A Poetic Struggle

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From loudly singing elegies of rebels to holding afternoon poetic sessions with detained in the interrogation centre, Madhosh Balhami has seen a lot in last 30 years. Shams Irfan met the man days after his house went up in flames during a gun battle

Madhosh Balhami caught in a frame. KL Image: Mukhtar Zahoor

On September 13, 1993, when the bullet-ridden body of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Akhtar Abdul Rehman reached Khanmoh, in Srinagar outskirts, people from nearby villages started marching towards his modest house, to catch one last glimpse of the militant.

A few hours earlier, Rehman was captured, tortured and then killed by Border Security Forces (BSF) personnel near Dal Lake in Srinagar, along with his two associates, Aurangzeb and Danish Ellahi. They were among the first victims of Catch and Kill operation.

In the evening, as mourners carried Rehman’s body for burial, a young man, walking at the front, began shouting slogans in a rhythm. His lyrical rendition and melodious voice caught everyone’s attention.

He was local poet Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, then 28, who would mostly write about love, Sufism and spirituality under nom-de-plume of Madhosh Balhami.

A resident of nearby Balhama village, Madhosh first shot to fame when he sang an ode praising Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a day after he was hanged inside Rawalpindi jail by Zia-ul-Haq in 1979.

“When I heard about Bhutto’s hanging on radio, I knew there will be protests in Kashmir tomorrow,” recalls Madhosh. “That night, I sat down and wrote a long ode praising his leadership qualities.”

The next day, as expected, when people from nearby villages assembled in Balhama to protest Bhutto’s hanging, Madhosh climbed on a small raised ground and started reading his poem. “It made everyone emotional,” recalls Madhosh.

This public appearance introduced Madhosh as a poet in his area. But it took him next fourteen years to write his first elegy that would touch hearts.

First Elegy

At Rehman’s funeral, which was one of the biggest in Khanmoh, Madhosh was approached by a local militant sympathiser. “You have a beautiful voice,” he told Madhosh. “Let’s see how good you are at writing.”

Then he asked Madhosh to write something in praise of Rehman, the fallen militant, and recite it at his Chaharum, the fourth day. “I said yes without thinking much,” recalls Madhosh.

As Madhosh walked back home after Rehman was buried, he could feel the weight of his talent on his young and restless heart. “But I was angry like everyone else. I wanted to give vent to my anger,” recalls Madhosh.

Poet Balhami scanning through the remains of his possession, his lifetime work, that went up in smoke. KL Image: Mukhtar Zahoor

After Madhosh reached home, he quickly went upstairs to his room, and sat against the wooden doors of his favourite cupboard, where he kept his books, and started writing. “As I took pen and paper, scenes from Rehman’s funeral kept flashing in front of my eyes,” recalls Madhosh. “It took me just a few hours to finish the poem.”

For next three days Madhosh carried his poem in his breast pocket. “I had poured my anger and emotions on a lose sheet of paper, with a trembling hand.”

On the fourth day, when Madhosh finally stood in front of mourners, who had assembled in a large hall inside Rehman’s modest house, he began: kari khoon chyoo’ney zali’man lurepaar shaheedoo.

As Madhosh moved his small but painful eyes from one mourner’s face to another, all he could find was tearful eyes.

“I was instantly the most respected person in the area,” recalls Madhosh. Especially among the local militants, who started keeping Madhosh updated about their heroics.

Once home Madhosh sat quietly in his room, surrounded by heaps of paper, and anxiously waited for the next call.

Next call came from a remote village in Shopian, where a young local militant was killed after a daylong gunfight with BSF. “I was working in my fields when a person came looking for me,” recalls Madhosh. After exchanging greeting, the visitor quickly briefed Madhosh about slain militant’s short life, and ‘achievements’ in the battlefield. “Then he requested me to write something for him,” recalls Madhosh.

Two days later, when Madhosh reached Shopian, he was surprised to see thousands of people waiting for him.

“I still remember how everyone was looking at me with their painful eyes, filled with tears, as I read my poem,” recalls Madhosh. “After that I got regular invitations from Shopian, Pulwama, Pantha Chowk, Khanmoh, Pampore etc. I even used to go on my own and read poems at funerals.”

But as gun-fights between militants and government forces became regular, Madhosh struggled to keep pace, both as writer and a chronicler.

“Even at times there were over thirty militant causalities in a day. How can a writer match that?” he asks.

