Kashmir’s History and Future Meet in Literature

In this guest edition of The Interview, Vikram Zutshi talks to author Rakesh Kaul.
Vikram Zutshi, Rakesh Kaul author, Rakesh Kaul Kashmir, Rakesh Kaul Dawn the Warrior Princess, Rakesh Kaul The Last Queen of Kashmir, Rakesh Kaul writer, Rakesh Kaul books, Indian literature, science fiction books, Pandit Gopi Krishna

Lake Dal, Kashmir, India © PITAKPONG KOMPUDSA / Shutterstock

For as long as one can remember, the stunningly beautiful valley of Kashmir has been a tinder box of clashing ideologies and religious beliefs. In the not too distant past, it was known as the land of Rishis, holy seers who combined the profound philosophies of Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufism to create a uniquely syncretic spiritual tradition.

Today, it is the site of a bitter territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, a conflict that has resulted in scores of casualties and the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Pandits, as Kashmir’s Hindus are commonly referred to.

Author Rakesh K. Kaul’s first novel, “The Last Queen of Kashmir” (Harper Collins India, 2015), tries to shed light on the roots of this conflict by going back in time to explore the dramatic life of Kota Rani, the last ruler of the Hindu Lohara dynasty in Kashmir. Kota ruled as monarch until 1339, when she was deposed by Shah Mir, who became the first Muslim ruler of Kashmir.


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His most recent work, “Dawn: The Warrior Princess of Kashmir” (Penguin India, 2019), is an unexpected foray into the far distant future. Set in 3000 AD, the book combines artificial intelligence, genetics and quantum theory with the ancient wisdom of Kashmir’s traditional Niti stories, which inspire Dawn to overcome seemingly impossible odds to save humanity from impending destruction.

In this guest edition of The Interview, Vikram Zutshi talks to Rakesh Kaul about the inspiration behind his two novels, childhood memories of his strife-torn homeland and how his grandfather, the famed Kashmiri mystic Pandit Gopi Krishna, guides the trajectory of his life and work.

Vikram Zutshi: You have written what is possibly the first science fiction novel set in Kashmir. What inspired you to choose the genre of science fiction to tell this story and how does it adapt itself to Kashmiri history and culture?

Rakesh Kaul: I wish I could claim the honor of being a pioneer with “Dawn: The Warrior Princess of Kashmir.” But much as I admire them, I have many literary ancestors who are the equals of Joseph Campbell, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. I am a mere upholder of a literary tradition that is over 2,000 years old. Western science fiction imagines possibilities like time travel, space exploration, parallel universes, extraterrestrial life. There are robots who are more advanced in their intelligence than humans.

But all these themes were part of the stories in Kashmir, plus more. “Dawn” has in it an ancient story about a robot city with a remarkable safety override. The Puranic story of Indra’s net holds within it the concept of recursive universes. The pinnacle of these stories is of course the collection of stories in the Yoga Vasistha.

The word “sahitya,” which means “literature,” was coined by Kuntaka in Kashmir. Within sahitya, there was a genre which dealt with all the above-mentioned themes but went beyond. One could say that if science fiction’s domain was all the possibilities within the bounded universe, then in Kashmir specifically — and India generally — the stories explored all the possibilities within the unbounded inner-verse.

So, if you like “1984” or “Brave New World,” which are sci fi classics, then “Dawn” is going to take you to a whole new level. Even more than Joseph Campbell, the stories that I have brought are not mere myths or fantasies; they reveal a cognitive organ and knowledge acquisition capability which unlocks the deterministic laws of nature in a manner that science is just beginning to grapple with.

Zutshi: What does the story arc of the central character, Dawn, tell us about the state of the world today?

Kaul: All science fiction stories in the West and their Indic counterparts, the Niti stories, deal with the existential question of the arc of one’s way of life. The mind is seduced by utopia and yet ends up in dystopia. One ignores at one’s peril the addictive narrative wars happening today that are shaped and served by technology. The world, whether global or local, is heading toward a duality of monopolistic cults that fiercely demand total obeisance. Non-conformity results in a flameout at the hands of troll armies.

Artificial intelligence is the omniscient eye watching over us. What we cannot ignore is that computer power is doubling every 20 months, data every six months, and the AI brain every three months. The champions of AI are promising that we will have sentience in 30 years. That is a close encounter of the third kind. That is within the lifespan of the readers. The danger to you as an individual has never been greater. One cannot take lightly the rising depression and suicide graphs coupled with desperate drug usage. Hence, the vital necessity for Dawn. 

