The witness of poetry

of gardens and graves by suvir kaul
JK Bank

Concertina wire is the most widespread form of vegetation

in Kashmir today. It grows everywhere, including in the mind.[1]



of gardens and graves by suvir kaul
Of Gardens and Graves: by Suvir Kaul; Photographs: Javed Dar, Three Essays Collective, 243 pages, Rs. 500.

Much of the extraordinary violence that Kashmir has seen over the last two decades and more has been documented by Kashmiri and international human rights groups, civil society activists and journalists. However the effect such long-term violence has had in the forging of political subjectivities has not become central to scholarship on contemporary Kashmir. That Kashmir has become a conflict zone, with periods of intense violence followed by months of relative calm, is acknowledged by all, but commentators rarely factor in the effects of such prolonged instability and suffering on the political and social attitudes of Kashmiris today. Analysts tend to focus on political developments and incidents of violence in the moment, and even those who recognize that there is an entire generation and more whose only sense of “normality” is of a conflict-ridden Kashmir, make this observation only to set it aside. Noticeably absent from such analyses is a sense of traumatized lives under siege, or of the way in which the pressure of events transforms subjectivities and repurposes political priorities over time.[2]

But loss and traumatic experiences are now woven into the fabric of Kashmiri lives: everyone has first-hand accounts of violence to offer, and people often call attention to their experiences as they explain their political positions. In earlier chapters, I have suggested that creative texts produced in times of conflict offer a way of addressing crucial lacunae in our understanding of Kashmir and Kashmiris, for they illuminate not only the political and ideological issues at stake, but also states of being precipitated by violence, loss, and resistance. For instance, 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. This can be a matter of idiom and tone, for the performative elements of a poem emphasize emotional and psychological intensities sidelined in the affectively-neutral tones of news reportage, policy documents, or standard historiography. As Muzamil Jaleel noted early in the period of conflict, Kashmiri poetry had become a crucial medium for the articulation of trauma and of protest in a time when censorship and fear made writing in prose dangerous (Jaleel 2002).

In recent years I have been working with a Srinagar-based scholar to collect and translate contemporary poetry in Kashmiri into English. Our project is particular: we ask how poets have responded to the bloody disruption of civic and political order in Kashmir in the last two decades. As we know, poets are artisans who are bound by past practices (formal and generic conventions, arresting images or turns of phrase, powerful insights into existential or historical conditions) even as they generate innovations in theme and language that allow them to engage with the present in order to imagine different futures. Poems, that is, can be read as bearing witness to, or more precisely, performing, the fracturing or forging of cultural assumptions. In Kashmir, poems have provided a remarkable number of everyday colloquialisms and aphorisms, and have thus long played an important role in the historical formation of Kashmiriyat, the idea of a collectivity different from others outside the language-community. For instance, phrases and lines from the poems of the fourteenth-century mystics Lal Děd and Sheikh Noor-ud-din Wali (Nund Rishi) are treated as maxims, and spoken often enough to constitute the commonsense of the land.[3]

While Kashmiriyat as idea and as description of shared lives and cultural assumptions across religious communities has been belittled as a utopian, retrospective backformation that attempts to paper over age-old sectarian and social divides, there is no question that the melding of Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim ideals provided Kashmiris with a vast reservoir of spiritual ideas at odds with more doctrinaire and prescriptive forms of religious belief. Many of these ideas are central to the Sufi tradition, with its concomitant devotion to local shrines, that differentiates both Muslim and Hindu forms of worship in Kashmir from practices elsewhere (not seamlessly or without contestation, of course, but certainly definitively). Thus, the disappearance of crucial elements of this way of life—the loss of trust between Hindus and Muslims that led to the mass exile of the former, the breakdown of the civic compact under the pressure of militants and the state—is bound to result in poetry that mourns, resists, denounces, this state of affairs. At least that is what I assumed when I began this project in summer 2008.

As I discovered very quickly, the scholarly pursuit of poetry is no more immune to the ravages of civic strife than is life itself: in two weeks in Srinagar, I could work with my collaborator for all of two days (this has been the pattern in two subsequent visits too). 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. It was fitting then that one of the first arresting poems I read, brought to me in manuscript by a friend, resembled neither of the forms that are the staple of Kashmiri poetry, the ghazal and the nazm. This is (in our translation) what I read:

I am bundling the winds

I am making the night the day, day the night

I die slowly, steadily, and continue to live on

I see the desert and pull on the desert

From my eyes, oh, a river flows

I wouldn’t care if they killed me

Dead, beaten, they keep me alive

I will come out of here, emerge with renewed resolve

What will they do to me, these rods and hammers?

