Kashmir: rebuilding an identity
In Kashmir, the `hibernation', which an Urdu poet once described, is now ending. There is a scent of change in the air, as a devastated people eagerly interpret the smallest of signs as portents of a new beginning. ANANYA JAHANARA KABIR on the seeds of a possible blossoming, especially cast by the State's young people.
The tourists are returning ...
THE Government College for Women in Srinagar is back in business though one should note that it never really ground to a halt. Even during the worst years following 1989, the college never closed its doors. Today, enrolment is over 5,000. The principal, Dr. Nusrat Andrabi, proudly showed me photographs of a talent show in June where students performed dances from different parts of India, sang ghazals, and modelled their own designs. In her imposing office, laminated photographs commemorating a recent visit by President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam have joined displayed photographs of Jawaharlal Nehru's much earlier visit.
I could not help but comment: "I did not expect Kashmir to be so normal."
Yet this hyperactive normalcy itself signals a traumatised society. The meticulous maintenance of order in one's immediate surroundings embodies the battle against violence and disorder unleashed by outside forces. Tripping over a loose flagstone en route to the library well stocked, splendidly kept, putting many a venerable Kolkata institution to shame Dr. Andrabi immediately ordered its fixing with cement. One imagines that this steely lady would like to fix wider problems with equal immediacy. Her colleague requests me, "please tell people that Kashmiris are not simply terrorists." The awareness of being represented through stereotypes while unable to control that representation is one of the many ways in which Kashmiris today perceive themselves as lacking agency.
... and after the "turnmoil", It's now time for art.
This predicament reveals itself in how Kashmiris from diverse educational backgrounds refer to the insurgency the English words "turmoil" (the most popular designation) and "situation", the Urdu phrases "these thirteen years", or, simply, "that which has gone on" terminology suggestive of happenings beyond one's control and instigation. In his Kashmiri short story, Why Bhushanlal Froze, factory worker and writer Ghulam Nabi Shahid uses a Pandit's immobility in the face of security forces to signify a society frozen in the glare of endemic violence, trapped in the pincer-grip of diverse interest groups. The vocabulary of arrested movement, silence, suffocation, and amputation is everywhere especially while reviewing political decision-making and individual response during the "turmoil".
Shuja Sultan, artist and Urdu poet, describes his silence during the early years: "if I told the truth, I would be killed. If I lied, I would betray my future generations. So I hibernated." This hibernation is now ending: copious amounts of poetry, art and sculpture have emerged out of the "turmoil", returning incessantly, however, to the vocabulary of immobility and indecision. Poet Naseem Shifai writes in Kashmiri, "Were someone to seize my neck, I would bow my head/ were someone to question me/ I would be unable to answer/ if any decision emerged in my mind/ I would hide it." Yet, art is only seemingly impotent. The writer takes on society's pain and transforms poison into nectar: "In their jars are contained/ wondrous water/ come, you too drink this/ it is amrit/ let no-one say to me/ your throat is blue."
Shifai's allusion to Shiva Neelakantha is an unobstrusive act of mourning, recreating the cultural input of the departed Pandits. In Srinagar, they speak of this exodus as loss of limb. "Children born during these years do not know what a Hindu is," says one; "we lost them, they lost us, who knows how, but we lost each other," says another. I am reminded of Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali's immortal opening line in the poem "Farewell": "At a certain point, I lost track of you." It all sounds frighteningly like Partition, but the absence (still) of national borders encourages tangible attempts towards reconciliation. Young activists from Srinagar are visiting camps in Jammu. But ultimately, it is art that transforms and transcends bitterness and suffering. In Jammu, sculptor Rajendar Tiku shows me his miniaturised pieces in marble and wood: "snowflowers". To me, they look deathly pale; for him, they mean renewal and forgiveness.
In the valley, there is a scent of change in the air. The new government is cautiously pronounced capable; the return of tourists this summer has suggested this lull may be less impermanent than others. The owner of the Holiday Inn houseboat commented on my choice of breakfast, "today at last there was happiness in our home. After 13 years someone asked for a single-fried egg." This is not the theatre of the absurd, but a devastated people eagerly interpreting the smallest of signs as portents of a different future. That future depends not so much on ready-packaged "democracy", as on searching introspection on individual and collective levels. An impressive example of this process is SPACE, a literal space for student activity and self-therapy founded by activist Gowhar Fazili, co-author of an important report on the impact of protracted violence on Kashmiri youth.
"One day a boy fired a pistol in the air, and we realised all our youth was armed. Whoever gave them arms, obviously demanded something in return. That something was our identity that we mortgaged." This level-headed assessment of past misjudgments came from none other than a militant-turned-poet. India and Pakistan are compared to the proverbial frying pan and fire, and militancy is seen as an option that failed to deliver. The overwhelming focus in the valley today is on rebuilding Kashmiri identity and Kashmiri language within the most congenial political parameters available. One feels that in this introspective, language-oriented turn lie the seeds of a possible blossoming; but it is incumbent on the rest of India to respond with empathy and openness.
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