Dawn is the last girl left standing on earth in 3000 AD. She is facing an army of weaponized AIs and mind-controlled automatons; they rule over a deadly world where men have lost their souls and women have been slain — all heading to Sarvanash, the Great Apocalypse. This is a story of a close encounter of the seventh kind. How does Dawn arm herself? Can she win? Great Niti stories remind us that if the mind is a frenemy, then the need to nurture what is beyond the mind that one can turn to and trust is paramount. The Dawn lifehack that is presented is time-tested but oh so amazingly simple, yet powerful.

Zutshi: Is the characterization of the main protagonist based on a real-life person?

Kaul: “Dawn” in Sanskrit is “usha.” Usha is the most important goddess in the Rig Veda, the oldest extant text in the world. By contrast, none of the goddesses that we think about today are even mentioned there. Dawn is the harbinger of the rebirth of life each morn. She is the only Indian goddess who has spread around the world. Usha’s cognates are Eos in Greek, Aurora in Roman and Eostre in Anglo-Saxon [mythology], which is the root of the word Easter —the festival of resurrection. Interestingly, Usha is also the name of the sanctuary city where the Sanhedrin, [Israel’s] rabbinical court, fled to in the 2nd century. She is also the goddess of order, the driver away of chaos and darkness. She is dawn, she is hope, she is the wonder leading to resurrection.

Humans recognized her wonder a long time ago. They imagined Dawn born at the birth of the universe, whose one-pointed mission is to make darkness retreat and drive ahead fearlessly.

But Dawn is also a tribute to the warrior princesses of Kashmir, a land which was celebrated for its women in practice and not just poetry. They were not merely martial warriors, nor just holy warriors or ninja warriors, but much more. The Kashmiris enshrined the dawn mantra within themselves, men and women, and repeat it to this day. In my novels, the protagonists repeatedly draw upon it.

Zutshi: You have spoken about Niti, the traditional storytelling technique of Kashmir. Please elaborate on Niti for the lay reader and how it informed your work. 

Kaul: “Niti” means “the wise conduct of life.” The first collection of Niti stories from Kashmir is the 2,000-year-old celebrated Panchatantra, which is the most translated collection of stories from India. Kashmiri stories have found their way into the Aesop and Grimm fairy tales, Chaucer and Fontaine.

The Kashmiris maintained that one is born with only one birthright, namely the freedom to achieve what is one’s life quest. So, the existential question is, What is the “way of life” by which one can maximize one’s human potential? The Kashmiris defined life’s end goal in heroic terms as unbounded fulfillment while alive, not limited by the physical and encompassing the metaphysical. But how does a mere Niti story enable you to achieve fulfillment and consciousness? Niti’s cultural promise is that it enables one to face any threat, any challenge in reaching one’s goal as one travels through time and space.

How does Niti work? Let us start with the Western perspective first. Descartes famously said that wonder was the first passion of the soul. Kashmir spent a thousand years studying this phenomenon and helps us penetrate deeper here. When we have an experience that is a total surprise, we go WOW — an acronym for “wonder of wonder.” When we go wow, it is expressing, How can this be? We not only accept the limited capacity of our senses and the mind, but we also have a profound moment of self-recognition that there is an unlimited capacity in us to experience what lies beyond our knowledge.

The wormhole between the two brings the relish of the state of wonder which in India was described as “adbhuta rasa” in the text “Natyashastra,” written by another Kashmiri illuminati, “adbhuta” meaning “wonder” and “rasa” meaning “juice.” So, in the wow moment you momentarily taste the wonder juice. All Niti stories are written in the adbhuta rasa literary style, and so is Dawn.

Zutshi: Your first novel, “The Last Queen of Kashmir,” inspired by the story of Kota Rani, was a hit with Kashmiris in India and the diaspora. What would you like readers to take away from the book and how is it relevant in our times?

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Kaul: Yes, much to my surprise the novel received critical acclaim and sold out! The second edition will be coming out worldwide in a month or so, with another beautiful cover of Kota Rani!The Last Queen of Kashmir” is a historical epic about a great queen from India who informs and inspires. It engages audiences while serving as a cautionary tale for today. It was a precursor of what is now being called fail-lit. Much like Icarus, Kashmir’s humanist civilization of oneness and inclusivity flew too close to the Sun.

The story provides lessons on the importance of protecting, preserving and perpetuating our social freedoms in a unified society from being divided by religious and cultural conflict. Kota Rani’s story shows that we should look for leaders who protect freedom and defeat the pied pipers within who threaten us with tyranny in the guise of offering utopia.

Yet, “The Last Queen of Kashmir” is eventually a resurrection story to show us how the light of knowledge and the power of freedom can conquer all enemies. Kota was described as always captivating, never captive. It is a highly recommended read for all women because its notion of femininity and feminine power may surprise them. Kota Rani is memory and Dawn is imagination. Both are reflections of the same double reflexive power. Memory is what makes who you are, and imagination is what makes who you can be. 

Zutshi: As a Kashmiri Hindu who moved to the United States fairly early in life, what are your earliest memories of your ancestral homeland? What do you hope to see in Kashmir’s future?

