Thursday, 10 May 2018

Celebrating Literary Heritage of J & K

It is time to recognize many new contributions to English writing in J & K.

Once a while we have some good news from Kashmir. Kashmiris have been the kings and king makers, at least in the realm of mind and heart. Providence seems to have amply compensated them in surprising ways leading them to live with head held high despite being underdogs in other realms. One way is the gift of words that is manifest in many ways including writing good poetry in English that is becoming a presence to contend with. New generation of Kashmiris, as worthy inheritors of Agha Shahid Ali, have proved worthy witnesses by converting tragic experience into works of art and thus, in a way, won the battle. The world will have to take note of Kashmir’s new generation of writers who have been its best ambassadors. Influential Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s pen has been more feared than scores of tanks echoing rare tribute paid to Abul Fazl’s pen when it was described as sharper than Akbar’s sword.
      Kashmir’s key problem is finding meaning in a world ripped apart by conflict, violence and eclipse of traditional securities and images of transcendence. How to live in a world where love, relationships, family, community, friends, priests and pirs all seem to have lost their sheen and we feel naked? Ours is fast becoming a community without heroes, without language, without folk wisdom and mythology and thus without great edifying literature and thus we can assert without beauty of the mind and the soul. Indeed, the shadow of nihilism has grown larger and haunts us and it is writers who articulate the crisis and may help us contemplating the response. J & K’s English poets constitute, generally speaking, a better educated generation better exposed to the world that have written more truly contemporary poetry than most fellow poets writing in Kashmiri or Urdu. They are better equipped to engage with the contemporary crisis of meaning.
      A host of poems in one of the volumes edited by Abid Ahmad illustrate my point on nihilism. “Insanity” from Promilla Qazi, ”A Wanton Fury” and “I and Me” “Her Soul” by Syeda Afshana, “Dark is the Night” by G. R. Malik, “Not a Ghazal” by Arshad Mushtaq “I took a Different Road and Found Myself Insane” by Nazir Wani, and “Raindrops on a Windshield” are attempts to articulate or engage with the dark, the inscrutable and what appears as tragic waste. Arif Kichloo’s poem “Snow Flakes” articulates quintessentially Kashmiri mystico-aesthetic response:

In the scheme of all things big
We are but snowflakes
Dancing delightfully midair,
Destined to land graciously
on silent grounds atop mountains
If only we knew
Snowflakes feel no shame as they fall.
They don’t tumble, they don’t flutter,
But descend with such grace.
And when they are touched,
They don’t hold their cold inside.Instead, they melt and give it up;
They give all their rigor away.

This is indeed the way to live – with gay abandon, surrendering to love, letting go – and conquer fear of death by learning to die before death as expounded by prophets, sages and great poets.
      Kashmiris, noted for aristocracy of knowledge or honouring those associated with it, have excelled in literature and philosophy of “alien” tongues and have been truly international citizens in a profound sense and have had university culture much before Oxfords and Azhars came to the fore. Kashmiris have nurtured Arabic and Persian languages and literatures and wrote some exceptionally brilliant Sufi poetry that has succeeded in establishing itself as a sort of mainstream tradition of Kashmir and thus appropriate much of what is best in indigenous literary, philosophical and religious heritage. Kashmiri genius is soft genius with refinements of its own. I recall Octavia Paz remarking that advancement of a culture may be gauged by the variety and details and refinements in its mode of cooking/dishes. Applying this criterion to Kashmir, one feels proud. Given our proverbial laziness or mastery of the art of enjoying idleness – we outsourced defense, rulers and what not in much of our history and this continues today with outsourcing of labour – we can conclude that Kashmiri genius has been more contemplative or jnanic and aesthetic.
      Jammu has the distinction of being a city of temples which implies it has historically been a special sanctuary of soul. The world is today dying for want of spiritual resources that we have in abundance. But I am afraid that like Ladakh we are losing this Jammu faster to ill-conceived pathological brand of modernization. New generation doesn’t/can’t know how to identify Jammu in terms of cultural landscape. The soul of its culture seems to be gone or not easily identifiable. And the same largely applies to Kashmir as well.
      Ladakh still remains a pir vaer – the sanctuary of spirit in a preeminent manner both by virtue of its height that by its very presence inspires one to be attuned to sublime heights of spirit and largely retrievable traditional culture. Ladakh offers one of the best (lifelong) experience of spiritual tourism. Ladakh has the distinction of being one of the last bastions of traditional culture. Ladakh converts  the whole world by its height, another order of beauty and majesty – great canopy of mountains exposed to the sky constitute virgin nature’s special treat and what the Quran calls a sign of God – that especially speaks to the secular sensibility. Proximity to Tibet and Kashmir makes it a treasured site marrying great cultures. Ladakh’s proud record as a land of culture and philosophy – nurturing one of the most intellectually oriented religions, Buddhism – suffers from certain oblivion in the memory of new generation.
      We have a literary legacy to be proud of and we haven’t entirely disowned it. We have world class poets – partly translated into many world languages – and short story writers with us and it isn’t hard to switch over to another language – English – to assimilate this tradition and excel. We have demonstrated our talent in English in memoir writing, novel, poetry and journalistic writing. We needn’t debate our talent but our ignorance regarding the Tradition and our inadequate cognizance of the times we live and thus our complicity with regard to the march of ideas and events that are fast transforming our world.
      Despite setbacks we have reasons to celebrate thanks to unpredictable genius to strike again and strike with majesty and grace. Name ten major leaders/writers/scholars of India and Pakistan in the twentieth century and we would discover some connection to Kashmir in significant percentage of them. We have had a culture and a civilization that mankind can ill afford to part with and it will be recovered and it is being recovered and these collections are part of this nostalgic and recovering process. Thanks to exposure of more and more young scholars or students to outside world and best academic institutions across the world, we have many would be philosophers, critics and scholars developing this time. Conflict sharpens imagination. There are enough stories in air awaiting young writers’ alchemical treatment to convert them into masterpieces that heal generations.
      There is a significant fraction of shy unpublished writers. Another fraction consists of lazy or less confidant writers who don’t take their own writings seriously enough to let them see the light of the day. Many are brilliant conversationalists suffering oblivion for want of Boswells. Let us note that we are answerable before people and God for failing to cultivate the writer in us or let it be known.
      Art is quintessentially human and universal language and is essentially resistance that resists getting framed in any ideological narrative. It resists politics in thousand ways. We need to thank editors such as Abid Ahmad whose special issues on Kashmiri English short story and poetry have introduced/helped better introduce many a new writer knowing whom is an honour.

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