I have, like a tear, dropped

Does a tear ever return

All that I have seen, don’t ask me, oh

Those adored ones, whose flesh was burned by them

How many did not find graveyards or burial

How many were burnt on snow-mountains

How do I forget all this

What will their money and adornments do for me

I have sworn oaths on the forests

I have made to gardens this promise

I will keep watering the spring

Let them make a dog of me in prison

Once I am outside I will become a lion again

Inside, for them, I am just a lump of flesh


We will call this poet Muzaffar ‘Kashmiri.’ I learned that he had been in prison for many years without trial, and that he was a tehreeki who had taken to guns and bombs in pursuit of the dream of azadi. He was educated, but no poet—he began to write in prison, and his untitled poem is written in a conversational (rather than literary) idiom. Its immediacy is the product of everyday speech, of a felt urgency, and its certainties are arrived at despairingly, in the face of imprisonment and torture. The poem’s contrasts are derived from the representations of nature that are the staple of Kashmiri poetry: the valley is a garden, spring breezes bring life and color, forest canopies dress the high mountains; the desert is the life-denying polar opposite of all that constitutes Kashmiri lives lived in harmony with nature. But in this poem the incarcerated poet knows only paradox—he loses the distinction between day and night, makes the desert his own, draws it around himself like a covering, lives on even when his torturers make death attractive. What follows is the hope brought alive in the act of the poem, the articulation of a further resolve, the refusal to let “rods and hammers” break his will, and all this condensed into a delicate image of no return, the tear that drops and never climbs back.

Hope behind bars: this is the irony that anchors renewed determination in the fragility, evanescence, and finality of a shed tear. It is important though that the shed tear is not for himself, but part of a collective mourning for all those comrades, the “adored ones,” whose flesh was burnt “by them” and who now lie, without proper obsequies, somewhere in the snowy mountains. Their memory, and their sacrifice, is the more certain ground of commitment that allows him to resist the promises and bribes offered by his captors (again, the unnamed “them”). In the next lines, Kashmir itself, or rather, images and tropes conventional to its poetic self-representation, provide the continuity of memory and commitment necessary for sustained faith in a political ideal:

I have sworn oaths on the forests

I have to made to gardens this promise

I will keep watering the spring

The idealism of these lines veers into cliché, but the closing lines arrest that movement in an idiom, and a reality, stark and brutal:

Let them make a dog of me in prison

Once I am outside I will become a lion again

Inside, for them, I am just a lump of flesh

Both this incarcerated body, beaten into a “lump of flesh,” and the un-extinguished hope of release and redemption into renewed political activism (“I will become a lion again”), offer a powerful challenge to the political agents and theorists of Indian nationalism in the twenty-first century. Condensed into these last three lines is the egregious and dehumanizing practice of state power, in which the unwilling “citizen,” especially one who takes to arms, is captured, tortured, and in this process, reduced to the brutalized materiality of a lump of flesh. Not everyone in Kashmir is a violent tehreeki, far from it, but there will be few Kashmiris who will not sympathize with the scenario and the sentiment explored by this poem. To that extent, it is representative of the collective experience of a people subject to long-drawn out and often indiscriminate state violence.


Suvir Kaul is the A. M. Rosenthal Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania.



[1] Ranjit Hoskote 2011: lxxiii.

[2] Ironically, a commentator unsympathetic to Kashmiri self-determination has most precisely recognized that its present mobilization derives great force from shared suffering over the last two decades. In April 2012, Manu Joseph infamously parodied political anger in Kashmir by styling it a “heritage” industry:

Trauma in Kashmir is like a heritage building—the elite fight to preserve it. ‘Don’t forget,’ is their predominant message, ‘Don’t forget to be traumatised.’ They want the wound of Kashmir to endure because the wound is what indicts India for the many atrocities of its military. This might be a long period of calm, but if the wound vanishes, where is the justice? India simply gets away with all those rapes, murders and disappearances? So nothing disgusts them more than these words: ‘Normalcy returns to Kashmir’; ‘Peace returns to the Valley’; ‘Kashmiris want to move on’ (Joseph 2012).

For Joseph, trauma, like a second skin, can be sloughed off when the time is right. The poems I analyze here suggest otherwise.

[3] Jayalal Kaul shows that Lal Děd, for instance, adapted and modified Sanskritic forms of words into modern Kashmiri, and crafted from them an idiom still in use. His examples are: “loh-langar (iron anchor) for involvement in worldly things; seki lavar vuthu’ny (twisting a rope of sand) for a fruitless occupation; vatanā’sh (highway robbers) for greed, lust and pride; sandā’rith pakhu’c (steadying the wheels) for equipoise; da’ly trāvu’ny (spreading the hem of the garment) for surrender and supplication; dumatas rinzy (marbles thrown at a huge boulder) for an ineffective attempt, and many more. . . . This is so also with the imagery drawn naturally from the familiar surroundings of the countryside: the ferry across the river, the creaky bridges on the causeway, the bloom of a cotton flower, the kailyard, the saffron field. . . etc. etc.” (J Kaul 1973: 65-66).