This is a slightly edited transcript of the author's keynote address delivered at the 12th edition of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival on February 15.

I would ask you to join me in a prayer for the children of Gaza.

Children who have been slaughtered by relentless aerial bombardment and artillery shelling.

Children who have been buried alive under the rubble of what used to be their homes, their schools, their libraries, their hospitals.

Children who – even as we gather here in an oasis of peace and goodwill – are looking up at the sky above Rafah in dread, knowing that the forces of genocidal annihilation are upon them. And that no help whatever is at hand, from any quarter.

When the last of those children in Rafah have been massacred, Palestine’s future will die with them.

Do not imagine for a moment that Gaza is far away. Gaza is everywhere. Gaza is in the air we breathe. Gaza is in our hearts today, in a world that is interconnected in previously unimaginable and often sinister ways.

Consider this: Technologies of surveillance perfected in Israel have been used in India against the voices of dissent, reason and resistance. Drones manufactured in India are being used by the Israel Defence Forces, the IDF, in their onslaught against the civilian population – the children, the women, the men – of Gaza.

The USA is funding and arming Israel, despite spirited criticism and brave, conscientious opposition by a large number of citizens of both countries, who are aghast at the brutality of this campaign of extermination. Germany is arming and arguing on behalf of Israel; many members of the German Parliament seem to believe that the best way to atone for one maniacal genocide, the Shoah or Holocaust, is by aiding and abetting another, the Nakba.

Wherever we may be in this world governed by the butterfly effect, however far apart in geographical terms, all our destinies are closely linked.

The pathologies of control, the protocols of constraint, the mechanisms of oppression and the techniques of expulsion are today interchangeable across Gaza, Kashmir, Manipur, the mineral-rich tribal districts of India and the borders of Delhi where India’s farmers have assembled to demand justice, as we speak here – in brief, wherever polarisation has become the key political paradigm, vengeance a cultural leitmotif, and antagonism the dominant form of social relationship. And wherever the Führerprinzip, the Führer principle, holds sway: “Absolute authority flows down from above; absolute obedience flows up from below.”

In this spirit of pensive prayer and deep sadness at our precarious, percussive and even traumatic historical moment, I would like to share with you one of the greatest, most moving poems ever written in the German language. Written in November 1914, it is titled Grodek – after one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, fought in early September 1914 on the eastern front between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Empire, in what was once Galicia and is today part of Ukraine, another zone of war and devastation and the mindless waste of human life and potentiality.

Grodek was written by the Austrian-born poet Georg Trakl (1887-1914), who, in his role as a medical officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, participated in this battle and witnessed its horrors.

In his official role, he saw the brutalised bodies of soldiers come in, and tended to those who had been wounded and maimed in terrifying ways. He had to tally the mounting numbers of those fallen in combat, all young men with the entire arcs of their lives ahead of them, horizons that they would never explore.

Grodek was the last poem that Trakl would write; it was found among his effects two months after the battle, scrawled on the back of his will.

In a deep sense, Grodek was his last will and testament, his legacy embodied in a soul-wracking cry. Soon after sending it to his friend and patron, Ludwig von Ficker, in Vienna, Trakl killed himself, paying the ultimate price of bearing witness to an uncontainable horror that had challenged his sensibility, mocked his sensitivity, and defied the resources of the language that he could summon up to confront it.

[Translated by Ranjit Hoskote] 

At evening, the autumn forests ring out
with deadly weapons, the golden plains
and blue lakes, over which the sun
rolls darkly; the night rounds up
dying soldiers, the feral wails
from their smashed mouths.

But quietly they muster in the willow grove:
red clouds that host an angry god,
the spilled blood itself, moonlike coolness;
all roads meet in black rot.

Under the night’s golden branches and the stars
Sister Shadow sways through the silent wood
to greet the ghosts of heroes, the bloodied heads;
and the faint sound, in gun barrels, of autumn’s dark flutes.
O prouder grief! You bronze altars
the spirit’s hot flame feeds on a vast agony today,
the grandchildren never to be born. 

As writers, we know that the tenor of our lives – our ability to reflect, to compose, to be productive – is premised on a condition of retreat. On a temporality of long dwelling and slow release.

We inhabit a deep interiority, responding to the world and negotiating with it, yet holding it at a constructive distance. We prize our solitude, and regard it as a necessary condition in which our creativity can flourish unimpeded.

