Friday, 31 October 2014

Remembering Amin Kamil

Amin Kamil, the poet, the novelist, the researcher, the critic, the organizer, is no more. Yesterday ended a colourful and significant chapter in Kashmir’s cultural history. Gone is a special chapter in the literary history – the great decades long battle of ideas, of perceptions, of sensibilities between giants of Kashmiri literature – Rahi and Kamil intellectual duo is now history.  Without judging in ideological terms, and press for adbi fatwas, at least on aesthetic plane, we could enjoy proceedings of literary exchange between “rival” schools of Kashmiri literature.
As a student of philosophy and literary criticism, I would draw attention to a couple of points on this day when we are shocked by the absence of a grand man of letters.
Our current tragedy – political and cultural – is partly attributable to our amnesia and disowning our best writers. Most of the elderly writers we ignore and leave them to die suffering is a bitter sense of ingratitude from our side. Since how long have we heard Prof. Agha Ashraf and Prof. Rashid Nazki – to name only two important personalities in cultural events? The more age and experience of a person, especially of a man of letters, more visible he should be with time for people to get benefitted from. We have no chairs or mini-chairs in the government devoted to any of our recent or contemporary giants in literature or culture. So much so that we have to look to few centuries back for as if culture is dead, as if no Rahi has come, as if no Kamil has come, as if no mystic poet, no important scholar in any discipline has been produced in last few centuries. New generation has heard something of Sheikh-ul-Alam and Lalded and even they are not being understood because of alienation from language and cultural background of their work – and reads mostly literature of the West. And people are talking about Kashmiri nationalism while all the time they watch the very foundations in language and culture getting eroded. Our tragedy is we have not been able to identify and project our new heroes. For instance we have world class mystic poets that we have never ceased to produce but have not even translated in major languages or even properly introduced to world audience. The most serious scholars here today complain of deliberate veto to their work on part of major organizations that could make the difference.
We are also great leg pullers. Historically conditioned to distrust – and victims of sponsored campaign to instill distrust between people, discredit local voice, and muffle potential “deviants” – we are smart in picking up loopholes, both real and imagined. We have a counter-narrative to all success stories. Genuine people are believed to be products of some behind the scene force, to serve some agenda. Good writers fail to publish or sell works and much of mediocre literature is in libraries. Getting awards is generally perceived to be an art that requires extra-literary skills like better advertizing one’s commodity or pleasing those who have a say in giving awards.
Amin Kamil’s journey is to a significant extent attributable to his own efforts and one can only lament the irony involved in seeking State sponsorship in a corrupt world for a writer who could be much more creative and beneficial to society if he had independent means of livelihood. Only the likes of Iqbal could afford to leave even prestigious professorship to satisfy conscience and be free to express themselves. We are lesser mortals. If likes of Rahi and Kamil were fully supported by community rather than state resources we would perhaps have better works to show to the world and claim our writers without any scruples. In traditional Islamic culture education was not a public sector undertaking in the sense it is today. It was not controlled the way it is today. Scholars did often need some patronage but community or people rather than the State was the real force to direct to nobler higher ends.
We die having this or that grudge against our important literary figures. What a tragedy! When will the day come when we are free to be writers, unmindful of awards or not needing patronage that often comes at great costs to freedom of spirit and creative activity that great literature requires. When will we own our writers as our writers, our conscience keepers? Will we work to create institutional structures and strengthen community spaces to facilitate their growth and development?