So one evening, Madhosh sat down in his room, rested his back with his favourite cupboard, and started writing a poem dedicated to militants. “It was not addressed to any particular militant,” said Madhosh. “Rather, it was written from a mother’s perspective.”

The poem instantly became a sort of “martyr’s anthem”, which young girls used to sing  during militant funerals, especially in Shopian, Pulwama and Islamabad districts. “It was dedicated to every militant’s mother,” said Madhosh.

After over two decades, Madhosh manages to recall just a few lines: Cheh taskeen-e-dil myun bas chyun makbar…Chasey mouj amech sheedo katha kar…Walo loal-e-gobro dilas thy’tham shar… Chasey mouj amech sheedo katha kar.

(My only solace is your grave now. Your mother is here, oh martyr, talk to me. My dear son, my heart is pierced without you. Your mother is here, oh martyr, talk to me.)

This particular poem made Madhosh a household name, especially in south Kashmir districts, where most militant casualties would happen on daily basis in 1990s. But little did Madhosh know that his brief journey as a famous elegy writer was about to end soon.

It ended when Haider Ali, a Hizb-ul-Mumineen militant from Madhosh’s village was killed in a gunfight with BSF in Srinagar outskirts. The same evening, a word was sent to Madhosh to write something emotional and inspiring for the occasion. Being a neighbour and someone whom Madhosh knew since childhood, he couldn’t stop himself from writing.

“After I attended his funeral, I locked myself in my room and started writing,” recalls Madhosh. “It was painful to write about someone whom I had known for long.”

On Ali’s Chahrum, thousands of people from nearby villages assembled in the local graveyard to pay their obeisance.

Not far from the graveyard, around two hundred army men, along with a few officers from the Khew garrison, oversaw every development. However, their eyes were fixed at Madhosh’s tiny frame, who made his way through the crowd, towards Ali’s grave, followed by a man carrying a microphone. As Madhosh faced the crowd, he started reading his poem, written in Urdu for the occasion: Hota hai moomin ka yeh andaz juda gana, sar le ke hatheeli pe, har zulm se takrana (A true Muslim doesn’t care for his life when he fights oppression).

“My voice, filled with emotions, echoed through the saffron fields as I read it in high pitch,” recalled Madhosh.

Prison Diary

The next day, the same army unit from Khrew camp came to Madhosh’s house and took him along. “I spent next three months at the Khrew camp,” recalls Madhosh with a smile. “I was accused of being a militant sympathiser. They wanted me to give the location of militants and their weapons.”

But when Madhosh didn’t oblige, he was kept in a small dark room, in complete isolation, and tortured. After three months confinement at Khrew garrison, Madhosh was shifted to Badamibagh cantonment in Srinagar.

At Badamibagh, while the poet in Madhosh craved for paper and pen, he was given at least two thrashing a day. “Those two months at Badamibagh was the worst time of my life,” recalls Madhosh.

From Badamibagh, he was taken to Joint Interrogation Centre (JIC), Humhama in Srinagar, where he was finally given a pen and a few white sheets of paper.

“Once I started writing, I realised, I was less emotional and more practical now,” said Madhosh. “I could see maturity in my writings.”

But the shift in Madhosh’s writings didn’t go down well with his fellow inmates, mostly captured militants, serving time in JIC.  “Almost every weekend I used to read my poems in front of fellow inmates,” recalls Madhosh. “While they liked my pro-freedom poems, they hated anything that questioned their strategy and the ongoing bloodbath.”

Madhosh recalls one such weekend in JIC, when he read a poem he had written about frequent civilian killings by mysterious gunmen, in front of jailed militants.

The poem questioned the strategy asking: “Assi kyah karun, aes kyah karaan, zeh zeh dar’jan dohai maraan…aes mah panas paney pharaan…dost chun’an dushman hu’raan…buh zaneh dapeha yeh chu’neh jaan, meh chah panun paan kharaan.” (What we were supposed to do, what we are doing. Every day dozens get killed. Are we working against ourselves? We are losing friends, while enemies increase. I want to tell them it is not good, but why should I risk my life).

At dinner, two boys came to him with a chilling warning: ‘You are discouraging our rank and file. Once you are out of jail, you will be eliminated.’ “They told me I have been put on a hit list,” said Madhosh.

Disturbed, Madhosh found solace in two senior Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) militants. They assured Madhosh that nobody would be killed for speaking his mind. “There will be no ban on free speech. Won’t let anybody harm a poet,” they told Madhosh.

Then they summoned those young militants who had warned Madhosh, and told them, “Qalam ka jawab qalam se do, bandook se nahi (You should reply him with a pen, not guns).