And there is, of course, considerable truth to this, as we all know from experience. However, the trouble with this position, if it is taken to an extreme, is that it could translate into a privatism that privileges safety in turbulent times, a quietism that turns away from any form of criticality, which is integral to our task, as writers, of bearing witness.

Trakl embraced precisely this task in Grodek, expressing it not through pious platitudes or easy slogans, but through the fierce, unflinching affective claim that he exerted on the attention of his readers – through the churning of his language, the breaking and remaking of his images, his shattering and defilement of the romanticism of pastoral landscapes, a poetic choice that takes its cue from the shattering of bones and skulls by bullets, the mess of spilled blood, ripped flesh, curdled innards and boot-trodden sludge that forms the visceral actuality of the mythos of heroism.

We cannot turn away from this mandate of criticality, this ethical duty of critical action, when compelling circumstances in the public sphere call upon us to shift gear into another condition, that of engagement, and another temporality, that of urgency.

We may delude ourselves into thinking that our voices are marginal, that they do not count, that they have neither consolation nor confidence nor a way forward to offer our readers in such times.

But this would be a mistake. We cannot lull ourselves into the myth of a complacent irrelevance – while yet continuing to pursue our professional aims – instead of actively seeking forms, occasions and forums in which to articulate an engagement that must be crafted, an urgency that demands to be articulated.

We are writers committed to an attentiveness to our own unfolding imaginative journeys; but we are also citizens of a Constitutionally conceived nation-state and, in a larger sense, of a world that is, despite all appearances to the contrary, closely bound together through a montage of advantages and deficits, exchanges and withholdings, unpleasant shocks and redemptive surprises.

The creative freedom that we so ardently crave as writers cannot be divorced from those larger freedoms that we share with our fellow citizens, and which guarantee our lives, our liberty, and our scope for pursuing our hopes and dreams – freedoms that we must protect.

As writer-citizens, then, it is our duty to step up to the mandate of testifying against the distortion and subversion of freedom, choice and individual sovereignty by the machinery of Power.

As Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810), the great Urdu poet, wrote [Divan-e Panjum: V.1706.5]:

shāʿir ho mat chupke raho ab chup meñ jāneñ jātī haiñ
bāt karo abyāt paṛho kuchh baiteñ ham ko batāte raho

You’re a poet, don’t be silent, lives are lost under cover of silence.
Speak up, read us a couple of lines, read us verses, keep talking to us.

Significantly, the Urdu word bait (originally from the Arabic) is used here to mean a verse or poem; literally, it means “home”. Mir uses it twice in the plural here, employing both the elite and proper form, abyāt, and the more demotic, rough-and-ready “baiten”, taking in all of society, with high and low, aristocrat and artisan, all made equal as victims of oppression and its imposition of silence.

Mir, through the voices of his auditors, is telling himself never to give up the duty of free and fearless speech even as lives are being lost while people keep quiet – to give those who will listen a home, while the machinery of Power has dishoused them from safety and turned them into refugees from the realm of belonging.

And yet, there are those who will tell us that it is never the right time to address the urgency of our epoch; to say what needs to be said; to speak truth to power.

There are ethnic or communal sensitivities at stake. This is not the right time.

The political backlash will be severe. This is not the right time.

The public mood is adverse. This is not the right time.

There are diplomatic issues at stake. This is not the right time.

We do not have a sufficient base to make our dissent count. This is not the right time.

When will it be the right time? I’m looking at my watch and it says 6.55 pm. It is 6.55 pm now. And now, now, now is the only right time there is, and will ever be, to raise your voice against tyranny.

To raise our voices, for together we are Polyphony, we are Community, we are Assembly, we are Solidarity. To raise our voices against tyranny. To raise our voices against injustice. To raise our voices against censorship and the subversion of democratic dissent and the silencing of protest, and every other ruse and trick and strategy that Power deploys to curb and diminish the great human adventure of freedom – to curtail our right to curiosity, to creative exploration; our openness to forming relationships based on affection, trust, ethical conviction and courage; our prerogative to uncover plural pasts and imagine plural futures, without being conscripted into an ideologically ordained notion of a unitary past and a centrally planned future.

Now is the time.

Ranjit Hoskote is a poet, cultural theorist and curator.