AASHOORA: The Alchemy of Sorrow

Khoanaen Nawa is the best to read non-Muslim poets on Karbala

Aaj tak roti hae teray gam mei her mahfil Hussain
Iss mein koi shak nahi to hae jehan ka dil Hussain (
There are only two categories of people in the world: those who know they love Hussain(a.s) and those who don’t know though they too, deep in their being, stand witness to the glory that Hussain(r.a) is. And one can club all great thinkers, artists, poets, saints with the first camp. (None can claim to be indifferent to the tragedy of Karbala). One can almost set the love of the Prophet (SAW) and, by implication, love of Hussain(R.A), as a criterion of distinguishing believers from disbelievers.  
 “Ham haen haediri,” “ham haen hussaini” is indeed a universal slogan and Hussain(a.s) as a symbol of protest “against real suffering” and as a “sigh of the oppressed, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions” (seeing how Yazids seem to triumph everywhere one recalls Marx’s point about religion) is there to stay as long as justice is sought and justice is not done, Hussain(a.s) will be invoked. It means as long as Yazids are there – Yazids of Capital, of Terror, of centrifugal passions – the fight is on. All of us who have yet to curb temptations of nafs-i-ammara need to remember heroism of Hussain (RA) to succeed in the great odyssey of salvation. Muharram and Aashora constitute the great narrative or a drama of the soul. In fact all quest literature and the genres of elegy and tragedy echo a theme that karbala evokes. Religion understood as making sacred or sacrifice (“ibtida Ismail, intiha Hussain”) is enacting or living the tragedy of Karbala in our soul. It is letting the body be “killed” or better subdued or transcended for the sake of Spirit or Virtue (which include goodness and justice). Transposed existentially Karbala is a battle against the yazid of desire in us. Hussain(a.s) stands for, to use Platonic language, the sovereignty of Intellect against desires or passions. 
There is a Hussain (RA) of historians and a Hussain of poets. The later Hussain is more an archetype, a symbol, a celestial figure of Metahistory.  All artists or poets  share a certain version of religion of love and for hundreds of non-Muslim poets anthologized in the bulky book Khonaaen Nawa by Irfan Turabi. This religion of love is exemplified in the love of Muhammad(SAW) and his family especially the great grandson  Hussain (AS). All gam partakes of gam-i-Hussain(a.s) if Hussain(a.s) is understood in deeper metahistorical  or esoteric sense. Hussain (RA) is part of our very being, our deepest drive for goodness, truth and justice that we are born with. Deep down, we all believe in the primacy or “sovereignty of the Good” (to echo Iris Murdoch’s famous work) and Justice (in Kashmiri we say kraeh khoti chu insaaf ) and an important early school of Muslim theologians defined God in terms of attribute of Justice and were called Ahl-i Tawhid wal Adl. I have not seen any Muslim who doesn’t share gam-i- Hussain(a.s). We, as humans, are all for Husssain(RA). After the personality of the Prophet (SAW) it is martyrdom of Hussain (RA) that has attracted the non-Muslim world to Islam. In fact if the love of the Prophet and his great grandson constitute signposts of one’s belief system it is hard to label anyone, at least among thinkers, artists and poets as outright  disbeliever. The verdict of jurists and theologians who codify belief system notwithstanding, I think the poet’s position –his statement of his faith – needs to be appreciated on different terms. Nothing unites Shias and Sunnis better than the love of the Prophet (SAW) and his family. There are thousand and one modes of expressing this love and even those who are classed as non-Muslims have expressed their love in countless ways. The current anthology of Gulhaayi Akeedat of around 100 non-Muslim poets is evidence of the latter. 
All these points about Imam Hussain(a.s) are echoed in the anthology that constitutes a definitive contribution to elegiac literature. Reading it one’s faith is refreshed, many unknown poets get resurrected and a new chapter in the dialogue between communities opens up. One perceives a different universe where the powerful symbol and love of the Prophet (SAW) and Hussain (RA) melts the ice of prejudices against different communities. All of us worship Beauty and Love and we differ only in the extent to which we have surrendered the self that covets power or worldly glory – the Empire of Yazid – and got transformed by the Grace of the Beloved. 
Reading the poets he has painstakingly anthologized, we come to better understand those whom Muslims would ordinarily imagine to be excluded from the grace emanating from the Prophet (SAW). Reading such verses as:
“Yae haen berkatee ek nam-i-nabi kae
Gam-e-doonu-aalam thikanae lagae hein"

"Hosh kehta hae unki yaad mei guzrae hayaat/
Aur junoo kahta hae khak-i- toyyiba hi ho jayae"

Tabeen koi bi nahi daekha Muhammad sa/
Jigar kae zakhm dikhanae madenae chalo (Menk)

“Guzaratae haen jo yaad Hussain maen ham arsh/
Hayat mein wahi lamhae shumaar hotae haen
(Arsh) one is simply moved. Great things have been said about sorrow as “the swiftest horse that takes one to perfection,” as the best thing under earth designed for tuition of men, as the wazeefa by  thinkers and saints. Our poets sing:
“Naimat koi bi naimat-i-gam ka badl nahi”

“Gam-i- Shabeer mei pur khoon hou jis ki aankhae/
Bhar kae damen mein wahi lal-o-gohr aata hae

zamanae mein hara gulshan-i-Zohra hoga/
Yom-i-aashoor yehi lae lae kae khabr aata hai

“Hindu sahi magr hoo sana khan-i- Mustafa” or

Hae kousari hindoo bi talabgaar-i-Muhammad”

Is wastae na shoal tera muj tek aasaka” 

“Khuda tera aashiq tu aashiq khuda ka/
Maen tum donoo per hoo fida ya Muhammad”
(Dilooram Kousari)

“Mumin jo nahi hoon to mein kafir bi nahi shad/
Is ramz sae aagah haen sultan-I madeena” 
One can cite scores of great devotional or naatiya verse or poetry in honour of Hussain(a.s). It means Hussain (RA)has conquered the world through the beauty of his soul. 

