palvashay: You didn't want to rearticulate the problems that the text is at pains to acknowledge. We spoke of this earlier; the oscillation between the spare and lyrical quality of the text.

Feroz: And there is a woman in The Night of Broken Glass that whose husband is disappeared—that story is called “The Stone Thrower”—and she keeps waiting for him. This is the same driver.

Palvashay: A half-widow

Feroz: But in the 1980s—you can say, yes—but I wanted to go away from the current violence that is in the book and just go away from the darkness. However, talking about the spare and the lyrical…

Palvashay: So the story, in a sense, is prior to the more conventional iterations of violence concerning Kashmir that an audience is accustomed to?

Feroz: Yes, yes, that is right. I think aesthetically there is a lot of violence even in this story.

Palvashay: I want to get to the violent subtext that animates the story. So many questions concerning literature— bureaucratic or artistic or both—about Kashmir relate to ownership, dispute, contestation, and of course, occupation. Your protagonist Hussain recalls how people from Srinagar might react to people like Muhammad Wani, who articulates language in a way that may get labelled “fucking rustic.” The city of Anantnag has a history whereby its very name is fraught with the politics of ownership—were you consciously invoking this history when you wrote of Hussain’s interaction with Wani? And if so, why? 🙂

Feroz: Yes, I was. I think in my writing I want to be attentive towards the multiple/different hierarchies of power as they play out in the social. So not only the military violence of the occupation but other kinds of violence too.

Palvashay: Can you expand on that, please?

Feroz: I do believe life is lived in the matrix of language. Every single transaction happens in language.

Palvashay: Exactly

Feroz: And it's true that many people in Srinagar because of the way their intonations think people outside of the city as inferior. 

Palvashay: And this relates to an urban/rural divide as well

Feroz: I experienced this myself with people from Srinagar. Yes, it does.

Palvashay: So in a sense, you're also trying to dispel the notion of Kashmir as a homogeneous space?

Feroz: I am. Well-said. Power is ubiquitous. There is a gradient and the flow of power is inevitably wreaks violence although now that you are making me think, I am thinking how does this awareness that is Foucaltian…

Palvashay: It’s a miracle that I am able to make anyone think! 😀

Feroz: …play out where the beliefs of justice and mercy in a traditional setting?

Palvashay: So now that we are talking about power, and how it manifests through language…

Feroz: Haha! Kyun nahi

Palvashay: I have one prickly question before we get to specific questions about craft: in terms of characters in the story, the two whose description [in the original draft] was jarring were the figures of the “cripple” and the “hobo”. Both words have particular genealogies, and are, by some, regarded as pejorative and ableist. Why the particular deployment of this diction? And what narrative function do they serve beyond reinforcing the problematic of the subject-object relationship? Hussain is initially disgusted and then reevaluates his view of them; why?

Feroz: Good question. Do you know of any terms that I might replace the hobo with? I don't think it's appropriate. But as far as the question is concerned, I think it's Hussain's general abrogation of the landscape, human and physical, until in a moment of heightened drama, he transcends himself.

Palvashay: Am not sure to be honest. Hobo, just struck me as particularly North American, but I am not sure what words would be appropriate. Aap ki zubaan mein in ko kaisay describe karein gay?

Feroz: Like a beggar or fakir but fakir is more religious.

Palvashay: But also, aside from language, what was your rationale for the inclusion of these particular archetypes? Who have in a sense been dehumanized by way of becoming tropes?

Feroz: And the hobo in the story is not begging.

Palvashay: Jee, bilkul, he isn't. But obviously your experience—and its validity and relevance— is framed by the fact that as writers we are always caught up in the conundrum of viewing, and almost being voyeurs to certain forms of abjection and then the task is how to relate these experiences without falling prey to the stereotypes that govern poverty, violence, conflict.

Feroz: To transmute what is there into a narrative, of course, my point of view, or how I approach the character through my own individuality. Then whether it is truthful, I leave for the reader to judge. I think the writers who excite me are the ones who are not coy in depicting misery.

Palvashay: Fair enough. Is this something you think about often? The ethics of documentation?

Feroz: I don't think about the ethics of documentation that much. Whether it's sensational would depend on how you respond to the writers' overall vision.

Palvashay: Why is that not a concern? Because like you said, language, while a tool of resistance can lend itself to reinforce the very binaries we seek to interrogate.