After the intervention of JKLF guys, Madhosh resumed his weekly poetry sessions. But the truce didn’t last long, as Madhosh’s poem about Kashmiri Pandits, in which he urged them to comeback, irked a number of jailed militants. “They wanted me to stop writing about them, but I refused,” recalls Madhosh.

Almost twenty-five years later Madhosh still recalls that poem: “Husni fitrat cheh tohi alav diwaan wapis iyuv…tohi siwa be’rang cheh bas’aan gulistan, wapas iyuv (Kashmir’s beauty is calling you, come back. Without you, this garden is colourless, come back).

Hardened by jail life, Madhosh refused to apologise for writing about Kashmiri Pandits.

After spending eleven months in JIC Humhama, one fine morning Madhosh was told he is a free man now.

The only solace Madhosh had was that he was allowed to take his writings along once freed from JIC.

“I put them in my cupboard and decided to be a family man now,” said Madhosh. “But deep inside, I was hurt and angry.”

“Those sixteen months in jail helped me mature as a poet. I was now critical of everyone including militants,” recalled Madhosh. “I was less emotional as a poet now.”

=Once out, the poet had a much bigger crisis waiting for him at home. Married in 1983, Madhosh was already the father of three: two sons and a daughter, who struggled to manage their daily expenses in his absence. “I had to sell four kanals of my saffron land to pay the debt,” said Madhosh.

Poetic Anger

After his release, Madhosh started taking care of his saffron fields, his primary source of income. Also, he would earn a small amount of money by attending religious gatherings, mostly Shia, where he used to read his poems. “I had written a lot on Karbala, and about Prophet’s life,” said Madhosh.

In the meantime Madhosh joined Prof Abdul Gani Bhat, then senior Hurriyat leader, for three months. After that, he got associated with Farida Behanji, another separatist activist, as her press secretary. He also stopped visiting militant funerals and houses to read elegies.

“All this I was doing to divert my anger. But it didn’t help,” recalls Madhosh. “My wounds were aching. They won’t let me sit quietly.”

Then one night in late 1994, disturbed by the happening, Madhosh sat all alone in his large room, and started writing again. The poem titled, mujhay maktal main janey do (Let me go to the slaughterhouse), became one of the most famous poems Madhosh wrote.

Remains of Madhosh Balahami’s ancestral house where three militants were killed after nigh-long gunfight. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

A few days later, Madhosh was told that his poem is famous with militants, who often sing it in chorus when together, to boost each other’s confidence. However, for Madhosh, the poem was manifestation of a poet’s anger that brewed inside jails, and in torture rooms. With a painful expression on his face, as if reliving the past, Madhosh hums a few lines:

Mujhey dulah bana ke maa, hina lahoo ki ra’chaney do,
Na roko meri raho ko, mujhey maktal main janey do

Agar meri shahdat se watan azaad ho mera,
Mere khooney jigar se ghar chanam a’baad ho mere

To ae barood ki barish, mujhe bi beegh jaaney do…

(Oh mother, ready me as a groom, colour my hands with the blood. Do not stop me anymore…I want to go into the battlefield. If by sacrificing my life, my nation gets free. If by giving my blood, it gets nurtured. Then I am ready to face the fire)

But in early 1994, when a number of local militants changed loyalties and joined hands with the army as counter-insurgents. Madhosh stopped chronicling militants. Besides, like everybody else, Madhosh was afraid of Ghulam Mohammad Lone, aka Papa Kistwari, a government-backed renegade who ruled with impunity 7 kms away in Pampore town. “I didn’t write anything about Ikhwan era directly. The silence was purely out of fear for my life. They were the most ruthless people,” said Madhosh.

However, he made a few indirect references to Ikhwanis in some of his poems. One such poem Madhosh recalls: raath yim chyani wati drayi, buith ruidh badlawan, tim khoo’che moat-ein saayi…kyah govum chyaney maayi. (Yesterday, those who chose your path, changed their faces and loyalties. They got afraid of death. See what happened in your love)     

For next few years Madhosh confined himself to his room, writing about religion, tolerance, and spirituality. “I was trying to find peace in life,” said Madhosh.

But soon a mid-night knock was going to shatter it forever.

