My gaze has been silenced, what frenzy is this?
- Zarif Ahmed “Zarif”, Kashmiri poet
When she was a young girl, she wrote a poem called Laments at Bullet, where she imagined a bullet - as a piece of metal - protesting that it did not want to be fashioned into something that can kill, but be made into something else. The poem was published by Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Language & Arts. An anthropologist who teaches in the US, Ather Zia was born in Srinagar. She defines herself as a visceral poet.
Another poet says everybody here in the Valley is a poet of loss, memory and madness.
|Dark nights and curfewed days led them to versify their experiences, they say.|
In a curfewed state, words flow from anguish deriving their matter and despair from scant food, black balloons, blood on the streets and burning tyres.
There’s also the narrative of an enormous sadness manifest in news of blinding of children, the wailing of mothers who have lost their sons and the madness of frustration of not being able to counter the media narrative of the state of things on the ground.
It’s the poet’s burden to fight against forgetfulness, the new generation of resistance poets in the Valley say. Poetry of resistance in Kashmir has a long history. From Sheikh ul Alam to Lal Ded to Habba Khatoon to Samad Mir to Rasul Mir, the folk Ladisha, Chakar, to the slogans and songs and elegies that echo in the streets of Kashmir, and the poems that boys who picked up arms for liberation from India wrote in their diaries, poetry has always been central to the resistance.
Poetry here becomes part of political activism, it extends the life of events, which you may be forced to forget, a massacre, a custodial killing or disappearance.
According to another poet and academic Huzaifa Pandit, in the '90s, there arose a specific genre of music that spoke of grief and longing of a mother and sister looking for a messenger to deliver their pain to the son who had crossed the border.
"Although this has not yet been catalogued, but that too must be considered under this rubric. Agha Shahid’s Country without the post office could be seen as arguably inaugurating the spectrum. Post 2008 uprising, the genre achieved centrestage due to the availability of social media. Kashmiris – both Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits began expressing themselves in unprecedented ways,” he says.
Dark nights and curfewed days led them to versify their experiences, they say.
“You only have to look at the two empty graves waiting for Maqbool Bhat and Afzal Guru to know why memory and witness is precious for people in Kashmir, who suffer the occupation in all possible ways of being and existing – dead, alive and the unborn,” Zia says.
“When people visited Wani’s grave, they made sure to pinch some soil from there. You know why? To keep in homes; the earth from martyr’s grave is said to keep away evil. That is how he exists in Kashmiri lives and will continue to live in artistic expressions in Kashmir.”
Poetry has evolved into a barometer of pain here in a protracted, low-intensity war in Kashmir; a war that bleeds every moment from the battlefield into the courtyard, a commodity such as milk becomes symbolic of how the occupation and siege has seized every banal reality of life.
Milk is a mundane, but also a much needed nutrient, that feeds the young and fortifies adults and the old; it is everywhere – that Doodhwala on the Nukkad, within arm's reach - and when that measly commodity becomes scarce – and you are forced to drink milk-less tea - it points to the extraordinary siege on your life.
It forces one to think how hard life has become, you cannot walk two steps; how constrained you are, how occupied, how oppressed your daily life is.
Having said that, talking about milk is also a trope in resistance movements, which you see in case of Northern Ireland where mothers protested around scarcity of milk; Mirza Waheed also mentions it in his book The Collaborator, Zia, an anthropologist based in Colorado says.
“I am not a trained poet in any sense. I pour out, and do not meddle with what comes on paper much, to the extent that some may find me not having enough finesse. I don't see poetry only as an art, for me it is an essential part of survival, like brushing one's teeth or hair,” she says.
“Since, often, our first response is to shy away from pain or pretend to overcome it, for me, poetry allows meeting it head-on. It is like taking your wound in your hand, and looking at it from all sides, from all dimensions. It helps you size up your wound, and what wounds you. Hence, understanding a political wound through resistance poetry is also a means to fortify the vision and strategy for freedom and liberation.”
Zia, who is also the editor-founder of Kashmir Lit, says all forms of poetry are a resistance of a certain type. In a condition of occupation like Kashmir, in a climate of repression, poetry becomes a foremost lifesaver in the absence direct expression, and also of prose that can become life-threatening, she adds.
