Our Beloved Witness
By Meeran Karim
19 September 2012
Discovering Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali, and the homeland that he knew.
As both India and Pakistan marked 65 years of independence last month, Kashmir, a victim of the 1947 partition, grieved yet another loss. Once revered by Hindus and Muslims alike, the 200-year-old Peer Dastgeer Sahib Shrine burned to the ground on the foggy Srinagar morning of 25 June 2012. Although later reports blamed a short circuit – and not, as some feared, the extremist Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) – the loss was all too symbolic. Amidst rising religious intolerance, less than 4000 Kashmiri Pandits continue to reside in the Valley today.
Born to a Kashmiri mother, curiosity of my ‘homeland’ captivated my adolescent self. Anticipating anecdotes from my mother’s childhood, I endlessly probed her with questions. Are Kashmir’s Hindu and Muslim communities segregated from each other? Is inter-religious marriage widely practised? To my disappointment, my mother bore no recollection of her Kashmiri past, or of migrating to the fertile plains of Punjab at the age of eleven. Though her parents and elder siblings continued to observe its traditions, including the traditional banquet Wazwan, Kashmir and its inhabitants became a distant memory.
Soon after turning fifteen, I decided to search for my heritage in Lahore’s public libraries. One after another, I sieved through entire bookshelves, but found Kashmir mentioned only in government correspondence, military maps, and UN reports. If Punjab possessed a rich cultural history, I asked myself, where was Kashmir’s?
Disappointed at my finds – or lack thereof – I returned home, feeling as rootless as ever.
Six years later, I felt that longing again. This time, it was even sharper than before. A panel of ‘security experts’ was discussing Kashmir in New York City. Once again, the image of a strife-torn region sandwiched between two nuclear powers reappeared. As is usual at such occasions, no Kashmiri sat on the panel, which boasted leading Indian and Pakistani experts on the volatile region. Summoning my courage, I asked this panel about Kashmir’s literary heritage. To my surprise, the audience erupted in laughter. Casually sneering at my ill-informed question, one speaker responded, “My dear, I am not aware of Kashmir’s ‘literary heritage’, it’s always been [too] unstable for this kinda stuff.” While others nodded their heads in approval, I remained unsatisfied. Surely Kashmir must have produced poets and writers?
My prayers were shortly to be answered. One New England fall, I encountered the man who would soon become my guide to the world’s most militarised zone. Safely tucked away on the seventh floor of the Mount Holyoke College library, I found Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali’s Rooms Are Never Finished. The first poem in the collection took me by surprise. In his poem ‘Lenox Hill’, written while mourning his mother’s death from cancer, Shahid, a Kashmiri Muslim, recalled his mother helping him build a miniature Hindu temple in his room in Srinagar: “and I, one festival, crowned Krishna by you, Kashmir, listening to my flute”. This peaceful image of Kashmir was something which shocked his readers in the West, accustomed to graphic images of communal violence in the region. Ignoring the ‘reserved’ tag on the book’s cover, I secretly put it in my satchel and headed for the dormitory. Seated by my window, which displayed a landscape reminiscent of Kashmir, I sunk into Agha Shahid Ali’s world.
Shahid’s Kashmir was home to both Hindus and Muslims. Even as religious nationalisms plagued British India, Kashmiris remained committed to the ideal of a secular democratic state. In 1944, a memorandum detailing the transition of Kashmir from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional democracy was submitted to Prince Maharaja Hari Singh by Sheikh Abdullah, president of Kashmir’s leading political party, the National Conference. Contrary to the All India Muslim League and its exclusivist vision, Naya Kashmir promised to not only protect, but also to empower the valley’s religious minorities. It was this very spirit of Kashmiriyat – an expression of camaraderie, resilience and nationalism in spite of religious differences – that I found in the poetry of my loyal guide.
Writing in 1997, the poet reflected upon his and his homeland’s religious identity in ‘A History of Paisley’, featuring the saffron-coloured flower popularly associated with the Hindu deity Ganesh:
You who will find the dark fossils of paisleys
one afternoon on the peaks of Zabarvan —
Trader from an ancient market of the future,
alibi of chronology, that vain
collaborator of time — won’t know that these
are her footprints from the day the world began.
Just as the Valley’s beautiful Islamic calligraphy reminded Shahid of his birthplace, paisleys, weaved into highly sought-after Kashmiri shawls, were an integral part of the poet’s imagined homeland.
Custodian of a hollowed conscience
Shahid was not delusional, however. The poet was painfully aware of the valley’s changing political circumstances. As Pakistan-trained jihadi forces infiltrated Kashmir through the 1980s and recruited young Muslim boys, the valley’s Pandit community came under assault. Terrified by a series of attacks targeting their leaders – most notably the 1989 assassination of Bharatiya Janata Party politician Tika Lal Taploo – Kashmiri Pandits began fearing for their future. After their mass exodus to neighbouring India in 1989, Agha Shahid Ali wrote ‘Farewell’, which he described as a “plaintive love letter from a Kashmiri Muslim to a Kashmiri Pandit”. Shahid voiced the concerns of bereaved Kashmiri Muslims like himself:
My memory is again in the way of your history.
Army convoys all night like desert caravans:
In the smoking oil of dimmed headlights, time dissolved — all
winter — its crushed fennel.
We can’t ask them: Are you done with the world?
In the lake the arms of temples and mosques are locked
in each other’s reflections.
Have you soaked saffron to pour on them when they are
found like this centuries later in this country
I have stitched to your shadow?
Ali was in exile, and not only in the physical sense of the word. If he were to return to his birthplace, it would appear unfamiliar to him. The cheerful Pandit fruit vendor, whose apricots a young Shahid fondly bought after dreary school days in Srinagar, had probably migrated with the rest. Shahid’s friend, a lanky boy who served Kashmiri chai in the poet’s neighbourhood, had probably accompanied the fruit vendor. Alas their families, witnesses to a land and a people transformed, must have ventured through treacherous mountain passes in search of sanity.
Could their memories have stopped them from leaving? The same people, who for centuries lived in complete harmony, incorporating their neighbours’ religious rituals into their own, were now hacking each other’s bodies, minds and souls apart. The cultural syncretism evident in Shahid’s poetry was now replaced by reports of targeted killings and hate crimes. Meanwhile, diagnosed with brain cancer, the poet’s fate began to mirror that of his ill-fated land:
I will die, in autumn, in Kashmir,
and the shadowed routine of each vein
will almost be news, the blood censored,
for the Saffron Sun and the Times of Rain…
As a frail Ali breathed his last, images of desecrated Hindu temples must have flashed on his hospital TV screen. Memories of his childhood were to be his only consolation before his tragic death in 2001.
At a time of mass graves and militant attacks, I often ponder how Shahid would feel if he were alive today. To see his cherished Kashmiriyat’s last refuge destroyed by fire, against a backdrop of religious extremism. Recalling Shahid’s poetry and personality, I wonder if, at a time such as this, it is best to revisit the poet, whose name means ‘beloved’ in Persian and ‘witness’ in Arabic. Is it too late to unmake the present? I think our ‘beloved witness’ would say it isn’t – “night is your cottage industry now, the day is your brisk emporium. The world is full of paper, write to me”.
~ Meeran Karim is an editorial assistant at Himal Southasian. Originally from Lahore, Pakistan, she is currently a student of politics at Mount Holyoke College in the USA.