Half a decade before the Jawaharlal Nehru University would erupt and subsequently come under fire for hosting a talk about The Country Without a Post Office, rich tributes were paid to Kashmir’s celebrated poet Agha Shahid Ali. The poet was/is remembered as a beloved, a witness and a martyr, as his poetry continues to transform and push the Kashmir discourse towards humanity more than ever before.
“Woh dard ki shiddat badhaatay hain, main apni yaadaasht… They’ve been raising afflictions upon me… I polish my memory.”
The subject is Kashmir’s incessant struggle for justice. And these political verses, written by Muzaffar Karim, a young Kashmiri writer, were whispered not in the corner of a closed room in the valley. They reverberated in a packed hall in Jawaharlal Nehru University, right in the heart of India’s Capital. Apart from a dozen-odd young Kashmiris present in the hall, most of the audience – scholars, writers, filmmakers, students, teachers and others, old and young – belonged to different parts of India.
“At one time, it was horrible to talk about Kashmir in JNU,” says Najeeb Mubarki, who studied literature at the university during the later half of the nineties, explaining how difficult it was to discuss openly Kashmir’s struggle for freedom in places like Delhi, even within the boundaries of a university campus.
“But Kashmir has broken through,” says Najeeb, now a journalist with a major Indian newspaper. “There lies one of the greatest contributions of Agha Shahid Ali.” Agha Shahid Ali undisputedly is Kashmir’s most celebrated modern poet.
Shahid’s tenth death anniversary, this December, witnessed tributes paid to him around the world in New York, New Delhi, Berkeley, London, Minneapolis, Singapore, and, of course, Kashmir, among other places.
“They make a desolation and call it peace,” wrote Shahid, and captured in the imagination of countless Kashmiris the inconceivable loss and pain brought up on them by the Indian state
Events were invariably arranged around the word “witness”.
Amitav Ghosh wrote of Shahid after his death: “…he himself became one of the images that were spinning around the dark point of stillness-both Shaahid and Shahiid, witness and martyr-his destiny inextricably linked with Kashmir’s, each prefigured by the other.”
Shahid died of a brain tumour at the age of 52, exactly a decade ago, in Amherst in the US. And in a world of literature, where he stands glorious for his poetry, Kashmir remembered him the most.
“There is always too much memory or too little memory,” says Abir Bazaz, a Kashmiri scholar based in Minneapolis. He adds: “Memory is never precise but it opens out to the dream, it’s about loss. Shahid would often quote this line from the epic Gilgamesh: ‘What have you known of loss that makes you different from other men?’ It is this inheritance of loss – of Kashmiri memories and dreams, of Kashmiri time – that makes Shahid a uniquely Kashmiri poet.” Abir attended the Shahid event organized at the University of Minnesota, where he is doing a PhD on the intellectual history of Islamic mysticism in Kashmir.
Back in the JNU hall, in memory of Shahid, a young Kashmiri poet named Zooni Tickoo, reads her work: “Then why would someone want / To ban me, me of all! / Barb my freedom in this land / Blindfold my Shine in this land, / Fracture my constitution in this land / This land – the furnace of revolt. / Dismiss my existence all in all, / And rub away my traces however frail.”
It is a poem she has written – with an SMS as the narrator – about the long restriction on mobile phone messaging services, widely viewed as an assault on free expression, a curb on news: on telling stories, on listening.
And of letters and news dying to come out, Shahid would write thus: “This letter, insh’Allah, will reach you, for my brother goes south tomorrow where he shall post it. Here one can’t even manage postage stamps. Today I went to the post office. Across the river. Bags and bags – hundreds of canvas bags – all of undelivered mail. By chance I looked down and there on the floor I saw this letter addressed to you. So I am enclosing it. I hope it’s from someone you are longing for news of.”
It’s a passage out of a prose poem ‘Dear Shahid’ from his book The Country Without a Post Office, considered one of Shahid’s most phenomenal works.