“Today, if you look beyond Agha Shahid Ali, who is seen as the de-facto father of resistance poetry in Kashmir and check out the contemporary Kashmiri poetry, you will see how poets have borne a witness and a testament to the political times. You will see how words have been used to resist the political siege and its travails,” she says.
Resistance poetry stands as a witness to correct what they call are the lies of the oppressor and of history. It is then the poet’s burden to count the losses and dodge the comforts of forgetting their years of yearning and bloodbath.
Like Uzma Falak, a young poet from Srinagar, says the realisation and urgency to witness, remember and rupture silence, took root quite early and this later shaped into an urgency to tell stories bottom-up, beyond statistics and hierarchies.
She was born in Srinagar in 1989. Most of the new poets of resistance were born during the peak of militancy, and a few even call themselves the children of curfew. They were welcomed with the shattering sounds of the bullets, they say.
Like Falak says she grew up in an air replete with longing and loss and it only grew stronger and intense as she grew older, trying to make sense of the everyday and its intersections with the occupation.
“Conversations of children of my generation with our elders are marked by three distinct remarks shaping our identities and imagination:
A sigh, almost a lament— Your generation only witnessed desolation.
A foretelling; certainty in our uncertain lives — The world is ending!
A remembering, our memory before our birth— You brought Tehreek (freedom movement) along!”
Suvir Kaul, who is AM Rosenthal Professor of English at University of Pennsylvania and who published a collection of Kashmiri poetry translation and critique called Garden's and Graves says in the absence of any hope of a political response, many Kashmiris have taken to venting their anger and despair, and their determination, through poems.
After 1947, both Ghulam Ahmad Mahjoor and Dina Nath Nadim wrote poems that exhorted their countrymen to fight wrongs of all kinds, those perpetrated by the rich and those perpetrated by the powerful who denied Kashmiris their political rights. Their poems too count as a species of resistance literature, says Kaul.
“In the last 25 years though, many poets have written poems about the violence they have known and about its destruction of lives and shared social relations. I have argued in my book that on occasions when writing prose (including on FB) is dangerous enough to get you arrested and tortured or even disappeared, poetry, which is allusive and open to ambiguities and misreadings, is a powerful form for the expression of political feelings. We have to learn to read and to listen, for even when poems are not overtly on political themes, they are deeply political,” he says.
He quotes a verse titled Then and Today by Naji Munawar, who won the Sahitya Akademi award in 2002 and hails from Shopian, where the poet describes a night in the Valley.
Those are the experiences that fuel political anger and activism today, Kaul says.
"Poems from conflict zones are sure guides to the intensity of feelings that result from prolonged conflicts, and which, over time, play a significant role in the perpetuation of the conflict," writes Kaul who proves, in this book that poetry is the bedrock of serious prose.
As he was collecting poems, Kaul found that "the scholarly pursuit of poetry is no more immune to the ravages of civic strife than is life itself”.
"Strikes and curfews, public protests and police responses, ensured that no one left home unless it was absolutely necessary. I spent days indoors or on our balcony instead of in conversation with writers or aficionados of poetry, and the sounds that carried occasionally were the slogans and shouts of massed crowds, as well as the sharper retort of tear-gas guns and rifles. Occasionally wisps of tear gas would float past our home, located as it is on the edge of a volatile neighborhood that has long been a stronghold of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (one of several political groups allied under the banner of the Hurriyat Conference, which now leads the movement for political self-determination). The musicality, formal cadences, and intelligence of poetry seemed very far away, replaced by the muscular and polarized noise of a violence-torn public sphere,” he writes. Dead, beaten, they keep me alive,” he writes in the book.
"The centrality of the poet and the poetry in the context of Kashmir is put is context by Sanjay Kak, whose film Jhashn-e-Azadi used poetry written by the bards of Kashmir to juxtapose it with a patriotic song about freedom and independence written by Shakeel Badayuni, and composed by Naushad, and originally sung by Mohammed Rafi."
