About ten days after floods hit Pakistan, a friend of mine sent me an IM saying, “Have been asked to go to Kargil.” If there had been a thought bubble over my head, it would have been filled with a series of expletives, all of which were meant to convey one two-lettered word: “No.” The next IM from friend in question: “Yaaaaaaay!!” Yep, he was actually looking forward to Kargil. Before I could knock some sense into him, off he went. He came back with considerably less glee in his system and just in time to avoid curfew. Over a shawarma, he told me about how the Ladakhis hate the Kashmiris, the Kashmiris hate the Army, and the Army hates the fact that there are porous borders.”It’s all going to hell,” he said.
I asked my friend the same question that I’ve put to every acquaintance of mine who has been to Kashmir: Azad Kashmir? One person I had asked bared his teeth at me in what was the most vicious excuse for a smile and replied (I paraphrase, in case person in question is reading and yes, please feel free to edit if you feel misquoted. Journalists, I tell you…), “You mean Pakistan Occupied Azad Kashmir? Not sure it’s a good idea because, aside from that detail of hostile neighbour and whatnot, the abbreviation would be POAK. Which, as far as I know, is a slang for vagina in the West Indies and in plainer English, some sort of manure.” Ok, then. Clearly, not a sympathizer. Someone who had gone to Srinagar for a holiday replied with, “They should definitely have their own country. They’re waaaay hotter than Indians so I can totally understand them wanting to, you know, have their own identity. Lovely skin, sharp features. Seriously, they’re hot.” Gotcha. I’m sure that’s one of the top reasons for Azad Kashmir: freedom from being yoked with uglier ethnic groups.
My recently-returned friend simply looked like he wanted to stuff his head into his shawarma rather than even think of Azad Kashmir. Instead he kept telling me about how beautiful the countryside is and how out of place the bloodstains seem there. Tomorrow, there’s going to be an all-party meet in New Delhi to figure out how to start a dialogue with the different disgruntled sections of Kashmir. It’s probably going to be utterly useless. If the participants are able to have a constructive dialogue between themselves, that in itself will be a miracle. I have no answers or even suggestions about Kashmir but I have some poetry by the poet Agha Shahid Ali who was very clear about the fact that he didn’t want to be a nationalist poet, regardless of how often he saw Kashmir in his dreams and nightmares. His poetry may not be political or offer solutions but it’s beautiful.
Postcard from Kashmir
Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox,
my home a neat four by six inches.
I always loved neatness. Now I hold
the half-inch Himalayas in my hand.
This is home. And this the closest
I’ll ever be to home. When I return,
the colors won’t be so brilliant,
the Jhelum’s waters so clean,
so ultramarine. My love
And my memory will be a little
out of focus, it in
a giant negative, black
and white, still undeveloped.
The Country Without a Post Office
Again I’ve returned to this country
where a minaret has been entombed.
Someone soaks the wicks of clay lamps
in mustard oil, each night climbs its steps
to read messages scratched on planets.
His fingerprints cancel bank stamps
in that archive for letters with doomed
addresses, each house buried or empty.
Empty? Because so many fled, ran away,
and became refugees there, in the plains,
where they must now will a final dewfall
to turn the mountains to glass. They’ll see
us through them—see us frantically bury
houses to save them from fire that, like a wall
caves in. The soldiers light it, hone the flames,
burn our world to sudden papier-mâché
inlaid with gold, then ash. When the muezzin
died, the city was robbed of every Call.
The houses were swept about like leaves
for burning. Now every night we bury
our houses—theirs, the ones left empty.
We are faithful. On their doors we hang wreaths.
More faithful each night fire again is a wall
and we look for the dark as it caves in.
“We’re inside the fire, looking for the dark,”
one card lying on the street says, “I want
to be he who pours blood. To soak your hands.
Or I’ll leave mine in the cold till the rain
is ink, and my fingers, at the edge of pain,
are seals all night to cancel the stamps.”
The mad guide! The lost speak like this. They haunt
a country when it is ash. Phantom heart,
pray he’s alive. I have returned in rain
to find him, to learn why he never wrote.
I’ve brought cash, a currency of paisleys
to buy the new stamps, rare already, blank,
no nation named on them. Without a lamp
I look for him in houses buried, empty—
He may be alive, opening doors of smoke,
breathing in the dark his ash-refrain:
“Everything is finished, nothing remains.”
I must force silence to be a mirror
to see his voice again for directions.
Fire runs in waves. Should I cross that river?
Each post office is boarded up. Who will deliver
parchment cut in paisleys, my news to prisons?
Only silence can now trace my letters
to him. Or in a dead office the dark panes.
“The entire map of the lost will be candled.
I’m keeper of the minaret since the muezzin died.
Come soon, I’m alive. There’s almost a paisley
against the light, sometimes white, then black.
The glutinous wash is wet on its back
as it blossoms into autumn’s final country—
Buy it, I issue it only once, at night.
Come before I’m killed, my voice canceled.”
In this dark rain, be faithful, Phantom heart,
this is your pain. Feel it. You must feel it.
