Until August 5, 2019, Bariya Hamid, a bibliophile, would write poems about nature and the beauty of Kashmir. For the 24-year-old post-graduate student of literature, poetry was a meaningful way of engaging with her feelings and emotional outbreak.
But all of that began to feel meaningless to her on August 5, 2019.
“It was a turning poet in my poetry,” said Hamid, who started writing about the Kashmir conflict after the Union government scrapped Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and downgraded the state into two Union Territories. “I was like: what am I doing [writing] and what should I be doing actually?”
The decision had coincided with a complete communications blackout, thousands of arrests and curbs on public movement in order to prevent any protests. For a student of literature at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, the turn of events cast a lasting impression on creativity.
It was this impression that triggered Hamid’s first attempt to express the situation in Kashmir Valley through poetry. In her maiden political poem, Hamid started by capturing the scenes of the night preceding August 5, 2019. During the night of August 4 and 5, communication services across Jammu and Kashmir died one by one. With no official announcement, an eerie and apprehensive silence had engulfed the erstwhile state. Nobody knew what was in store.
Night is no longer silent,
Lips mutter prayers of hope,
Skin trembles out of horror...
For months, Kashmiris remained confined to their homes, with no knowledge about their relatives and family members. It would take days or weeks for people to know that someone close to them had died, in curfew, unmourned.
You shall hear me cry
But phones and internet
Will work no longer.
You shall buy me medicine,
Some food and needfuls
But curfews will close all.
I shall choke for months,
Not looking at you
In the disconnected land,
You can hardly know,
If I breathe any more.
In the last stanza of her untitled poem, Hamid laments about the extended confinement of Kashmiris inside homes and wonders if they are alive.
I sit and stare at
The walls screaming,
Fighting horrors of night
And torments of day.
Days are stretching to months,
Shall I see my people again,
Do they live anymore?
Another poem of hers talks about the power of love to battle a crisis. Something, she feels, that can be looked at as a hope or escapism. “I have focused on love as a healing touch for an individual as well as Kashmir,” she explained.
A cemetery of burials has it been,
My heart, where lies our secret,
The tales unsaid and the songs of hope.
Wounds from falling and awakening too
Lie there, which nightmares brought.
Love, have you come at last!
Now what remains, save thoughts of you?
I shall build a shrine, here, in my heart,
Sealing all of me in love for you;
Oh! are tombs called shrines too?
Poets and politics
Hamid is part of Kashmir’s growing but scattered band of poets and writers who are training their eyes on the situation in Kashmir. While not much of Kashmir’s literary response to the scrapping of statehood for Jammu and Kashmir is known, the decision of August 5, 2019, has invariably seen this young generation of poets drifting towards starker themes like identity, hopelessness, and the future.
These young poets are hardly known or in the limelight. Unlike many, they don’t attend government-sponsored events, despite invitations. Some of them are aware of the consequences of antagonising the authorities through their poetry. Yet, it hasn’t stopped them from writing of Kashmir in verse.
“There’s a famous saying that if a poet is not reflecting the situation of his time, he should be sent to exile,” said Akeel Mohiuddin, a 28-year-old Urdu poet from North Kashmir’s Bandipora district.
Since 2018, Mohiuddin has been doing his bit to fill that void in Kashmir’s literary scene. “Most of the contemporary poetry in Kashmir does not reflect ground realities,” he said. The silence has been stark in the context of the loss of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and subsequent changes in laws governing the erstwhile state, he added.
There are many reasons for this, Mohiuddin said. “If you are writing overtly political or resistance poetry, you’ll never be recognised by the government. There’s also an element of fear. Since there’s no money and fame if you are not a government-recognised poet, most of them avoid writing about ground realities.”
But Mohiuddin, a post-graduate in statistics, represents the emergence of an alternate poetic culture. He knows the kind of poetry he writes will not earn him a living. “It’s a passion for me but at the same time it’s a burden,” he said. “I know I need to do something else for my livelihood but I will keep writing.”