In the wake of the killing of Burhan Wani, the ensuing protests, the prolonged curfew and the internet and mobile phone ban, many resorted to writing verses to express despair, outrage and a sense of betrayal.
“Poetry has a very extensive place in the lives of people in Kashmir, and my guess is, it always has. Kashmiris may not have been willing to speak about their own experiences of the darkness that they had been through, but they would easily slip into poetry to try and share their feelings... In the absence of any other kind of archive of their experience, and of their pain, it was often only the distilled, even elliptical, words of poets that seemed able to express what people were wanting to say,” Kak says.
As a poet says, they have to set the record straight. They have to express the anguish of staying indoors fearing a bullet might just find its way into their homes, and the horrific sight of blood on the streets and the blinded boys and girls languishing in hospitals.
Most of them started writing around 2008-2010 when violence erupted in the Valley. Not everyone picks up stones, Umair Bhat, a young poet from Lolab Valley, says. And if you don’t pick up stones and go into the streets, you write. A few were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. According to reports, the incidence of mental illness is high in the state given the long years of insurgency and the collateral damages of war.
Silence is not a choice, they say.
“I was almost possessed by the idea of madness and began exploring it through my works —the madness of the state in its oppression and madness of the people in their love for freedom.
My poems also cradle imageries from my (maternal) grandmother’s home - of seasons, windows, martyrdom, feet, yarn, rivers, ivy, skies, objects and spaces as sites of memory and stories which my (paternal) grandmother narrated to me as a child, which opened the doors of my imagination. A common thread in my work, however, would be memory. A counter-memory. A memory antithetic to the state memory, to the oppressor’s memory,” she says.
“My work is a site of this conflict as well. ”The work coming out from Kashmir is distinct and the purpose is to subvert the idea of normalcy orchestrated by the state, they say.
“There is lot of Winter and Autumn of loss and pain in our work, but Spring and Summer too of resilience and sacrifice too,” Falak says.
Umair Bhat, 21, Lolab Valley
In a village faraway where forests surrounded them on all sides, a child couldn’t sleep in the years where darkness meant soldiers were coming. He couldn’t sleep because he thought of waking up and seeing only bodies around him. In the morning, he saw people washing off the blood and collecting the mortar shells.
Back in the day, they would make rings and pendants out of these. A keepsake of the encounters. Perhaps to remember. The child couldn’t tell. He brought one home and hid it somewhere. Perhaps he will write about it someday. To this day, he can’t bear the sounds of crackers they burst during Eid or Diwali.
Certain memories, when they come, they come in waves. Amplified by sounds similar to bullets being fired. Memory only needs a trigger.
“It frightens me,” he says.
The village of Bil’in, 12km west of Palestine's de-facto capital Ramallah, has recently become a symbol of peaceful resistance to the Israeli settlement program. Residents have created an oasis in the middle of the desert landscapes of the West Bank, and sown flower seeds in tear gas canisters, which they collected following clashes with Israeli police.
That’s what the art of resistance is. That’s how beautiful and tragic it is.
His latest poem is about the scant food on the dinner table, the “lost children of the sad country” who sprint in alleyways with black balloons. His imagery is drawn from the streets. The impenetrable smoke, the burning tyres, the logs, et al. It is the subversion of the “everyday” where resistance speaks in your face.
“There is no milk,” he writes in what he titles Siege.
He first started writing in 2008 after reading Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night. Umair Bhat says it was a childish attempt and he deleted everything he wrote. He had wanted to write a book of stories witnessed by him.
Like when a militant had come to their place and when Umair called out to him saying “baba”, the man had started crying.
“He hugged me and he gave me toffee. He told my father and my grandfather that he had little children at home. They would come in the night, and each outfit had a different way of knocking - hands, knuckles, fists. I don’t forget things. I think writing is an act of resistance but words are no comfort to the dead,” he says.
In Siege, which he wrote as he lived through the curfewed days and nights post the killing of Wani, he was direct.
“I write about food being minimal. Black balloons is a metaphor. Writing is very tedious. I don’t agree with the ideology of Burhan but I talked about how boys had been arrested,” he says.
