In this curated collection, five poets from Kashmir write about their homeland, variously chronicling the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, the communications blockade, the experience of childhood in militarised zones and the difficulty of bequeathing a brutal history to one’s children.
Organising the narrative of their struggle requires acts of imagination: Letters to those who haven’t been conceived yet, transcripts of conversations that will never come to pass, retellings of ancestral memories. One of the poets, Samia Mehraj, asks of school curricula in India: “Where was my history?” These poems are a small step in revising the erasure and denial of these stories in the mainstream.
What name shall you give it?
A Phone Call to Kashmir
is so imaginary ( it doesn’t
lines are busy all the time, no one
puts me through to you, no one. No
one recognises the urgency when
I dial long distance, repeatedly,
evading siege. I breathe grief’s ivory.
I want to ask, is your curfew wedding
still on the standby? I wait on my turn:
let the fate’s sorrow spell out a decree
for me. I tremble. I have no voice
to scream. Ascending a guillotine,
I rehearse a lover’s death note. You’re
all I have. I won’t lose you. There’s
no way I can forget your voice. The
cold silence that lingers in between,
gives us no hope. Its deathly whisper
amplifies into a clean whistle, on phone,
so sharp, it rips through the broken heart
of night. If you listen to it to interpret
a meaning. It says, You’re no more within
reach. You’re everything I have lost. What’s,
in the name of god, the use of my name
Omair Bhat is a Delhi-based poet whose writing appears in Inverse Journal, Kashmir Lit, Café Dissensus, The Sunflower Collective and others. He is working on his first collection of poetry and is currently an editorial intern at Caravan magazine.
The Exodus of a City
It is 1990, I am not born.
Someone peeks through the window of my mother’s house.
In the vicinity, suitcases are being quietly packed with the essentials of olden days.
Secrets of slaughter are flying from paper to paper, from house to house.
In caravans, are leaving ancestral names with their progressive ambition for their motherland.
It’s 1990, I am not born and my mother is a recent bride.
Someone peeks through the window, finger on their mouth, mourning for a house that’ll fade like
an old photograph for decades to come.
Someone with a mask pours water over the oil lamps.
The temple bells, like the tinkle of her anklets are distant now.
My mother has lost a best friend.
It’s 1990, I’m not born yet and someone in my father’s house shuts a window to a neighbor who may never return.
Our school history roars of East Indian revolutions, we learn of swords that cut open the wombs of innocent mothers, of strong horses and strongest tribesmen, of lofty turbans and silken robes and their royal touch.
But where was my history?
I leaf through the dreams of my teachers, the teachers of their teachers, looking for the scent of my blood, I find indifference.
My history hides between the lines of your history.
My history weeps on empty pages, jumps out of the window, scatters blood on the streets.
My book of history lives in the haunted library of memories that my forefathers were forbidden to put on paper.
Someone peeks through the window of my father’s house, watches a man with a gun shoot dead a boy of 5.
Someone drags his body indoors.
My history finds home for a night.
It is 2016 and the newspaper promises peace on the streets
I leave the city again
For freedom or an illusion of it
I reach Delhi, waiting for a call from home
So we ran away from our bleeding city, It’s 2018,
We speak of it in distant lands.
But how does a city run away from itself? From its history? From its memory?
Your history is in the way of my history.
Your memory is again in the way of my memory.
It’s a still night and all the cities have lost track of each other.
Born and brought up in the small town of Sopore in Baramulla, Kashmir, Samia Mehraj is a poet and a social impact professional currently based in New Delhi.
Driving Lolita in the World’s Most Militarised Zone
A boy, I hid in grandpa’s study.
An art dealer he loved books
with gilded edges, Aristotle to Zola
stuck together in the humidity.
I snuck Lo out to his black Chevy,
rifled for the dirty bits
(should have looked harder I guess),
took her for a spin,
teen tunes swirling in my head,
I Want to Hold Your Hand,
beamed us forward to the future –
a crackdown in downtown,
mothers hid their first-born sons.
“We fear forces’ll take our boys away.”
A soldier speckled pellets on the face
of a nymphet, light of her mother’s eye.
“Nothing can be seen,” the nymphet said,
“as far as the eye can see.”
Counterinsurgents wrapped petrol-
soaked rags around a boy’s penis,
lit a match. “Not tortured anyone
needlessly,” they said as the Zabarvan,
white turbans on peaks,
amplified the boy’s shrieks.
Cold full moon of Kashmir
hid her face in sullied Dal lake.
A shikara wallah knifed the swells
with a heart-shaped oar.