Mohiuddin’s poetry comes from different sources. Take his ghazal on Kashmir, written in 2020. It was triggered by the participation of local people in District Development Council elections – the first ever electoral exercise in Jammu and Kashmir after the August 5, 2019, decision. The elections were held to complete the third tier of the panchayati raj system in Jammu and Kashmir.
Mohiuddin was taken aback by the long queue of voters in his village. In his ghazal, he writes that this participation is in the backdrop of a situation where Kashmir has been dispossessed of its own people.
sab ne issy hai baap ki jageer maan li
haaaye mere kashiir ka sauda kiya gaya
(Everyone thought of it as inheritance,
Oh! my Kashmir has been sold)
hum zaat paat ke liye ladte rahe udhar
bhat, sheikh aur miir ka sauda kiya gaya
(We kept fighting over caste and creed there
Bhat, Sheikh and Mir have been sold)
Living as he does in a place riven by continuous violence, Mohiuddin writes poetry that is full of gory imagery, destruction and death. He explained the idea he used for another ghazal written in January 2021: “What will a Kashmiri say to a person from outside when asked about his homeland?”
tumhari painting achi hai, tum ne gul banaya hai
hum aag, titli, raakh aur jalta par banayeengy
(Your painting is nice, you have sketched a flower
We will paint fire, butterflies, ashes and a burnt feather)
koi agar mujhe kahe ki tum ne kya kya paaya hai
jawaban apni takhti par badaa sifar banayeengay
(If someone asks, what have you achieved
In reply I will sketch a big zero on my slate)
jo pooch le koi mujhe mere watan ke maane ka
to har taraf se khoon aur kata jigar banayeengy
(What’s the meaning of your homeland, some may ask
I will paint an abode of blood and a lacerated heart)
Driven by loss
But August 5, 2019, was not the lone trigger for the new poetry. For some, writing poetry was already a way of venting for losses stemming from the continuous conflict.
Khabar eassim ne kheh tas yaare sinz yas cxall korukh
Mea bas emi khabri bapat khoni reng akbaar porr
(I had no knowledge about a friend who was tricked into death
Just for his sake did I read the blood-stained newspaper)
The couplet is part of a ghazal written by 23-year-old poet Asif Tariq Bhat to document the loss of his friend, shot dead in police firing in 2016. “It’s a kind of first brush with oppression at a personal level,” said Bhat, who lives in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district. “The incident left an indelible mark on me as a person.”
Bhat has the distinction of being a poet in his native Kashmiri language. He has written poems on the themes of mysticism and social behaviour. “But the majority of my work focuses on conflict, its impact and resistance,” he said. As a poet, he has obviously not remained oblivious to the events around him.
In one of his poems written in the aftermath of August 2019, Bhat imagines a Kashmir without its people, who have vanished and gone to some other place. Using the famous Jhelum river as a metaphor, Bhat tries to give voice to an oar which is telling the tale of Kashmir’s vanished people to a new boatman rowing through the river.
Be beuthus yaam aaz jhelum bandas pyeath
Mea wuch ravaan raveeni
Tè wyeath zan khoon haaran
(Today as I sat on the banks of Jhelum,
I saw the flow frustrated with its orientation,
As if the Vyeth [Jhelum] was oozing blood)
The tone of the poem is sullen and of despair. It doesn’t evoke picturesque images of scenic beauty, houseboats, and the like. Rather, the poem rues the ignorance of the Jhelum’s identity.
Na chu yeti gah tè na chi gattè
Nagar wyeajaar sapdyoo
Keman nadanan wano
Zè jhelum rood wadaan
(Neither light lives here nor dark
My abode has turned to ruins
How to tell the unwise
That Jhelum has always been crying)
In spite of his voluminous work, Bhat has consciously desisted from being published. He says he needs to polish his work further. “I want to do justice to the reader,” he said. “I want my poetry to reach a certain standard. There’s still too much to learn about the craft before I go into publishing.”