Amit Bamzai, 28, Jammu
It was the old legend where they say the waters of the spring at Kheer Bhawani change colour and that foretells bloodbath. That’s what the pandits have believed for years. Amit Bamzai is a poet who approaches the Kashmir issue from a humanitarian point of view rather than as a baggage of his identity as a Kashmiri Pandit. In June this year, he was in Kashmir travelling though towns and villages. The family used to have a house in the Valley once, but they sold it after the exodus.
Politics of identity contorts everything, he says.
“They disqualify me by saying I have grown up in Jammu so I know nothing. I don’t write from the perspective of Kashmiri Pandit but from the humanitarian point of view. I have hope from the common Kashmiris. Writing can complement a major resistance movement and it has to be taken seriously,” he says.
The pen pushers are not considered masculine in a war which is fought in the streets with stones and bullets. Those who write are witnesses of their own lives contextualised by war. Whenever there is an unrest, pandits leave. It has happened forever, he says.
“But maybe the color of the spring will change to gray someday. I wait for that,” Bamzai says.
* Setar is a musical instrument used in Kashmiri folk music.
** Legend among Kashmiris believing the colour of the water in the Pond at Kheer bhawani temple is an indicator of future events in the Valley. Red suggests that blood will be spilled on the streets. Its turning back to gray is an indicator of harmony and peace.
Mohammad Tabish, 26, Srinagar
Like a bride on her wedding night, scared For the loss of what was kept so vintage And light folding into small clusters One after another dying into non existence As if nothing ever existed in this world.
From Old Airport Road to Gupkar High Street Where Kashmir is dissected Over a hundred million cups of salted tea; I am chased by ghosts who claim To have witnessed the nightingale sing To a dozen of foxes; But Kashmir remains dissected Under a hundred million grains of salt.
“My story starts in 1990. The militancy started then. We were welcomed with sounds of bullets,” the young poet who has already published a volume of poems called the The Story of Exile, says.
He was born premature because of the curfew in Sopore where his mother had gone for the delivery. Instead of May 20, Tabish was born on May 13th in a town that had been cordoned off, when there was firing. His mother had been frightened. He was born at home.
“In my subconscious there are things. There are things that are different about my childhood. There is a fear of the dark. In places other than ours, the darkness is different. For us, it means there could be a gunfight, or an army convoy. Our ghosts were different than yours,” he says.
As he grew up, he started making sense of what was happening.
“Conflict became an adventure for the children, who are not defined by conflict. I had never thought of reading or writing. I never thought of it as an expression. But writing gave a vent. Newspapers were blotted with martyr’s blood. That is how poetry came to me. My poems were different from those that were about friendships or love or landscape. I took this genre of resistance poetry at 18. Although it is a way of registering protest, I am also capturing what is going on around me.
This is a notebook. I don’t want to revolt but I want to paint it on canvas and show them. When you read a poem, you become part of the poem. You might become me in that poem. I have written on Kashmiri pandits. It was a loss for me. I have an affinity. I smell my culture and I am attached to the exiled,” he says.
There were losses in the extended family and he says that when you get a news of this kind, there is a kind of sadness that takes over.
“This has also given me a kind of inferiority complex that you are being watched, your telephone is being monitored, internet is moderated, life is rationed. Sometimes I sit and imagine a Kashmir without conflict. I have not chosen this side. I have been an observer. you don’t have to be on this side or that side. You become part of the conflict by observing it,” he says.
One thing that always stays with him is the silence of the curfew. There is an affinity to the silence. You can taste the curfew. Conflict has become a romance, he says.
Azadi was romanticised all these years and it is no more a romance. It has become a nightmare. It has become horror, death, custodial killing, disappearances.
“I will not romanticise conflict like a beloved. I will find beauty to heal my wounds. Three days ago, you called. For the past one year, I had stopped writing. It was a kind of self-gag. When something keeps happening, you go numb. And then conflict gives you imagery and metaphor again,” he says.
“My poetry is stones."
Huzaifa Pandit, Srinagar
He was already going through a heartbreak, and developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after being exposed to lot of violence and bloodshed that enveloped Kashmir in those years. The poetry of pain connected with Kashmiri Pandits on the other side who we grew up to recognise as the other.