Although selections are not often appealing in terms of artistic form, love, devotion, faith, felicity of phrase is noticeable on every page. This is a book that along with Khunaab and few other works would constitute permanent contributions to literature on na’t, hamd and marsiya.
Scholar, compiler, editor, researcher, Turabi is arguably the most important name in research in Kashmir on elegiac poetry in Urdu and Kashmiri. His distinction is his specialization on contribution of non-Muslim poets to elegiac literature. Turabi has been able to single handedly add a significant chapter in scholarship and history of elegiac literature.

The Good and the Evil

We have seen many explanations being proposed from Friday pulpits to streets to Majlis-e- Toubas(gathering for repentance). We have seen sharply divergent views. Victims and those who have been spared may not share explanations. Ibn Arabi, the Shaykh-i-Akbar, provides one of the most profound analysis of the issue of evil. He is the most consistent metaphysician in Islam who has dealt with the issue of evil vis-à-vis God. For him, at the risk of oversimplification, there is:
  • No such thing as evil; what we call evil is only evil from our perspective, the perspective of a finite desiring interested self. What is evil to a cat is not so for a dog and in turn what is evil to a dog will be good to dog’s predator. What is good for a patient may not be so for a doctor. What was loss to shopkeepers became a gain for those who afford only Sunday market. While some lost jobs, masons, carpenters and all kinds of unskilled labours got jobs after the flood. So whose good and whose evil?
  • Divine Will overrides good/evil binary. The revealed law designates as evil something which is nevertheless approved by the more primordial Divine Will. This explains how criminals, thieves, dacoits etc. are “tolerated” in the world where God is the ultimate power who controls the movement of the hearts and authors all actions.
  • Everything is perfect when looked from the viewpoint of Absolute. This is a statement that only those who have arrived at the other shore, attained baqa and see with God’s eyes can make. For those still living in the dominion of duality (duginyaar), who are yet to realize the secret of unity or Tawhid, it appears scandalous. Those who can see at existence aesthetically, those who retain freshness of childhood, who can see the world as play or Leila of God, who can decipher the interplay of Divine names in every event, who have been vouchsafed the direct vision of reality, of mystical ecstasy or cosmic vision this is true. We might recall Father Zossima of Dostovesky who exclaims that this very garden is the Garden of Eden, that all things are holy and perfect. For those who are capable of unconditional love, there is nothing but God or Reality or play of lover and beloved in every storm, in every event. God the perfect can’t create imperfection. Imperfection appears to us, committed as we are to self-centric view, seeking joys and comforts only. Everything, every creature is under the tuition and influence of divine decree. God is monitoring everything. Nothing is outside His control. Everything is perfect at every moment.
  • Everything happens in accordance with archetypal constitution or possibilities. God doesn’t determine or influence archetypal possibilities. His goodness can’t be affected by evil in the creation which is acquired by the things/individuals as per there nature.
  • As nothing is outside God or Reality (as God is Reality) so nothing is against His will or His control. The realization of God/ Truth implies the realization of perfection of everything. Time, history, becoming, progress, struggle and thus evil all lose their traditional importance in the absolutist perspective. The world is the play of God rather than something that involves real tragedy. Tragedy is unknown to Eastern/mystical sensibility. There is no waste, no loss, no suffering, no evil in the real sense. Problems arise when categorical conceptual view is imposed on reality that transcends all binaries though it manifests to mind or thought in terms of binaries. All questions that mind asks, that essentially dualistic thought asks, are wrong questions. This is what Zen or Sufism so forcefully argue. We as questioning selves are not. Only God is. We aren’t outside God though we believe otherwise as long as we identify with the separating principle of ego. In the Infinite there are no boundaries, no categories that delimit, no concepts that encompass. We need to scrutinize our right to ask questions. Religions demand the submission or transcendence of the kingdom of the self that seeks justifications, that evaluates, that imposes its categories on what transcends it. A believer has no questions because he has risen above the level of the mind where questions arise. Islam as a religion of submission demands that man is nothing outside God or apart from God.
  • Mystery or wonder is what the traveler on the path to Reality discovers at the last station. There is no explaining away of mystery of Existence. Rational faculty that demands somehow subsuming the mystery at the heart of everything is to be transcended. Religious attitude is to revere the mysterious ground of existence as sacred. There is no reason for anything. God is Mystery, al-gayyib in the Quranic phrase. Love and contemplation of wonder and mystery are what religion demands. Love doesn’t ask questions. It celebrates. Everything is from the beloved alone as God (the Beloved) has no associates. All divinities other than Allah are fictions. Whatever comes from the Beloved for a lover is enjoyed and welcomed with gratitude. Reason fails to solve the mystery of existence. There is no answer to the question why is there anything and not nothing. Hafiz has famously advocated the attitude of gay abandon and celebration in contrast top the rationalist’s or logician’s approach to the riddle of existence. Men have wrongly imagined that they have untied the knot of existence, the question of why of existence.
God is the Totality and nothing is outside Him so all fragmentary views (which human views are characteristically) can’t  make sense of Him or His doings. If man knew all the karmic causes he would be immediately outside the samsaric trappings and thus one with the Unborn, the Unconditioned. In fact there is no karma for the jnani, the one who truly knows. Our true self is outside all the karmic determinations; it is uncorrupted by evil. It is beyond all determinations, all binaries including the binary of good and evil. Socrates who is an exemplary philosopher and sage knew he knew nothing and that is why he was the wisest man. The Highest Good isn’t rationally knowable. One has to be it. All quests end in wonder. In the last analysis man knows nothing. From the structure of matter to the constitution of spirit nothing is ultimately known. All human knowledge is progressive unveiling of the ultimate impenetrability of the veil that disguises Reality.

