What we gather from poems is so very different than what we gather from the news. The African American poet and activist Audre Lorde said, “Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change.” When there is no news or news that is conflicting, we turn to poetry to fill in the gaps.
Kashmir has been under lockdown for over two months now, under an enforced blanket of silence, which pings and echoes across the world through scattered stories of shock, unrest, fear and grief. In trying to process the implications of the removal of Article 370, it’s as if one is grasping at air. The following five poems shine a light on a land once called paradise – whose history is turbulent and tenuous, whose geographical borders are made and erased over and over again and whose people, caught in the middle of hope and despair, refresh their will to survive and thrive.
Lightness of Being in a Heavily Militarised Zone
before they lay barbed wire
across our tongues
let’s sing of almond blossoms
before they hammer our heads to
harvest thoughts let’s think
what we want to think
before they wall our sleep
let’s whisper dreams
into cold cruel ears
before they blind us
with a burst of lead
let’s mirror our darkness
let’s engrave this story
with fingertips on palms
before they erase our words
From Serpents Under My Veil, Tethys, 2019.
Lessons in World Geography
Maaz Bin Bilal
The Indian adolescent was now learning the geography of his country through the history of murder.
– Khushwant Singh, c. late 1960s.
I was five when 9/11 happened,
A plane flew into a tower, then one more
into another, I asked mother if it were
a video game, she said, no, that’s the Big Apple.
By six I knew Kabul, Kandahar, Herat,
and Bamyan, and closer to home Godhra, Shopian,
our Amdavad, although these I heard more than
saw (mother won’t allow me to watch TV), still
I could locate them all on the map.
By seven opened a whole new world:
Basra, Najaf, Baghdad, Mosul.
An evil man was being hunted here
by the GI Joes, he was pinned like a rat.
Over time our TV kept telling me,
Of Syria, Sudan, Gaza, and the Somali,
Today I am twenty-one and have a degree,
(Mosul’s just been redeemed),
but I did not need one in geography.
First published in Economic and Political Weekly.
Kashmir Siege, 2019 (Excerpts from a verse journal)
Day 4, August 8, 2019
Our hearts are sinking
but our prayers are rising
azadi, azadi, azadi
Day 15, August 19, 2019
Add to the handicrafts of Kashmir – how to extract metal pellets from flesh. “If you live here, you have to know how to do it,” they say, wincing, paisleys soaked red
Day 33, September 6, 2019
Kashmiris say:“Beh lagai balayi” [I will die for you]
an ancient placeholder for “I love you”
In love as well,
dying for a Kashmiri
becomes a measure life
Day 44, September 17, 2019
Soft melting snow
becomes a stream
flowing past homes
rotting pears and apples,
drying tomatoes and walnuts
I see garlands of deep blood-red Kashmiri chillies.
I await the warmth of winter
the heat of everything we have
saved to last us a lifetime.
Day 53, September 26, 2019
“Damm-phyit che gaemit,” she says
[our breath is broken in our chests]
each gulp is a dagger
we bleed by a thousand cuts.
Day 62, October 5, 2019
Recall Ur. Pangea
Earth is not done yet
it is still parting ways
continents, measly subcontinents
your country. India
is drifting. Both in soul
The 6th century Hun of Kashmir
was so known for his cruelty
that “people could tell of
the approach of his armies by
the vultures and crows that flew ahead of them.”
Kalhana wrote in his Rajatarangini
that the Hun was “a terrible enemy of mankind
who had no pity for children
no compassion for women
no respect for the aged.”
all Kashmiris remember,
was a long night of massacre
that they thought would never end.
Does India know
as one more spring sharpened Jhelum’s air
the Hun took his own life?
From How Many Countries Does the Indus Cross, The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, 2019.
Ghazal Under Siege (After the Kashmir Lockdown)
Like a thief, I’ll sneak up from behind tonight
steal all your couplets and other words tonight
In that post office without a country
all your letters remain unread tonight
And under skies etched with barbed wire so silver
the stars wear crowns with thorns tonight
Make a wish on the lash of a valley
hope treading flesh like a rubber pellet tonight
No news is good news they say
mouths stuffed with apples they cannot harvest tonight
Prayers soft as cashmere float untethered
on a lake full of boats that are moored tonight
The living, so silent they’re feared dead
even though they’re at home, they’re not home tonight
Oh, poet, make haste with your pen
sing a song for the voiceless with this poem tonight
(This ghazal pays homage to Kashmiri American poet Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001) and his poignant collection of poems, The Country Without a Post Office. Ali is also credited with introducing the ghazal form into modern American poetry.)
Shikha Malaviya is a poet, writer and publisher. She is co-founder of The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, a mentorship model press publishing voices from India and the Indian diaspora. Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and featured in PLUME, Prairie Schooner & other fine journals. Shikha was a featured TEDx speaker in GolfLinks, Bangalore, in 2013, where she gave a talk on poetry. She has been a four-time mentor for AWP’s Writer to Writer Mentorship Program and was selected as Poet Laureate of San Ramon, California, 2016. Her book of poems is Geography of Tongues.