Personal is political, he says.
Resistance poetry, he says, has been defined well by Barbara Harlow as "a force for mobilising a collective response to occupation and domination and as a repository for popular memory and consciousness” and can be gauged from the popularity of Kashmiri rapper MC Kash.
"The written word is always a potent form of resistance because it is immutable and is not bound by limitations of time and space. Moreover, speaking it can’t be controlled or restricted. It will always find a way to escape censorship and transgress authority. So, it is definitely a potent form of resistance in any situation, not only Kashmir. Poetry achieves more importance because, unlike prose, it can escape censorship on account of metaphoric meaning. You could easily replace a chief minister or authority with sayad (hunter) in a traditional ghazal imagery and create a political image without being answerable in a court of law. Besides, poetry always finds resonance since it is rooted in the performance rather than reading. So, it can connect easily to the readers,” he says.
He started writing and translating poems in order to give vent. He couldn’t go out into the streets and throw stones. This was resistance, too.
"The inanity of everyday brings out in full relief the significance of everyday in mapping the life of people in conflict. Their routine is their resistance against an occupation that threatens their existence. By normalising and appropriating it, people are resisting and blunting its power to hold sway over them. It is a variant of hybridising the occupier,” he says.
Uzma Falak, Srinagar
She says she grew up in a climate of longing and loss and remembers everything in obsessive detail, including smells, the colour of the skies, the texture of air, and the feel of the dark. She says because everything was so transient she was loathe to let it slip. And then began the negotiations with mourning and death.
"Mourning not only as a way of coming to terms with loss, but as commemoration and celebration as well. Mourning as loving,” Falak says.
"My poems are an asylum I seek, away from the multiple exiles we live in, as well a journey to and away from a void which engulfs our existence. It is also in Kundera’s words, a site of struggle of memory against forgetting. My poems allow allow me to be a witness, a memoirist, and a wanderer. Yearning, loss, memory, dissent, nostalgia, resistance to institutionalised forgetfulness, are some recurring themes in my works.”
She says there is no distinction between the struggle on the streets and writing.
"Writing should reflect and echo the streets. It should register and encapsulate the flight of the stones, the essence of sacrifice of the martyrs and of those who long for martyrdom, of the everyday feeling of loss and resilience,” she says.
The role of the poet is to stall the speed, create friction and put in barriers to the flow of time. The velocities of the world events are interrupted by the poet writing to preserve and register.
"Longing initiates writing but writing also destroys longing (which, for me, is essential to live). How does one deal with this? Should we destroy the image and the text in a world which renders these meaningless everyday? Should "poetry" exist only in the "written"? Loss slows down the pace of our lives and yet the world moves speeds past us; so, in a way, the writing from Kashmir is also a site of this struggle, this friction,” Falak says.
Inshah Malik, Srinagar
From Iran where she now lives, Inshah chronicled each death in July after curfew was imposed and preserved it in her poems. She called the collection A Poem for a Death because the poem is a realm of feeling and then war, death, injustice and oppression become subjects that can’t be investigated beyond statistics, figures, reports, committees and investigations - this is where the assault on human realm of emotion is levied, she says.
"Kashmiris have a way with poetry. Especially, for the new generation which has witnessed war and destruction closely. Kashmiris are prioritising the feeling aspect much more because they have directly borne the brunt of excessive militarisation, violence and rampant disregard for human rights,” Malik says. "In short, to answer your question Kashmiri consciousness lives not in its politics but in its poetry."
She says she is the street and writes from a “bleeding heart”, and writing is like holding stones and maybe they would break a few illusions and that’s all she aspires for.
In 2010, when she witnessed the killing of Tufail Ahmed Mattoo, a teenager who was on his way to school, when he was shot in his head by the troopers. She was close to Ghani memorial stadium when she heard the gunshots. As she got close to the site, people were collecting his scattered brain on pieces of some newspapers, she says.
"Azadi is a state of mind, where normal is abnormal where norm is perverse. It is a place in life where you work from empathy not from your clan, your nation, your state or your race. It is a place where when people get killed; the survivors go to hospital to donate blood,” Malik says.