Symbolism of Prayer

All life is prayer for those who really know the secret of prayer
One of the greatest tragedies of modernity is that we have forgotten how to live because we have forgotten how to pray.  We don’t know how to understand seemingly disproportional sawab vs. gunah calculus mentioned in traditions regarding offering or missing a prayer.  So much is our ignorance of what prayer is or how it defines human state ( the argument so forcefully put forth in Prayer Fashions Man: Frithjof Schuon on the Spiritual Life)  that we know only the binary of farz vs. qarz  while discoursing on prayer. Post-flood there were reports that azan was given at 12 p.m and  more people began to offer nimaz out of fear of God. If people knew how to go to mosques they would forget the need to gossip in market place or cafes or intoxication of taverns. 
With Ghalib’s “Maloom hae sawaabi taaet-o-zuhd/Per tabiiyet idhr nahi jati” and the sentiment “Ham mawwahid haen hamara kaesh hae tarki rasoon” shared by many, especially those who claim some spiritual orientation, “bay rooh nimaz” syndrome all around us, and a lot of those who struggle to pray and such skeptics as Josh Mailahabadi failing to find meaning in prayers and a lot of drop outs and those taking Ramzan or Eid offers only,  khushu and khuzu escaping not only ramzan nimazees but five timers as well, I wonder if it is not the consciousness of symbolism of prayer that is missing in all the camps. This symbolism needs attention of both nimazees and baynimazees and occasional nimazees. And it teaches us one thing: focus on perfecting prayer especially prayer of the heart.  None of us can claim to truly pray. We have not been taught how to pray. So many sermons and books in market notwithstanding, we are badly in need of learning how to pray – neither schools nor madrassahs seem to have really succeeded in the job of creating motivation or awareness regarding  prayer. ( If they had,  we would not even think of need to enforce prayer in the Islamic state). Have we ever experienced prayer as  m’iraj? In a slim but insightful book Islam Enlightened the argument from activating subtle centers or latiyif is made to see how this can be done. 