Feroz: The job of the fiction writer is, that is why writing fiction is difficult, to overcome one's fear, and defense mechanisms.

Palvashay: Theek

Feroz: Why would I easily shy away from depicting the way I look at hobo? Because in writing him, I assume his state. and I do not want to broach that because I might have to go through the psychic pain of living his reality but that is what a fiction writer must do.

Palvashay: As in, would you not concern yourself with the assumptions you make through the lens of observation? Observation itself is an act of distance. Fair, fair. So coming to the question of exile (I know; bear with me). Exile animates this story in a way that one is not accustomed to recognizing when reading literature – be it fiction or non-fiction; and granted these categories are arbitrary and contingent – about Kashmir. Exile, is of course, inextricably linked to nostalgia - from Greek nostos ‘return home’ + algos ‘pain’ – and this is evoked through Hussain’s memory of tabak maaz. Can you comment on the relationship between exile and food, and what prompted this particular description? Also: since the food is central in the artwork, what was it like working with Hafsa on it?

Feroz: I really liked Hafsa's attitude. She was open to my suggestions which is a big thing. And she she was loyal to the text and her interpretation of the story.

Not finding the food is a big part of feeling severed. I suppose it's also about the ritual. The tabakh maz he will eat in Pampore at a marriage ceremony is entirely a different event, than eating ribs in a restaurant in Jammu.

Palvashay: Can you elaborate on that difference please? For the unacquainted (like myself)

Feroz: Well, there is the native food only enhances the feelings of nostalgia outside of home. Marriages in Kashmir are such an elaborate affair.

Palvashay: “Not finding the food is a big part of feeling severed.” That is a lovely and painful sentence, by the by.

Feroz: First the weure is created for the chefs and for an entire night the helpers grind and smash meat with pestles. I don't know; I have find proper English words for those things that are involved in making Kashmiri wazwan (Youtube link here)

Palvashay: Perhaps not finding the diction and resorting to the vernacular is the appropriate course of action. I leave many words untranslated in my writing and rely on the reader to do the work if they are invested. Natasha Wimmer does this for a lot of Bolaño’s translation where she leaves slang untranslated because there isn't an equivalent. Thank you! I will check this out.

Okay, last question, about my favorite sentence, unless you want to touch upon any aspect of your story in particular.

“And while away from home no one notices him, no one howls in horror, caught beneath the axle, the bus drags him along tearing his clothes, scraping his skin, breaking his bones, scattering his teeth, crushing his skull, trailing his blood, and spreading his innards on the black expanse of the tarmac, he finds his way to the little spiral-shaped temple, to its white marble steps bedecked with yellow flowers.”

This is my favorite sentence from the story. From the perspective of both history and craft. Can you comment on its construction?

Feroz: For reasons of what has been done to the body in Kashmir, I've become obsessed with exploring the ways body could be broken and vandalized. This section is a contemplation on how vulnerable Hussain feels outside of Kashmir.

Palvashay: Of how the body can experience psychic violence? Talk to me a little about how and when you wrote this sentence. As a writer, I hate to have to explain individual sentences that are intuitive. but I have to ask you!

Feroz: When Kamil asked me to become more cynical and weird. 😉 🙂

I think it was intuitive. I sent him the first draft, and he said make it more weird.

Palvashay: So what did you access or seek recourse to? Is it a result of something specific or intuitive?

Feroz: So I pushed that sentence a bit. I think so

Palvashay: What did the initial sentence read like?

Feroz: I think because I am always experiencing this kind of tussle—yes—whether or not to write about the bleak, and the potential violence. This time, I let go and went there fully.

Palvashay: Or how not to aestheticize violence, which is real, but which also needs to be said. It is a ghastly, beautiful, beast of a sentence. Visceral and steeped in delirium.

Feroz: Thank you! Also I have been writing about violence for a long time. I feel blunted by it but am determined aesthetically to do something with it.

Palvashay: But you have to constantly in a state of rebellion, defiance, dignity; to collide with such events of violence. I feel a sort of moral torpor, which in itself is an indication of the amount of violence inflicted

Anyway, it was a pleasure talking to you Feroz.

Feroz: Same here

Palvashay: Aur inshallah, unkareeb mulaqat bhi ho gi!

Feroz: Inshallah!

Palvashay: Take care, dost. Khudahafiz!

Feroz: Hote hae bat. Thank you and Khuda Hafiz

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