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"Death is never too far"

An Interview with Danish Manzoor

This is the seventh in a series of blog posts by guest contributor Nabina Das, who writes about Indian books and authors.

Danish Manzoor, the 25 year-old City Editor for Dainik Jagaran-City Plus, wears many hats in and out of his job. Hailing from Jammu & Kashmir, his cosmopolitan existence and education have given him an edge in his work and passions. For someone who has treaded trouble-torn territories and courted danger, Danish’s poetic sensibility, fired by Agha Shahid Ali’s memory, keeps him going strong. He is one of those rare journalists who insists on covering literary events and giving a platform to emerging poets and writers. What does being a Kashmiri mean for him in Hyderabad, where he easily combines his own ethos with the spirit of the city?
--Nabina Das

Born and brought up in Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir, the tags of Kashmiri and Kashmiriyat never quite leave you. What does all that mean to you as a journalist, or an aspiring writer and poet?

Kashmiriyat means the same to every Kashmiri, no matter which part of the world you find them in. Kashmiri Muslims, Pandits, Sikhs and Christians share a camraderie. If you see two Kashmiris meeting outside the valley, the mirth on their faces and expressions will tell you the whole story. From art, culture, music, literature to things as simple as attire comprise of what we know as Kashmiriyat.

Mostly to do with cultural sharing I presume?

A lot. Kashmiriyat is religious tolerance, brotherhood; oneness regardless of religion, caste or creed. Kashmriyat is the way of life of every Kashmiri. It’s the identity of every Kashmiri. Though it has faded with time, and has survived severe blows in the past few decades, it has managed to get through the worst of times.

I’ve heard about people with this message of tolerance and oneness facing opposition, given the situation in J&K. More so for journalists. As a journalist what threats might you have received while in Srinagar?

Threats? Mostly to do with speaking against those who are feared by the majority. Raising your voice against oppression, be it by the State or militant outfits. Blowing the vested interests of the dominant political parties to shreds and exposing them on prime-time live TV. You see, calling a spade a spade and more isn’t exactly the thing you would want to do in a state where if someone is killed, it’s not a big deal. “Unidentified gunmen” are always there to be blamed!

You must have faced a great deal, then.

The things which are not prescribed are exactly what I did. I was the youngest and most vocal broadcast journalist in the state then. So the threats and attacks were inevitable. I suffered. But then, every blow somehow made me stronger. Every time I survived, it only made me “crazier.”

Hmm, so we perhaps can’t imagine that sort of thing…

Well, as for threats, the mildest ones would be phone calls. Then letters wrapped around bullets, and it gets progressively worse.

I’m sure it’s not nice recounting these experiences. Attacks and aggression of any kind are bound to put a person down, however resilient.

Reporting for the world’s most militarized zone no doubt offers thrill but it can kill as well. Coming under attack by militants, state sponsored/political goons or just finding oneself caught in crossfire while covering a fierce gun battle for the evening news broadcast, is just part of the job for those who would not think twice to bring the truth to the forefront.

We live in an age of media accounts of conflicts of all kind. Often it amounts to voyeurism… Still, could you elaborate on one of your experiences in a conflict?

I remember it vividly: it was October 8, 2007. After returning from work early (I was co-heading JK Channel, a local TV news channel then) I had a feeling, a feeling so strong it kept telling me something was wrong. Just 30 minutes after reaching home I heard a knock at the main gate of my parents’ house in Srinagar city. I’d just changed into something comfy to wear and was feeling a little unwell, so quickly put on a thick feather jacket before getting the door.

What happened then?

Well, it’s a short walk before you reach the main gate of our house. I opened the door and saw two men dressed in what we in the valley call “Khan Dress.” One of them looked a little scared, and the other one asked me if I had a moment, as he was in need of help. I wasn't surprised; people would often come to my place or office to seek help. When the government and the bureaucratic system failed them, they sought help from the media. I asked him what was wrong. He narrated that his brother-in-law was in illegal possession of the house belonging to him, leaving his family on the road. He offered to show me some documents. The next moment he pulled out a bayonet--I still have it--from his nylon bag and stabbed me multiple times. For a few seconds there, I blacked out. I found myself in the pool of my own blood, on the floor. The next thing I saw, both of them were fleeing the spot, firing shots from their pistols in air.

I’m sorry. This must have been tough on your family, too.

As a child, I’d think that like in Bollywood movies, when under attack we can always fight back. After this I realized then that death is never too far. I was scared. I couldn’t stop my tears. There was no pain that I remember, just the sticky feeling inside. I got up with a shock, realizing it was almost time for my mother to return home from work. Being the only child, I just didn’t want her to see me like this. She couldn’t take it.

I took the jacket off to see what actually happened. I was surprised to see a cut not deeper than a few inches in my abdominal cavity. I expected worse. That jacket I wore saved me. It was miraculous. It took me no time to plug the wound, bandage it and clean the bloodstains from the floor. I changed my attire and left home in that state. I didn’t report the incident, as it wasn’t the best thing to do--not when you are a journalist and in a state like J&K.

Your passion for poetry is well known. Any publications? Any specific poetry experience/memory?

I don’t approach poetry from a formal angle. For me there’s a poem in every breath and every individual. I don't keep track of what I write. I don’t want to. It doesn’t belong to me; it just comes to me and I let it go back to where it belongs--in nothingness. The same nothingness where I dwell. So no publications.