Butterflies fluttered at Pari Mahal
(where once Dara Shikoh translated
the Upanishads – a comfort to
Schopenhauer in his old age.)
Memory now is muteness.
An ancient Sufi shrine gutted,
its rich latticework lost.
showed no awe for Nature.
Half-widows wailed, clawing
at mass graves, yearned
for their disappeared.
A paisley-shaped river
sobbed through a dazed valley.
Concrete barriers fenced the Shalimar,
bullet riddled Toyotas in bazaars.
Amputated trees lost their esteem,
reams of plastic choked mountain streams.
“We are all lifeless here. Hello!
Operator, resurrect our telephone.”
At Zero Bridge
lilacs by bunkers bloomed.
A nightingale sang of sorrow
(countering Keats who said it sang of joy.)
“Why aren’t we where we’re going?”
my mother asked, sipping salt tea
at the Mental Hospital, Raina Wari,
synthetic flowers gilding her hair.
A Lord of the Skies
broke the sound barrier.
at precisely 1300 hours
stifling calls to Jumma namaaz.
stray dogs howled
at Kashmir’s gunmetal sky.
Loh – lee – tha,
in Grandpa’s shiny Chevy,
slid from my lap
our ominous odyssey.
Poet, photographer, and translator Rafiq Kathwari is the first Kashmiri recipient of the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award. His debut poetry collection In Another Country (Doire Press) was published in 2015. His second collection, Mother’s Scribe, will be published later this year by Yoda Press. He divides his time between New York, Dublin and Kashmir.
Gifts for My Daughter Not Yet Conceived
I gift you millennium of confusion
in my genes;
a double X
to excavate epiphanies.
I sow doubt in my womb
watered with fears.
I gift you
my unsettled struggles,
unread and half-read books,
three-by-two-inches laminated paper
in the name of identity.
I gift you a rugged map
carved from cracks
between divorced nations.
I gift you
a horoscope of cusps,
Hamlet’s unfinished line
for the Vale of Kashmir,
To be or not to be, that is...
Born and raised in Baramulla, Kashmir, Asiya Zahoor is an academic and an award-winning film-maker. She is the curator of Bolbosh, which documents the literature of Kashmir as well as the various languages spoken in the valley. Her debut collection of poems, Serpents Under My Veil, was published by Tethys in 2019. She was recently awarded the Sanford H Taylor Fellowship for post-doctoral studies at Cornell University where she will spend the next two years studying South Asian literature.
one lazy august afternoon from a childhood in Kashmir
all homes were empty
of men, and young lads detained
in verdant meadows turned prisons
ashen ghosts of toddlers, and women
remained in homes
another dull morning
was leading to a hot afternoon
taaph oas zaneh zalaan
honeysuckle whiffs rose lazily
white butterflies looked yellow
the earth scorched our bare feet
a far off radio
blared yesterday’s khabar –
someone in haste
had forgotten to switch it off
wozul bicycle, ridden too much
when there was no curfew –
and left too long in the sun
burst a tire,
thinking they heard a bullet –
the soldiers not ever convinced
by the natural order of elements
did what they do –
barging into homes
demanding the imaginary guns
mothers doubled from chores,
doubly made to feel female,
half covered their faces,
to the glistening bicycle’s
they cursed irresponsible children
who forget moving things
into shade, to safety –
the soldiers shook their metalheads
by the natural order of elements
and did what they do –
proceeded to deliver
staple curses, shoving,
pulling threadbare scarves,
zyaadti hez karekh
pummelling flesh, kicking dogs,
mixing rice with kerosene
a signature act,
rab te sab karekh kuni
their wrath a national dumpster fire
growing, just because it could –
a puny tween, an annoying friend,
a partner in banter,
su rotukh bechor
he was hiding at home,
trying to finish his overdue
teacher had given him a zero
pumped n-number of bullets into him
we had learned addition together
and nothing has ever added up after –
he once told me hisaab would kill him
but i also knew the red bicycle was mine,
and mine alone,
for many years which still qualified
as childhood – even in Kashmir,
i prepared for the hereafter
where he would confront me
for his killing and i
would reason, he could have finished
his homework on time –
 [It was]
 [sun was scorching]
 [limitless cruelty]
 [may plague fall on them]
 [they forced themselves upon us]
 [mud has been mixed with a feast (by them)]
 [one young lad]
 [hapless! he was caught]
Ather Zia is a poet and a political anthropologist who teaches at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. Her book, Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir, will be published in India by Zubaan Books in February 2020. She is also the founding editor of Kashmir Lit which is an invaluable resource for those interested in literature from and about the region that isn’t available elsewhere.