Kaul: My earliest memories are of the journey that we would take to my homeland from Delhi, where my parents had migrated to after the Kabali raids in October 1947. I remember my mother dropping a coin into the raging river Jhelum and praying for a safe journey as the bus would slowly creak across the hanging bridge in the hill town of Ramban.

Once there was portage across the old Banihal tunnel, where a section had caved in, only small, open jeeps could ferry us with our bags from our buses across to the waiting buses on the other side. The old tunnel was dark with a few small lamps that only accentuated the shadows. There were sections which were deliberately left bare in the older tunnel so that the massive water flow inside the mountain could rush out. They did not have the technology in those early days to divert the water. The sound of the rushing water still resonates inside me.

Kashmir was a place of sensory overload. I would sip the nectar endlessly from the honeysuckles, pluck the cherries growing in our garden. My cousin would rent a boat, and much like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn we would paddle through the water canals in our neighborhood raiding the mulberry trees growing by the banks of the river. We would wake up early in the morning and go for a hike to Hari Parvat, walking through the Shia neighborhoods with the graveyards. Once we saw a crowd of [Shia] self-flagellate as part of their religious observances, and we hid until they passed by. There would be other mob gatherings, but we were culturally trained to avoid them.

Once a year, we would go to my grandfather’s retreat overlooking the Nishat. It was a huge apple orchard. Evening time we would scurry back to the cabin because then the bears would come from the other side of the hill. Night was their foraging time.

Nothing compared, though, to the experiences when the family would rent a houseboat, technically a doonga. We would go to the shrine of Khir Bhavani for a week. The boat would move slowly, and there would be endless tea poured from the samovar accompanied by the local breads. Family life seemed to have kith and kin as an integral part. There was a feeling of intimate connectivity. At night, all the cousins would gather. We would spread the mattresses on the bottom of the boat and share the blankets. Then it was storytime. The girls would cry that we were scaring them when the boys would share the monster stories. But they would not leave the group because they did not want to miss out. I have brought some of these Kashmiri monsters and their stories into “Dawn.” 

But, ultimately, Kashmir was about the mystic experience. I would sit in the inner sanctorum of our small temple at the end of the bridge on our little canal. There was barely space for a few. I would watch the water drops drip endlessly on the lingam. The small trident would be by the side. I would look at the paintings on the wall, each one a story and wonder about it all. The best, of course, would be the nighttime aarti at Khir Bhavani. It seemed that all of humanity was there with a lit lamp in their hands. The faces of the devout women and girls would be luminous, the moonlight would give them a sheen. There was beauty, love and innocence in the air.

As a Kashmiri, I would want the lakir ka fakir (blind ideologues) to disappear and the artist to reign supreme. Translation: Those who police others either morally or ideologically or religiously or by force of arms should go bye-bye. The rest will follow naturally, and the valley will emerge from its long, deep darkness.

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Zutshi: You are the grandson of famed Kashmiri mystic, Pandit Gopi Krishna. In what way have his work and teachings informed and influenced the trajectory of your life?  

Kaul: The Pandit was the last rishi of Kashmir, a lineage that goes back to the formation of the valley by Rishi Kashyapa. Deepak Chopra said of him, “Pandit Gopi Krishna was a pioneer in the land of spirituality. His insights into the quantum nature of the body predate the scientific discoveries of today. I salute this great sage and scientist of the twentieth century.” Dr. Karan Singh, the crown prince of Kashmir who gave the eulogy at his funeral said, “In the 19th century, India gave the world Ramakrishna; in the 20th century it has given the world Gopi Krishna.”

I suppose he shaped me even before I was born. He made the decision that he was going to marry my mother without giving any dowry to break that pernicious social custom. His father-in-law begged him, [saying] that they had bought a priceless wedding sari the day that my mother was born. But to no avail. My mother was married in a simple cotton sari. My inception was in simplicity.

He was my first guru, and he continues to guide me. I learned from him the critical importance of being a family man, of community service, especially toward widows and destitute women, of being a fearless sastra warrior, of words being bridges, about poetry and the arts and, best of all, about the worlds beyond. I treasure his letters. I can never forget the talk that he gave at the United Nations where 600 Native American elders attended. It was a prophecy come true for them where it was stated that a wise man from the East would come and give them wisdom in a glasshouse.

Would I have dared to embark on a 12-year journey to bring the story of a hidden Kota Rani without the inspiration of what it took him to bring his story to the world? No. Especially when writing “Dawn,” his work was invaluable in steering me in describing the close encounter of the seventh kind. What is the biotechnology of the evolutionary force within us? And then in the epilogue for “Dawn,” it is all him because only he has traveled there. Even now as I write this, his beaming face smiles at me. I smile back.

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