Since August 5 this year, Kashmir has been shut down and an information blockade has silenced and invisibilised the voices raised against the official narrative of normalcy. To quote a line from Agha Shahid Ali’s ‘The Country without a Post Office’, ‘They make a desolation and call it peace’.
Below are excerpts from a conversation with well-known Kashmiri poet Ayaz Rasool Nazki about how poetry and the poet can keep memory alive in the Valley today. Nazki, an eminent scholar-poet writing in Kashmiri, Urdu and English, was in Bengaluru recently for a cultural fest held by Ranga Shankara:
It is said that everybody in Kashmir is a poet of loss, memory, and madness. Would you comment on the relation between poetry and politics in Kashmir?
Right from the beginning of our history, Sufiana poetry has been a major part of our social and political life. Every Sufi poet was a saint, and every saint a poet. We’ve had shrines for every poet where people even today go and pray. Now, those poets were actually talking about their times, about oppression and suppression of their rights. In doing so, they were using Sufi symbols and Hindu shastras again and again to convey social criticism, for without such symbolic expression, they would have been thrown into the dungeon and their works destroyed. That tradition of using Sufi metaphors continues today, right down to Rehman Rahi, our foremost poet and Jnanpith recipient.
The relation between poetry and politics is even more difficult today; in fact, it has become mortally dangerous to write poetry. For all of us writers, writing in Kashmir or elsewhere, Kashmir has become intellectually a major handicap. It is a constant obsession to write about, something that never leaves me. Even if I am writing an essay about a rooster, Kashmir forces itself onto my attention. It’s a challenge to keep one’s own perspective, even sanity, intact.
Poetry in Kashmir in the past two decades has been marked by the appearance of resistance poetry, which Barbara Harlow defines as ‘a force for mobilizing a collective response to occupation and domination and a repository for popular memory and consciousness.’ This trend was begun inaugurated by the noted Kashmiri-American poet, Agha Shahid Ali, whose poems in The Country without a Post Office combine wit and elegance with moral passion. What is your response to this tradition?
Since the 1990s, there has emerged a whole stream of resistance poetry written by youngsters inspired by Agha Shahid Ali. This is undoubtedly an important tradition marked by a strong sense of purpose — of protest and resistance. They talk about blood, guns and such other topics boldly and with passion. But my problem is that it quickly becomes dated, from a poet’s point of view, from an aesthetic point of view. Often, it sounds like a news report about an assault by the Army leading to the killing of a number of people. But a poet has to approach such incidents differently. The poem must go beyond the immediate incident and remain rooted in the memory so that it acquires a quality of longevity, durability. Whatever experience or incident or observation comes into the poem should be internalised. Hence, while much of this poetry may not be of great worth or permanent value, it is nevertheless a poetry suffused with strong feelings, and responds to the situation with immediacy. That in itself is emancipating.
Your dominant passion has been to creatively engage with questions of identity, memory, and aspiration in Kashmir. I’m reminded of a haunting line from Agha Shahid Ali’s poem, ‘Farewell’: ‘Your memory keeps getting in the way of my history!’
These are not passing memories of daily life in Kashmir but memories that remain as permanent scars, and the poet is left with a trail of misery, a feeling of permanent sadness, something that is ongoing and recurring, as well as a compelling urge to put it into verse, not simply to get rid of it, the whole madness and frustration, but a larger burden to fight against the imposed forgetfulness. In this context, I’m reminded of the Hebraic legend of Abraham and the sparrow. Abraham was thrown into a fire as punishment for his devotion to God. A little sparrow kept flying in again and again carrying drops of water in its beak. When asked if she hoped to put out the flames with little drops of water, she replied, ‘No, but it should be recorded that whatever I could do, I did.’
The poet contributes to keeping memory alive, because once you allow it to be erased, you’re left with altogether a different narrative of the state, which is not the true narrative. This poetry of memory can take any form, such as the poems of the boys who picked up arms for liberation and wrote in their diaries, or elegies that echo in the streets of Kashmir, or slogans about Azaadi, or rap songs, and so on.
Let’s look at two of your well-known poems that set up a contrast: ‘Uptown Kashmir’ and ‘Downtown Kashmir’, which speak of exactly what we’re talking about, a certain kind of past, a certain kind of history that you find is irretrievably lost today. ‘Downtown Kashmir’: They had/ latticed windows/ they had/ vision/ they had/ low ceilings/ they had/ heart/ they had/ narrow lanes/ they had/ open minds.In ‘Uptown Kashmir’, there is Glass windows/ for the blind/ high ceilings/ for the dwarf/ wide roads/ for closed minds/ huge mansions/ for small minds.
These are two Kashmirs today. At this moment, Kashmir has been in lockdown for six weeks. On television every evening, you see traffic moving in Srinagar in an orderly way, everything is normal, they claim, and that’s uptown Kashmir. You open two roads somewhere, three roads somewhere else, and allow private traffic to ply for some time, and take a picture of it and beam it throughout the world. But downtown Kashmir has remained locked down for the last six weeks.
That brings us back to the problem we’re talking about. The soul of Kashmir is in fetters. We Kashmiri poets/ people are the product of a syncretic culture going back to hundreds of years. Our poetry is the synthesis of many streams of thought, living, and being. This is what is being destroyed today, the basic fabric of our Panun Kashmir and the memory of a syncretic culture.
Now, let’s go back to 1947-48. Whatever else happened, Kashmir became part of India. That is, the soul of Kashmir became part of the idea of India. But this did not last long. And then in 1953, the soul of Kashmir was sought to be destroyed, and the idea of India became distant, and ever more distant. And on August 5, 2019, I suddenly felt I was an orphan, I had nowhere to go, I have no roof over my head. That’s what I felt personally that day, that I had lost something, I had lost that beautiful idea I was running after all these years, the idea of a plural India, a pluralistic society that was secular to the core.
Of course, there were aberrations throughout this history, but they were not the norm. Suddenly, I find that aberrations have become the norm, and that has disturbed the whole balance on which the idea of India was suspended. This can’t go on for very long.
The writer is a retired teacher of English, and is currently involved in the human rights movement.