 Today we refer to certain texts that should be enough to dissolve all criticisms or charges of ritualism.  One may cite Hazrat Abdul Qadir Jeelani’s Sir al-Asrar, Ibn Arabi’s scattered commentaries on parts of prayer, a dense wonderful text Sirr us-Salat by Imam Khomeni, comments  on it in Martin Lings' classic A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century and crisp summary of deeper symbolism in Taelimi Gausia. But the text we read today is a small essay by R. Blackhirst freely available on that presents mystical or symbolic view in contemporary idiom.  Prayer or nimaz is ritual enacting of fana. This annihilation of the ego is “symbolized in sajda by the fact that the face of the worshipper is hidden from view in this position; the surrendering of all selfhood is expressed, throughout the Islamic tradition, in the veiling of the face.”
Very few know that prohibition on portraying the Holy Prophet's face is “because the Prophet is submitted to God paradigmatically and is, as it were, always in sajda.”  Ask anyone regarding  mystery of length of prayers and one can see guesswork. Our author suggests  that the difference  in length of briefer  prayers of the dawn-dusk axis compared to  those of  the noon-night axis are reflects  the difference in  the relative velocity of the Sun at the equinoxes compared to the solstices and also the varying lengths of the Four Ages.”
Why faithah is said in plural? Because it “is a collective prayer and standing in this position, symbolically facing his Lord, the Muslim represents not only himself but all mankind and even all Creation as khalif.”  Man, the praying animal, can’t escape being man and thus representing  the whole creation. “In prayer, the Muslim moves from the vertical position, signifying man as khalif, to the horizontal, signifying abd.” In the prostrate posture “the Muslim is Adam returned to the passive clay from which he was created.”  “The cycle of standing and prostration in a single rakas illustrates a vegetative cycle; it enacts the birth of Adam and ritualizes his dual status as deputy and slave, but the same gestures and movements also rehearse the death and rebirth of the resurrection of the sons of Adam.” The prayer mat symbolizes the grave and for this reason the traditional and symbolically correct design for the prayer mat is a stylized Eden of four rivers with the Tree of Life, the destination to which the believer aspires and for which his soul yearns.  The standing posture of the prayer, the author notes, symbolizes the waking consciousness, the bowing posture the dreaming mind, and sajda the mind in deep sleep.”  “Deep sleep is analogous to the prophetic state - to the Unlettered purity of Muhammad(SAWW), in Islam - in its pure passivity.”
Night prayers, especially voluntary prayers like tahajjad are connected to lunar symbolism of Islam. (Tahajjad is universal wazeefa for initiates and may be tried by anyone and one can attest for oneself intimations of the higher worlds and how sweet is the experience of “talking” to God during solitude of night). Lunar symbolism explains use of lunar calendar in Islamic ritual and many other thins of Islamic culture.
“The worshipper, plunges, as it were, into the depths of the sleeping mind, namely that part of ourselves that is perpetually in submission to Allah and offers no resistance whatsoever to His Will. The method of Muslim prayer is just this: to consciously identify oneself with this deepest stratum of oneself that is, by nature, in perennial submission, to find in ourselves again the very "clay" of which we are made. This is the deeper and a specifically Abrahamic dimension of the Muslim rite. “
Why the prescribed  prayer timings? Any guesses?  The author notes that “the prayer times are nevertheless arranged around the two axes of the Sun's diurnal movement - the horizontal and, in the greater cycle, equinoctial, axis of East-West and the vertical, solstitial axis of Up-Down…. The fifth prayer time in this arrangement, asr, represents a projection of the centre of this cross (the quintessence) and thus is marked for special attention: it is the "middle prayer" that the Qoran specifically yet cryptically adjures Muslims not to neglect, the designation "middle" referring to its centrality, not to it being in the "middle of the afternoon" as externalists will commonly explain.” Salat-al –wusta (middle prayer) is a subject of great debate and I think Sufi exegesis of it as involving attention to breath needs attention. 
To those who ask how does it matter to God if one doesn’t pray  I recall  Mansoor who was asked why he offers prayers if he considers himself God and he replied that it is because of great majesty or dignity of theomorphic or divine nature of spirit in us that man is worthy to be offered prayer. He meant that he offered prayer to the Self in him. But the best answer to all those who pray or don’t pray or dispute about either is all of us fall short of offering salati-dayimi, perpetual prayer that Sufis have been pleading for.  It requires constant attention to breath or its incoming and outgoing  movements – and midpoint between them – Indicating birth and death resulting in serenity. And it is this serenity that saves not ritual as such. In fact this prayer results in what the Prophet called Mi’raj.  We can’t be sure who has attained such a station and can never rest complacently with our five time prayers thinking we have done our job and cleared our account with God. The prayer that saves is this prayer of perpetual attention, perpetual waking state, perfect devotion to one’s work. All life is prayer for those who really know the secret of prayer.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Floods, and the Meaning of Suffering

A question among questions, after the floods, is how we respond to suffering at the personal level after we have debated how it was caused. Let there be no doubt that suffering is somehow caused, or invited, by people, and God lets sins punish us (rather than punish us Himself as a revengeful being), especially when these are sins against fellow-beings or the environment (huqooq-ul-ibaad or muamlaat) . What we need now is motivation to rehabilitate, to fight depression, to stop regretting what couldn’t be avoided. Let us note that suffering can help nations be reborn. It can act as a providential mechanism for infusing a new spirit in us. In fact, there are signs that we are getting spiritually primed. The disaster brought our compassion to the fore; friendship and relationships have not died; we are a community, not merely a society; our religious and social organizations and activism are our great asset; and so many other qualities. We have seen how the hearts of Kashmiris anywhere beat for fellow Kashmiris at home. What is it that helped collect so much aid, be it across the country, or in universities?
At the more personal level, we can also see how suffering can help us rebuild our relationship with God and with fellow humans. Let me quote some important sources on the alchemy of suffering:
This is my last message to you; in sorrow seek happiness  -Zossima in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov
It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting; for that is the end of all men, and the living will lay it to his heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter; for by the sadness of countenance the heart is made better
Every soul is wretched that is bound to affections of mortal things; it is tormented to lose them, and in their loss becomes aware of the wretchedness which in reality it had even before it lost them  -St. Augustine
        Finally, two passages from Frithjof Schuon, the Messenger of the Perennial Philosophy, and arguably the greatest metaphysician and sage of the twentieth century who systematically wrote on the meaning of suffering and justifying God’s ways to men. It touches almost every important question that flood victims have asked, that preachers have been emphasizing, that we have found hard to understand:
-There is in every man a tendency to attach himself too much to this or that element of passing life or to worry about it too much, and the adversary takes advantage of this in order to cause troubles for us. There is also the desire to be happier than one is, or the desire not to suffer any injustices, even harmless ones, or the desire always to understand everything, or the desire never to be disappointed; all of this is of the domain of subtle worldliness, which must be countered by serene detachment, by the principal and initial certainty of That which alone matters, then by patience and confidence. When no help comes from Heaven, this is because it is a question of a difficulty which we can and must resolve with the means which Heaven has placed at our disposal. In an absolute way, it is necessary to find our happiness in Prayer; that is to say that it is necessary to find therein sufficient happiness so as not to allow ourselves to be excessively troubled by the things of the world, seeing that dissonances cannot but exist, the world being what it is.
-There is the desire not to suffer any injustices, or even simply not to be placed at a disadvantage. Now one of two things: either the injustices are the result of our past faults, and in this case our trials exhaust this causal mass; or the injustices result from our character, and in this case our trials bear witness to it; in both cases, we must thank God and pray to Him with all the more fervor, without preoccupying ourselves with worldly chaff. One must also say to oneself that the grace of the Remembrance of God compensates infinitely for every dissonance from which we can suffer, and that in relation to this grace, the inequality of terrestrial favors is a pure nothingness. Let us never forget that an infinite grace compels us to an infinite gratitude, and that the first stage of gratitude is the sense of proportion.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Fighting Flood with Humour