How does Kashmir figure in your writing?

My tryst with poetry has a lot to do with the valley of Kashmir: the close encounters with death, my parents, and the tales of late Agha Shahid Ali who is close to my life and works. Besides, I can recall countless nights when I found myself wide awake rhyming words, reciting poems of poets I don’t even know of. They all lived in my head!

As a very young City Editor, what exactly are your duties?

As the City Editor for India’s number one community weekly, I’m responsible for overall operations and quality of the editorial department input and output. I work on every news and feature material, edit the work of reporters, and stay through copy editing, production and proofreading. I recruit qualified staff and provide ongoing training and feedback. If you want to know more details, I also schedule staff to meet deadlines, including assignments that may fall outside of normal work routines; enforce and follow policies, procedures and processes of the publication; have weekly meetings with the editorial team (reporting and desk); ensure the efficient operation of the editorial department (timely planning, meeting deadlines, etc); monitor work of individual staff members and perform staff evaluations; liaise with the government/other agencies; monitor equipment and immediately address problems, and develop strategies for branding and PR initiatives. Whew. There you go.

Whew indeed! At 25, you're handling a major chunk of your newspaper. I’m just curious--what sort of literary efforts have you tried incorporating into the publication?

I let my reporters experiment with their writing style. While maintaining the sanctity of the pages, I encourage them to write differently from the rest. I believe the time for the old school pyramid style of writing is over. People need to read content in their daily broadsheet, which isn’t as melancholic as life is becoming in this digital era. It’s not exactly putting in literary efforts, but yes, in my tabloid I try to give the readers of my city a refreshing read and try not to curb the creativity of the reporters as long as they are on the right path and topic.

But you have interviewed writers and playwrights and artists. Wasn’t there a cool piece about Kiran Nagarkar? We loved it!

Indeed, I’ve been lucky enough to meet with eminent literary personalities throughout my career so far. As for Kiran Nagarkar, I’ve always been a fan of his writing. When we met this time at the 2012 Hyderabad Literary Festival, we got to talking on various issues and I offered to do a special piece on him. Soon after I took over as the city editor, I made it a point to offer ample editorial space to all the literary events taking place in the city, especially those involving young poets and writers. If anything I could at least provide them with a small platform to showcase their work while also letting the city know that these creative individuals are very much around us.

What kind of influence do you consider Agha Shahid Ali to be on your life and works?

Whenever I’d hear stories about Agha Shahid Ali (I called him Bhaiyaaji) from Vidhur Wazir or Agha Ashraf (Agha Shahid’s father), I somehow always related to him as a child. How he’d keep sending his poems to different publications, so many that their mailboxes flooded with his poems and the editor of one such publication wrote back to Bhaiyaaji requesting him to stop sending anymore poems! That never stopped him. Yes, he did and still does influence my "poetic sojourn," but largely, with his spirit, my life.

Several emerging and later established writers have been journalists in their career. Any plans for publishing books?

I’ve never revealed this to anyone before. But yes, the narcissist in me does plan to write a book about my own life. It’s been a roller coaster ride so far; I’m just letting it unfold further for now. Apart from this, being an investigative journalist I managed to get a peek inside some of South Asia’s most interesting controversies involving the roles of different state and non-state actors. It’s a lot to do with Indo-Pak affairs because I believe that if you resolve the Kashmir issue, the whole of South Asia will be at peace. I know it sounds like an exaggerated statement. But there’s a lot which goes unsaid. No one wants lasting peace in this region. It’s in the interests of none. Books? I have many more ideas that can turn into good books, but again the "vocabu-capped" (vocabularily handicapped) is just waiting for the right time and publisher! I haven’t approached anyone yet. I will soon.

Did any literary incident in your life change or affect you for the better or worse?

Once at a literary gathering as a cub reporter in Kashmir, I came across a group of self-obsessed writers. Somehow the presence of a 17-year-old kid was bothering them. It was as if I were an outcast. One of them approached me, asking in a patronizing tone: "So you too are a poet?" "I’m a reporter, not a poet, Sir," I replied. "We thought as much. What would you know about poetry anyway?" "Not much, Sir. Just that all of you might be poets and writers and I don’t fit in here. But for me you all are poems. All of you!"

That was some hyperbole, Danish! What did this person say then?

I‘m still in touch with him. The only difference between that day and today is that whenever I scribble poetry on my Facebook wall, he’s one of the first to hit "like"!

Ah, Facebook. How could we ignore it? But tell me, how did you go about the Hyderabad Literary Festival coverage this year? Anything specific to recount?

The moment I received the invite for the 2012 Hyderabad Literary Festival, I discussed it with my National Editor and suggested we give it extensive coverage. About HLF, there’s not a single moment which is not worth recounting. It was like sailing in a literary sea! Specifically, Ranjit Hoskote’s book I, Lalla, a translation of Kashmiri poet Lal Ded’s works, sticks in my mind as an exhilarating one. One can read Lal Ded or Lalleshwari over and over again. Her poems are always relevant irrespective of time, space or situation. Ranjit has done a wonderful job with Lalleshwari’s poetry. The translations come as a blessing for those that know little about her work and spirituality.