As the Indian government clamped down on all modes of communication in Jammu and Kashmir
last week, I was reminded constantly of Aga Shahid Ali’s poem, “I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight”, especially the following lines: “One must wear jewelled ice in dry plains / to will the distant mountains to glass. / The city from where no news can come / Is now so visible in its curfewed nights.” The city from which no news can come, the city from which no news was coming, where no one was aware of what was afoot — Srinagar, the city that I had never seen but had read about in Ali’s poetry.
The last two words of the lines I have quoted — curfewed nights — also inspired Kashmiri journalist Basharat Peer’s groundbreaking report of the Kashmir conflict, and Vishal Bharadwaj’s Haider, an adaptation of Hamlet, set in the troubled region in the mid-1990s. Ali’s poem evokes the haunted streets of Srinagar in the pincer grip of a curfew: “From Zero Bridge / a shadow chased by searchlights is running / away to find its body.” A little later is description of torture, which the Indian army has been accused of dispensing freely under the protection of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act: “Drippings from a suspended burning tire / Are falling on the back of a prisoner, / the naked boy screaming, ‘I know nothing.’”
The poem is the third one in Ali’s acclaimed book, The Country Without a Post Office: Poems 1991-1995
(1997), which is his poetic response to the conflict in his homeland. In it, the narrator meets an acquaintance Rizwan, who is a ghost. “Each night put Kashmir in your dreams,” he tells the narrator, touching him with hands “crusted with snow.” Rizwan says: “I have been cold a long, long time. / Don’t tell my father I have died.” In 2011, after a human rights commission of the Indian government reported discovering nearly 3,000 unmarked graves in north Kashmir, The Guardian
reported: “Up to 70,000 people died in the 22-year insurgency in Kashmir, which pitted armed separatist groups, many backed by Pakistan, against New Delhi's rule.”
On Friday, the BBC reported that many Indians were celebrating the decision of the Indian government to abrogate certain provision of Article 370
and bifurcate the state of J&K into two union territories, one of which will retain the name of the state and the other will be called Ladakh. One group that has expressed unadulterated support for the move are Kashmiri pandits who were compelled to leave the Valley at the start of the separatist movement in the early 1990s: “I want to say one thing — today they (Kashmiris) must have understood the pain of Kashmiri Pandits.”
The last two words of the lines I have quoted — curfewed nights — also inspired Kashmiri journalist Basharat Peer’s groundbreaking report of the Kashmir conflict, and Vishal Bharadwaj’s Haider (above), an adaptation of Hamlet, set in the troubled region in the mid-1990s
Ali had written about the exodus in the title poem of the book: “so many fled, ran away, / and became refugees there, in the plains, / where they must now will a final dewfall / to turn the mountains to glass.” In another poem from his collection, “The Last Saffron”, Ali mixes pain and song, juxtaposing the idyllic memories with the current conflict: “I will die, in autumn, in Kashmir, / and the shadowed routine of each vein / will almost be news.” The longing is to return home — not only the geographical one, but also the emotional one: Ali reportedly told his friend Amitav Ghosh, the novelist, of his desire to return to his homeland to die. Whether or not the Kashmiri pandits will be able to return to their homeland now remains to be seen — but what is certain is that peace in the Valley is still a long way away.
The writer’s book of poems, Visceral Metropolis, was published in 2017 and his novel, Ritual, is forthcoming this year