The beginning of wisdom is ignorance. The statement, “I do not know”. Saraf Ali Bhat signs off every piece of his writing with the note, “always a learner”. In a column or the newspaper Kashmiri Reader, he wrote, “Nami Danam: To know not is to begin to know”, suggesting how the knowledge we acquire could be someone else’s mere perception.
He quotes the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras to write, “Everything we know is the perception of a human mind and all knowledge is relative to the human condition.”
Bhat, a 21-year-old engineering student from Kashmir, comes off as an introvert in person, a diametrical opposite to the fiery passion of his writings.Bhat, a 21-year-old engineering student from Kashmir, comes off as an introvert in person, a diametrical opposite to the fiery passion of his writings. He has a penchant for introducing angles yet unexplored. In his yet another essay, “A seeker of the beyond”, he seeks answers to several questions about life and death.
The essay has now become a part of the book Colourful Thoughts, an anthology compiled by 72 authors worldwide. Published in February this year, the collection includes poems, short stories and essays of renowned authors like Austin Jani, Faheem Iqbal, Adnan Shafi and Hareem Fatima.
In his essay in Colourful Thoughts, Bhat explores themes of spirituality and consciousness. Quotes from other authors and books are a mainstay in his writing. He picks a quote from the book Cosmic Consciousness: A study in the evolution of the human mind by Richard Maurice Buckle, which defines cosmic consciousness as “a higher form of consciousness than that possessed by the ordinary man.”
He adds a core belief: one should indulge in self-introspection to get answers from one’s own consciousness. Bhat became the first Kashmiri to bag the Global Reader’s Award 2020 for his book Triggered Sorrows. The book is based on his experiences as a hostelite 300 kilometres away from his home, in Jammu, during his engineering days.
“For my studies, I was out of the Valley for quite some time,” said Bhat over a telephonic interview recently. “I had both good and bitter experiences of being alone and far from my home and family. I also observed my fellow classmates, who like me, were far from their near and dear ones. They missed their homes but, at the same time, enjoyed their freedom.
“I saw students adapting to new scenarios and facing new challenges and also struggling with these new experiences. So, I decided to pen down these observations. This is how my book happened.”
His bitter experiences, his fears and his anxieties are all explored in Triggered Sorrows. In the book, Bhat wrote of his close relationship with his family of five and how separation from them for the first time in life was like being “sentenced to death”.
Triggered Sorrows also presents a particular sensitivity of the author: Bhat beautifully describes when, while at a football match, he first received the news that he had been selected for an engineering degree at MBS College of Engineering and Technology, and how that experience turned into a nightmare.
He felt the world falling apart, imagining himself walking alone in the streets with no friends, how he would miss counting the stars in the midnight sky from his room on the third floor with a cup of coffee in his hand.
With time, as Bhat attempted to move on with his hostel life at his father’s insistence, he grappled with loneliness away from his family. Hailing from Pampore, a small town of South Kashmir’s Pulwama district, homesick Bhat then talked to his parents and decided to drop out after a year in 2019.
He returned home and re-joined the same course at a different college in his district. Now, he wishes to pursue further studies in computer science; it is difficult, he says, to make a living being a writer in Kashmir. “The opportunities are limited,” said Bhat. “I have always been fond of computer science as well. And it also holds good scope for the future.”
Bhat wrote his first untitled poem in school, Class 11, about his life, friends and family. Since then, there has been no looking back. An avid reader himself, he added that he is fascinated by the works of Shams of Tabrez, Mevlana Rumi, Dr Iqbal, Ghalib, Amer Khusrau, Imam Gazali, Malcolm Gladwell, Kafka, George Orwell and Jane Austen.
His first book, A Smile Worth a Billion Poems, was published in 2017, a compilation of his verses up to that point. Another untitled verse professes: “O Nature, I’m a man, who violates every told thing. Asks to be destroyed by not in wrath, but to be taken in ease, to gain enlightenment before in every breath I lose, goes in vain.”
Receiving positive appreciation for the first collection, Bhat continued his passion for writing. With more interest in non-fiction, however, he usually prefers the persuasive writing style, but he also tries to explore and experiment with other forms like narrative and expository.
Though the author reads books from the West, he prefers Sufism and the Darvesh Sect from the Middle East, including the Mevlevi Order, for spiritual teachings. Bhat is quite knowledgeable about the Order that is over 700 years old and writes how it was founded by the followers of the Persian philosopher Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Rumi in 1273.
He writes how the spiritual practices of this sect offer a different perspective about Islam. Their members or whirling dervishes engage in prayer by spinning until they attain religious ecstasy. His writing here, on complex issues, seems almost effortless.
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Over the past few years, Bhat began a digital publishing house called Helping Hands, where he helps budding writers publish their work on online platforms like Google Books and Amazon. He has helped six authors with editing, proofreading and publishing their books online.
“It’s an online venture that I started in 2018,” said Bhat. “It provides the readers with an unmatched reading experience by making the works of writers available on digital spaces.”
“I have been there, too,” he added, commiserating with the struggles of aspiring, unpublished writers. “When I was trying to get my work published, I had no one to guide me through the entire process. It took me a lot of time to find editors who could help with my literary work. I do not want others to go through the same struggles that I had gone through. That is why I decided to start this publishing venture.”
He urged aspiring writers to be good readers first as it gives one more ideas on writing styles and presentation. Bhat is currently working on another book based on his life experiences. The publishing of this untitled book has been long overdue.
“I am unable to find time to complete it as I am busy with my graduation and some household work at the moment.” He’s still “not knowing”. Saraf added he is not aware of many things in life—and he is not afraid to find them out.