Only man laughs in the whole animal world because only he is subject to sorrow, says Nietzsche

One unsung heroic virtue that has helped us to fight is the Kashmiri’s sense of humour. If fortune laughs on us, why can’t we laugh in turn on it? Some deaths in floods occurred because of heart attack or fright or we can say lack of sense of humour. Creation itself is ultimately nothing but God’s play and we are advised to play our part in a drama staged by God. No jokes! Creation (and destruction as well) is a joke ( for  a consciousness that witnesses rather than judges) that can be enjoyed best as a play of God, or divine joke and that explains rather than contradicts the Quranic statement that all things are created in truth. It is all God’s play and our job here on earth is to dance on understanding the motiveless process of creation and joy that wells up from depths of heart for no reason. Shakespeare said that all life is a stage and let us play the part as flood victims in the drama that ultimately expresses pure joy of the Creator. Heaven is reserved for those who can be like children till death. And we know children would play even in the boat that was rescuing them with great difficulty. 
Humour is the best anti-depressant and anti-stress medicine that is never in short supply in Kashmir. We are, arguably, one of the most humourous communities. We see lighter mood and jokes being shared even in death ceremonies, especially if it is not a tragic death of young ones. can help resist mountains of frustrations.  Perhaps centuries long occupation has taught us to laugh or to perish. Beaten, dragged to baygaar, humiliated, imprisoned, deceived what could we do if not at least laugh at others and ourselves? We can’t live without hope and how much hope we have is seen by how capable we are of treating things in aesthetic or light hearted or humourous way. Even when all is lost the capacity to laugh at misfortune and thus the spirit of joy that no disaster can affect remains with us and this is what laughing saints and philosophers master to fight the bitter things in life. People invented stories, jokes and outlandish theses to escape mental agony that losses in flood could inflict. One recalls why the first response of many saints to any troubling incident or tale narrated to them is a smile and why we are required as believers to greet death – the ultimate terror or disaster from ordinary self centric viewpoint – with a smile. Although I am aware that it may be difficult for us to think humorously about disaster in the present scenario and it may even strike some readers as a completely distasteful suggestion, I still bat for it as a student of religion, philosophy and poetry. Ghalib again comes handy: Mushkilaen muj pae padaen itni ki aasaan ho gayeen. If the genre of comedy (Kashmiris have been brilliant with more comic - ladishahs and bandipathers – than tragic art forms) that is universally popular has any value it is this lesson: the best response to tragic predicament is humour. Beckett, the greatest modern writer of the tragic, was a master of comic. Shakespeare’s comedies are no less great works than his tragedies. To laugh at misfortune is the ultimate weapon God has given us and it doesn’t mean not taking lessons home from a given disaster. That is a separate issue. The first question is how we survive disaster and mobilize resources to fight it with a light heart.
 Can we extend the attitude of greeting death – the ultimate calamity – with a smile to lesser calamities like loss of possessions?  Beyond any gunah and sawab calculus lies at higher and deeper level the interplay of Divine Names. Humans as such don’t come into the picture. And the greatest wisdom lies in taking all this aesthetically. It is the judgment of great thinkers, Eastern and Western, that life or existence can’t be justified except in aesthetic terms. A humourist will note that as many mouths so many theses on why of flood and why it has spared some and none of them standing to rigourous scrutiny or strictly generalizable. He would note so many conflicting views with amusement. One of the strongest evidences of God, according to a famous sociologist, is existence of humour because it presupposes the intelligent or divine order that has been breached. Humour is a royal road to God (possibly because it requires drowning ego and vanity), said no less a personality than Rumi. So humour can’t be lightly taken. It is the best relief to victims caught up in such works as cleaning inundated belongings. Laughing we can heal wounds. Tears and grief would not help. Let us, at least for few days we need to rebuild, take affairs of worldly life non-seriously as Plato advised . 
I am reminded of laughing saints who used to search for any occasion of mourning and make a party of laughter there. On their death, they sought to continue this exercise and stuffed coffin with crackers and as they were ignited a great show of cracking sounds delighted all who were present.  In Orissa there is a tribe that laughs while accompanying corpses to graves as they believe that the deceased will now be free from bondage of body to be with God or the kingdom of Spirit. Muslims also do this but only annually and that too after some time of death of a saint and call it urs. Urs which is the day of death of Sufis is celebrated with great festivity. If we could do this in our case as well – dying before we die – what else would be required to enjoy eternal life?
We all know how jokes eased suffering of people during floods. All of us have heard some special jokes. While visiting some affected families I was amazed at their capacity to laugh away tragedy. I wish we teach courses in humour as part of rehabilitating strategy. 
As Walter Kaufman has pointed out, “The difference between tragedy and comedy is not in essence one of subject matter, but depends upon our point of view.” So with a Shakespearean character let me say that flood mayn’t be evil in itself but thinking makes it so. I hope it becomes a prelude to experience of drowning our attachments, vanity and pride and  soften hardened hearts so that we can laugh on our way to the real, fuller and joyful life that awaits us.  
Tail piece: Hunger is not a joke. Facing cold in winter isn’t a joke. But humour can sweeten our meals and warm our hearts. Flood too will pass. And what will remain is a memory of how we entertained flood victims, not how we fed them. The essence of relationship is delight of spirit to which sense of humour contributes significantly.

