To sit around discussing what is wrong with the world is mostly the privilege of living in cushioned confines. And like many of my compatriots, I find my confines irrevocably breached. Such are the times, the days and nights aflame with bigotry. There is no looking away.
Migrants hounded, students thrashed, dissent labelled as sedition, pacts of intolerance meant to humiliate and cast out thousands, millions, for the crime of being different. My heart is with the protestors, it stands with them in the streets, it echoes their slogans, it burns in shame for the biases that draft public policy.
And yet, as the country simmers at fault lines, I sit here at my keyboard, writing a love story. I harbour guilt at what feels like self-indulgence, the wearing of blinders, a Houdini act into the creative hatch. I berate myself: Why write of love?
Patience and compassion
As a teacher, someone who has lived deep in literary studies, creativity as a political tool is only too familiar to me. I decide to teach Malik Sajad’s Munnu (a graphic narrative set in Srinagar, published in 2015) even as the government decides to rearrange the map of Kashmir and throw a shroud of control and incommunicability over it. The young readers in my class (average age of 18 years) pool together their compassion for the silences and subversions that form the inky lines that represent the lives of Kashmiris, of those yoked to and yet marked apart from a nation-state.
We read the book, we discuss the art, the politics, we move into a new semester, we begin to read new books. And all through this I find myself composing prose poems on love. The continental shelf of my guilt deepens. Why write of love?
As I inch through the midrib of my fourth decade in this world, as we collectively note the passing of the second decade of this century, I become increasingly convinced that the default position, the homeostasis of the human nature is unkindness. We are too easily inclined to think and say uncharitable things about others. When we demand loyalty, we want it to be blind and absolute. To speak of difficulties is seen as being negative and disloyal.
All this I encounter in my immediate circle, and the political sphere by extension is no different. We have to work hard to bypass the meanness that springs from us so instinctively, to remember to engage and assimilate in the world with patience and compassion.
Our schoolbooks speak of the humanitarian instinct with idealisation, but that makes it hard to comprehend why there is no abatement in the ravaging of the environment, the lynching by mobs, the dropping of bombs, the persistent selfishness that only allows us to see what we want for ourselves. So deeply is the artist submerged in the daily unkindness, that it becomes the one stable patch from which her art has to speak, resist, exist. Indeed, why write of love?
The best and the worst
When history and memory mix, when history and memory splinter, when history and memory turn unrelenting, punishing, punitive, what hope remains? Agha Shahid Ali pushes it in his own evocative way:
Your history gets in the way of my memory.
I am everything you lost. You can’t forgive me.
I am everything you lost, Your perfect enemy.
Your memory gets in the way of my memory.
We have become perfect enemies, all that the other has lost. When the days are aflame, what is our best response as artists, as writers, as teachers? Is my speaking or writing of defiance imperative to live in my skin, to breathe amicably beside my conscience? What politics can I possibly stand for when I spend my hours tinkering a narrative about two people who are absorbed in each other, mating as humans always have, in the hope of a connection, perhaps even a future?
I ask this of myself each time I sit down to work on my next book, a novella written in prose poems, Love in Seven Easy Steps – the number in the title also the structural plan for the composition, and the irony entirely resting on the word “easy”. What is easy? As of now, nothing.
It feels wrong to stay silent, it feels even more wrong to pontificate self-righteously – no response feels adequate. And yet one wakes up each day and heads to the writing table. Perhaps I feel bleak, too bleak about my world, and I write of love because I need to believe in something, even if this believing is anchored more in doubt than certainty. Doubt being the mainstay of the creative and the ethical life, unconnected with outcome, one tries to share any fleeting insight when all else fails.
Maybe, I tell myself, we write of love because it is the first and last measure of the self’s terror – little else brings out the best and the worst in us as does love. There is that hope somehow, again fleeting, that in believing and writing about love, we will somehow become love, scrubbed of residue, released.