“Nothing will remain, everything’s finished,”
I see his voice again: “This is a shrine
of words. You’ll find your letters to me. And mine
to you. Come soon and tear open these vanished
envelopes.” And reach the minaret:
I’m inside the fire. I have found the dark.
This is your pain. You must feel it. Feel it,
Heart, be faithful to his mad refrain—
For he soaked the wicks of clay lamps,
lit them each night as he climbed these steps
to read messages scratched on planets.
His hands were seals to cancel the stamps.
This is an archive. I’ve found the remains
of his voice, that map of longings with no limit.
I read them, letters of lovers, the mad ones,
and mine to him from whom no answers came.
I light lamps, send my answers, Calls to Prayer
to deaf worlds across continents. And my lament
is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
to this world whose end was near, always near.
My words go out in huge packages of rain,
go there, to addresses, across the oceans.
It’s raining as I write this. I have no prayer.
It’s just a shout, held in, It’s Us!
It’s Us! whose letters are cries that break like bodies
in prisons. Now each night in the minaret
I guide myself up the steps. Mad silhouette,
I throw paisleys to clouds. The lost are like this:
They bribe the air for dawn, this their dark purpose.
But there’s no sun here. There is no sun here.
Then be pitiless you whom I could not save—
Send your cries to me, if only in this way:
I’ve found a prisoner’s letters to a lover—
One begins: “These words may never reach you.”
Another ends: “The skin dissolves in dew
without your touch.” And I want to answer:
I want to live forever. What else can I say?
It rains as I write this. Mad heart, be brave.
I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight
One must wear jeweled ice in dry plains
to will the distant mountains to glass.
The city from where no news can come
is now so visible in its curfewed night
that the worst is precise:
From Zero Bridge
a shadow chased by searchlights is running
away to find its body. On the edge
of the Cantonment, where Gupkar Road ends,
it shrinks almost into nothing,
is nothing by Interrogation gates
so it can slip, unseen, into the cells:
Drippings from a suspended burning tire
are falling on the back of a prisoner,
the naked boy screaming, “I know nothing.”
The shadow slips out, beckons Console Me,
and somehow there, across five hundred miles,
I’m sheened in moonlight, in emptied Srinagar,
but without any assurance for him.
On Residency Road, by Mir Pan House,
unheard we speak: “I know those words by heart
(you once said them by chance): In autumn
when the wind blows sheer ice, the chinar leaves
fall in clusters–
one by one, otherwise.”
“Rizwan, it’s you, Rizwan, it’s you,” I cry out
as he steps closer, the sleeves of his phiren torn.
“Each night put Kashmir in your dreams,” he says,
then touches me, his hands crusted with snow,
whispers, “I have been cold a long, long time.”
“Don’t tell my father I have died,” he says,
and I follow him through blood on the road
and hundreds of pairs of shoes the mourners
left behind, as they ran from the funeral,
victims of the firing. From windows we hear
grieving mothers, and snow begins to fall
on us, like ash. Black on edges of flames,
it cannot extinguish the neighborhoods,
the homes set ablaze by midnight soldiers.
Kashmir is burning:
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 road to the plains, clutching the gods.
I won’t tell your father you have died, Rizwan,
but where has your shadow fallen, like cloth
on the tomb of which saint, or the body
of which unburied boy in the mountains,
bullet-torn, like you, his blood sheer rubies
on Himalayan snow?
I’ve tied a knot
with green thread at Shah Hamdan, to be
untied only when the atrocities
are stunned by your jeweled return, but no news
escapes the curfew, nothing of your shadow,
and I’m back, five hundred miles, taking off
my ice, the mountains granite again as I see
men coming from those Abodes of Snow
with gods asleep like children in their arms.
Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?
Whom else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?
Those “Fabrics of Cashmere–“ ”to make Me beautiful–“
“Trinket”– to gem– “Me to adorn– How– tell”– tonight?
I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates–
A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.
God’s vintage loneliness has turned to vinegar–
All the archangels– their wings frozen– fell tonight.
Lord, cried out the idols, Don’t let us be broken
Only we can convert the infidel tonight.
Mughal ceilings, let your mirrored convexities
multiply me at once under your spell tonight.
He’s freed some fire from ice in pity for Heaven.
He’s left open– for God– the doors of Hell tonight.
In the heart’s veined temple, all statues have been smashed
No priest in saffron’s left to toll its knell tonight
God, limit these punishments, there’s still Judgment Day–
I’m a mere sinner, I’m no infidel tonight.
Executioners near the woman at the window.
Damn you, Elijah, I’ll bless Jezebel tonight.
The hunt is over, and I hear the Call to Prayer
fade into that of the wounded gazelle tonight.
My rivals for your love– you’ve invited them all?
This is mere insult, this is no farewell tonight.
And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee–
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.
Fragment from Agha Shahid Ali’s translation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Shaam:
Some terrible magician, hidden behind curtains,
has hypnotized Time
so this evening is a net
in which the twilight is caught.
Now darkness will never come–
and there will never be morning.
To read Amitav Ghosh’s obituary of Agha Shahid Ali (they were friends), click here and keep tissues handy.