Houses that Invite Disaster

Houses to show off and not to live in – this sums up the essence of ‘modern’ Kashmiri architecture.  Houses for others, for puffing up our social egos, are against divine logic and invite disasters. It is inconceivable to claim nationhood, a regional identity, a religion, a culture and forget indigenous architecture. What constitutes traditional architecture, Islamic architecture, Kashmiri architecture is almost unknown to modern Kashmiris. And we build houses and other buildings – the State builds – in total ignorance of time-honoured cultural and technical considerations.
If for no other sin, we deserved drowning for this sin of ignoring or rejecting Divine Principles that architecture needs to embody. It is a moment to wake up, to hold collective repentance, and turn to timeless wisdom in designing our living space, our houses, our government establishments. The spiritual, psychological and health costs of the architecture we employ today are enormous and we are too callous even to notice them. And we keep suffering for these sins of cultural murder of which we are collectively guilty.
Traditionally houses are built not just to shield us from cold and heat, or to provide us rest, but to glorify God or serve the needs of the spirit as well. They are ideally moulded on the patterns revealed to prophets and saints and designers capable of contemplating essences or archetypes. Beauty is there to transport us to heaven, to create an ambience that helps us contemplate God. Traditionally, a house is a replica of the heavenly model that is also embodied in mosques or temples. It is built with a cosmology in mind that reflects Divine Principles. There are traditional sciences that help determine its best design or construction at almost every point. A house houses souls that need heavenly manna for right orientation and fulfillment and that is why beauty and art objects are important in this regard.
In Islamic culture, houses ideally had a free space inside them as is the case in certain mosques like the historical Jamia Masjid of Srinagar. It was in this space that privacy was enjoyed by women and not through the current trend of large walls between houses that only help to divide neighours and complicate flood situations and suffocate minds and souls.  Privacy as a value has almost been forgotten in an age of mass media and market. Traditionally, all houses are in a way houses of God as well. Isn’t prayer offered in houses? Aren’t they required to keep in consideration the qibla? Aren’t they used to conduct all kinds of religious ceremonies?
Traditionally, houses are designed for comfort and in keeping with climatic conditions. In Kashmir flood resistant houses were in vogue till recently. From the design of braer keni to the use of elastic wood-crosses in walls, and thick walls, and a number of measures including medium or low height as compared to the current large-heighted rooms or walls, all helped fight extreme weather, resist certain disasters better, and reduce costs. We also used to have mostly indigenous materials for houses. It meant local employment was taken care of. Today hardly anything used in house construction is indigenous.
The shift to concrete houses comes at huge costs in comfort and environment, and in many cases, in the ability to resist earthquakes. From labour to craftsmenship to roof material we were almost independent of outside resources. And older the houses we today see, the more beautiful they are. We have a great number of refined craftsmen who would pour their soul into decorating them. And in fact, from the design of traditional carpets to wood carving we could decipher underlying metaphysics that has descended from the Heaven.  Nothing was arbitrary, nothing unconnected to deeper principles of traditional or religious architectural principles.
As floods have exposed our posh colony-wisdom that promotes big concrete houses, using costly paneling in all rooms, advertizing one’s wealth or status through houses rather than keeping simplicity, comfort and symbolism in view, houses that hardly use anything local in them, houses that seem to be designed to honour the devil rather than God, houses that take almost a life-time to build and “decorate” with all kinds of vanities and that are so ill equipped to fight not only occasional disasters but also routine cold and heat despite huge investment, houses that beggars and friends or relatives find impenetrable not only because of huge walls and iron gates but also because so few people now live in them (nuclearization and abandoning parents to their fate), I suggest we muster the will to design new colonies or reconstruct  damaged houses keeping traditional religious symbolism and principles in mind in addition to local climatic conditions.
Houses built in defiance of the Divine Order are without foundations and cursed, and perhaps invite disasters.