“Letters go across,” says Najeeb, “they negate boundaries. Letters are about news. Or the lack of it.” News is still difficult in the valley. “It is such a slim little book,” says Najeeb, talking about The Country Without a Post Office, “And it is so critically important.” But then Shahid, he says, is magnificent even without The Country Without a Post Office. “What is critical is how he negotiates that tremendous array of concern, from being from Kashmir to being of Kashmir. Of the power of mysticism, of romanticism, of being an American, of being an exile, of being a cosmopolitan. But on being a Kashmiri, there’s a fierce imperative.”
“People always used to talk about Kashmir from the security angle,” Najeeb continues, “even as Kashmiris were being savagely oppressed.” But it wasn’t just about the cataclysmic decade of the 90s, he says. “It begins with India gaining control of Kashmir in 1947 and severing it from its cultural roots: Central Asia.”
And hence, in his ‘The Blessed Word’, Shahid cries out the many names that Kashmir was now bereft of being called: “Let me cry out in that void, say it as I can. I write on that void: Kashmir, Kaschmir, Cashmere, Qashmir, Cashmir, Cashmire, Kashmere, Cachemire, Cushmeer, Cashmiere, Cachmir, or Cauchemar in a sea of stories? Or: Kacmir, Kaschemir, Kasmere, Kachmire, Kasmir. Kerseymere?” Pray, which is the blessed name?
Najeeb moves on to Shahid’s ‘I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight’ – “By that dazzling light / we see men removing statues from temples. / We beg them, ‘Who will protect us if you leave?’ / They don’t answer, they just disappear / on the roads to the plains, clutching the gods.”
Najeeb says: “We often see these lines reflecting the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus from the valley, but that’s just one way of looking at it. This is also about a man talking about a people’s relationship with the Empire: a point in history where that relationship has, in essence, come to an end.”
What is being summoned is the cataclysmic decade of the nineties, when daylight roadside slaughter of innocent Kashmiris at the hands of the State was commonplace, but no news would go out. The quiet audience in JNU is listening, their stillness almost an acceptance of what is being spoken. One is again reminded of the leap that the discourse has taken. Somewhere, in some small measure, Kashmir has indeed broken through.
Suvaid Yaseen, a young Kashmiri scholar at JNU, says: “The interest that Kashmir’s peaceful protests since 2008 created in India has been massive. The State could no longer legitimise shooting down unarmed teenagers to death. The debate now has entered Indian drawing rooms. Then there is all the writing coming out from Kashmir and the debate is getting pushed further into the Indian mainstream.”
Utathya, a young researcher, and among the audience, says: “Shahid, at some level, was able to remove the hegemony that India and Pakistan had traditionally imposed on the Kashmir discourse. Leaving the State aside, Shahid’s poetry made his Indian and Pakistani audience feel as Kashmiri as a Kashmiri would feel while reading him.”
Back in Kashmir, meanwhile, around the time of Shahid’s anniversary, the valley remained crippled. It is the month of Muharram. Mourners have been prevented from gathering, lest the religious processions are “used by separatists to stoke anti-India sentiments”. Lal Chowk, the heart of Srinagar, was sealed with barbed wires as the police, with armoured vehicles, kept vigil. Dozens got injured in clashes with the police, and dozens got detained amidst an “undeclared” curfew. “The same government, during the summers in Kashmir, employs the entire state machinery to ensure that people from the plains climb right up to the Amarnath cave for pilgrimage,” says Arif Parrey, another promising young Kashmiri writer.
“What prevents the government from ensuring an undisturbed Muharram?” he asks. Just how does one respond to such a state of affairs? Shahid, in his poem Stationary, perhaps has an answer: “The world is full of paper… Write to me.”
Free Press Kashmir has reproduced Nawaz Gul Qanungo’s tribute written in 2011, the year that marked a decade since the poet died. Nawaz Gul Qanungo is a journalist based in Srinagar. Follow @nawazqanungo
The piece was first published in The Friday Times under the title ‘The inheritance of loss’.