‘In search of a new language’
One of the well-known young Urdu poets of Kashmir, Syed Zeeshan Jaipuri, 26, is no longer the poet he was before August 5, 2019. For him, the events of August 2019 led to a departure from the style he had been following till then.
“In my earlier poetry, I would talk about hope, ways of resistance and a collective response,” said Jaipuri. “Now, I see myself as a broken man. I tell myself Kashmiris don’t have any identity left now, so why should I be writing poetry. It’s this meaninglessness which trickles down into my writing as well.”
This meaninglessness, according to Jaipuri, has led him on a search. It’s a daily struggle. “I am trying to develop a new language in poetry that will define or articulate my expressions. Put simply, Jaipuri’s poetry became morbid, laced with themes of darkness, night, blood, slaughter and death.
Sar katva kar, khoon main latt patt, sar laaya hun, sone do
Maqtal se mai chalte chalte ghar aaya hun, sone do
(Beheaded, I am drenched, smeared in blood, O! let me sleep
Straight from the slaughter house I have come home, O! let me sleep)
Abb toh har su maatam hoga gulshani sehra royengey
Nauk neaza par mai sarr laaya hun, sone do
(Every garden and every desert is a canvas of doom
On a spear, I bring my head, O! let me sleep)
Mayat, murde, kabren, gulshan, kaliyan pyaasi, tootey dil
Ikk din ye sab dekha aur ghabraya hun, sone do
(The corpses, the dead, graves, the flowers, parched buds and the frenzied hearts
Terrified, shuddered, I have seen it all, O! let me sleep)
According to Jaipuri, he has tried to disturb the very tradition of the ghazal here. “The form has always had a sweetness to it even if it was about sadness, separation or loss,” he said. “You don’t see a dead body as a metaphor in a ghazal. The idea is to shake up the reader.”
Despite this, Jaipuri’s poetry in the immediate aftermath of August 5, 2019, did try to offer a semblance of assurance. During the six-month-long communication blackout in Kashmir that followed, he wrote a ghazal titled “All Around” talking about the stifling atmosphere prevailing in the valley. It was triggered by the anxiety felt by Kashmiris living outside about the unknown situation back home.
Aah! Tak karna manna hai chaar su
Khouf ka aisa sama hai chaar su
(Forbidden! It’s even to sigh
Such is the rein of fear, all around)
Kya batao titliyan sab mar gayi
Hasrato mai gulsitaan hai chaar su
(All butterflies dead,
All gardens grief struck, all around)
Shaam tak main darbadar phirta raha
Bay wafaiy ke nishaan hai chaar su)
(Till late evening, I kept wandering,
Traces of betrayal, all around)
Yaar ki agyaar se hai dosti
Ye tamasha ja ba ja hai chaar su
(A friend is a friend to a foe,
An endless display, all around)
Dil theher ja, zid na kar, khamosh reh
Gardishon ke aasmaan hai chaar su
(Mad heart, stop a while, stay silent
A sky of haze, all around)
The ghazal was eventually turned into a song by the local Kashmiri singer, Ali Saffudin. The producers couldn’t upload the final video from Kashmir because of the internet being shut down. “We put the video in a pen drive and sent it to Delhi, from where it was uploaded,” Jaipuri said. “The idea was to tell Kashmiris living outside Kashmir that we are writing poetry, that we are alive.”
The grandson of noted Kashmiri Urdu poet Syed Akbar Jaipuri, Zeeshan Jaipuri has been closely observing Kashmir’s literary scene to identify the responses, if any, to the radical political changes in Jammu and Kashmir since 2019. Established Kashmiri literary figures have disappointed him. “Only a few have registered these events with their pen,” he said.
While this silence is easily explainable, it doesn’t mean others are not writing. In 2020, Jaipuri, along with a group of poets, launced the website The Kashmir Tales to provide a platform for budding poets and writers. “The idea is to create a bank of literature but, more importantly, give respect to resistance literature,” Jaipuri said. “We want to tell the future generations that there were some people who documented what happened to us.”