Friday, 3 October 2014

KASHMIR FLOODS: Live Small to Be Big

Floods were invited, and future floods can be more devastating. If we know what caused and precipitated floods, why can’t we take care now? But the question is whether we have the vision and the will to make the difference and avoid future disasters? Experts agree that the floods were caused by the following factors:
  • Unplanned urbanization
  • Encroaching agricultural and low lying/marshy lands
  • Blocking normal routes and not maintaining flood channels
  • Squeezing the space of water bodies
It has been observed that during the floods, waters have roughly retaken their original space or reclaimed rights lost to land. Now it needs no rocket science to see the solution in following measures that will restore the original state. We see technological solutions being proposed. We submit this theory, that project, to undo the damage we have already done. We dredge, build new flood channels, and other such solutions are currently being debated. What is not being discussed is the moral problem which is the culprit. We have increased our population, thanks to technological measures, and then propose other technological solutions to house it, and provide for its sustenance. We have made it an unwritten law that houses constitute a fundamental need. Do they? Thoreau famously argued that they don’t. In any case, we don’t have enough land to house all in the manner of small nuclear families seeking to build big houses on as much land as possible. We construct big walls between houses. We have multiplied our needs and our carbon footprint. All of us contribute every day to environmental pollution in numerous ways. We have encouraged tourism as a policy matter. We have been financing housing loans and car loans so liberally. We have been following the policy of more and more development and have been fooled by the slogan that sustainable development is possible. It is not, according to the best thinkers on development both from the Left and the Right. We have been depriving villagers of means to survive in villages, and forced urbanization. We have thought it expedient to declare certain zones commercial zones so that land prices soar, and we increase our money supply through means capitalists call for.
The question is can we ban all new constructions especially in marshy areas? Can’t we shift to vertical instead of horizontal expansion by adopting flat system as a policy? Can’t we tax walls between houses which look so ugly, so inhuman? Doesn’t our city look less suffocating after walls have been washed away? We can do without so many shops and commercial establishments by adopting a policy that concentrates them in small areas only. We must question the development discourse that is official policy today. We must not harp on tourism and other sectors that are ultimately too costly for the environment and long term survival. We must learn from our ancestors who lived better lives though their standard of living was not comparable to ours. We must question war against poverty and the craze for “improving” the “standards” of living. We must learn to use public transport more and more. We must ban transfers to distant places that increases the carbon footprint. We must decide what we want – development as understood today or living life according to Tradition.

Let me hazard a prediction: we will succumb to various pressures not to implement radical measures needed. We, as a community, are not ready to change lifestyles. We are not ready to listen to Gandhi who opposed urbanization, the development discourse and everything that costs us long term survival. We can’t say no to illegitimate colonies and thousands of encroachments.   We will not consider to restore the Dal, the Wular and many other water bodies to their original dimensions. We will soon build more lavish and bigger houses than we lost. We will spend more and more on paneling and all kinds of accessories. We will use cement and imported roofing material. We will not question the mushroom growth of all kinds of small industrial centres that ultimately lead to floods even if they absorb a few youth in the job market. We will soon debate only the extent of relief or compensation, and not the legitimacy of markets, houses, roads etc., that have led to the current tragedy.
We need the will to dream big, to think about future generations, and be ready for a profound transformation of the current value system. But I don’t think we will do anything except a few cosmetic measures. And there is no guarantee against future man-made flood disasters. The current flood fury was more than 90 per cent man made, or invited. And we are inviting more by our complacency. Our political and bureaucratic elite is itself a party, which has a stake in opposing long term solutions, like evacuating posh areas that have come up against environmental or flood control logic or making war against wrong policies that have led to disaster.
We are debating Disaster Management Systems rather than Disaster Prevention Systems. Floods, if not earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, can be largely prevented – or at least the damage minimized.