Cargo Days

On a mid-summer night in 1997, Madhosh’s concentration was broken by a loud knocking at the front door. When he opened the door, almost two-dozen personnel from Special Task Force (STF), stood outside, with their guns pointed at Madhosh’s face. Within five minutes, they bundled Madhosh in a waiting vehicle and raced away. This time Madhosh was driven straight to Cargo, the epicentre of Kashmir’s counter-insurgency, in Srinagar. “I was accused of helping militants as an Over Ground Worker (OGW),” recalls Madhosh.

On the second day, after an hour-long thrashing, Madhosh asked the guard for pen and paper. “Instead, he gave me another round of thrashing,” recalls Madhosh. For next 25 days, Madhosh was beaten badly, at least twice a day.

From there he was taken to Kathua, where he spent nine months. “Here I was given a pen and paper,” said Madhosh with a smile. “The first thing I wrote was a poem titled Cargo.”

Zulme jabrik jalweh hawaan Cargo…Cargo yus gov, dapiv aaz kar-e-gov, Ahde namrood yadd pawaan cargo…Goss na malkil’mout gasun be’rozgar…aat’eh noon’ah tas chu hava’an Cargo

(At Cargo, you see scenes of cruelty and sufferings. Whosoever is taken inside Cargo, think he is gone. It reminds of Namrood’s army. Because of them, messenger of death is out of work. As he gets only a few lives to take now.)

After spending a few months at Kathua, Madhosh was brought to Srinagar for some time and then taken to Kot Bhalwal in Jammu. During his over four year confinement Madhosh, as a poet, was completely at war with everything. “I was once again disoriented with my life,” recalls Madhosh. “It was there I started writing about Sufism, Islam etc.”

Madhosh Balhami’s entire life’s work including 800 pages of poetry was destroyed in the encounter. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Apart from his time in Cargo, where he was regularly beaten, Madhosh second jail stint was relatively smooth. At Jammu jails, Madhosh’s poetry used to be the main attraction during weekly ijtemah’s. “After one such poetry session Agha Syed Hasan came to me and said, ‘we both are Shias, why don’t you work with me in Hurriyat’,” recalls Madhosh.

After his release in April 2001, Madhosh finally joined Agha, whose party Anjuman-e-Shari Shiyan is part of Hurriyat Conference. Till March 2018, Madhosh was with Hassan as his press secretary, earning Rs 8000, a month.

At Kathua and Kot Bhalwal, a number of inmates approached Madhosh with a request that he should compile his work, especially related to Kashmir, into a book. But Madhosh would tell them that since it is an ongoing conflict, he will compile once some solution emerges.

“I had to rewrite a number of poems as I had praised wrong people. Like I used to write about earlier Ikhwan, and their commanders, who then became renegades,” said Madhosh. “So, I was sort of waiting for the right time.”

But little did Madhosh know that he will never get a chance to compile his work in a book form. Instead, he would be writing his own elegy, that too in ashes.

Elegy to ashes

On March 15, 2018, weighed down by age and anger, Madhosh was standing in his courtyard, when he saw three young boys, carrying AK47 rifles, climb a small hillock – the highest point in the village – located behind his house. They looked around for a while, probably trying to find a way out. But with army covering almost every exit point of Balhama, they came running towards Madhosh’s house. After exchanging quick greetings, they rushed towards a hand-pump, located at the corner of the courtyard, and started cleaning themselves. One by one, they took their military style boots off, and washed themselves clean.

Without a hint of fear they then asked Madhosh if they can rest in his house for a while. “They told me we are not going to stay, we will leave soon,” recalls Madhosh.

Once inside the house, which was built by Madhosh’s father in 1966, all three militants went to the first-floor room, the same one where Madhosh used to sit and write in seclusion. One of the militants, who was later identified as Hamas, a non-local, rested his head with the wooden cupboard, where Madhosh’s life’s work was kept. “In a brief conversation I had with them, I told them about myself and my life,” recalls Madhosh. With a hint of a smile on his face, one of them replied, ‘then we are at the right place.’

While Madhosh was narrating his life story, army, Central Reserve Police Force and Special Task Force, had successfully pinpointed militant’s location and were slowly inching closer towards his house.

When militants realised they are cornered, they told Madhosh and his family to leave the house quickly.

“We know your house will be destroyed, and we have nothing to compensate you. But we promise you to compensate in the hereafter,” they told Madhosh as they got up to offer prayers one by one.

Before Madhosh and his family left, they stopped them and said, ‘Please forgive us for the trouble we are causing you. It is our destiny.’ Then after a brief pause, they added, ‘it is your destiny too.’

Instantly, Madhosh remembered his life’s work: around 800 pages of poetry, kept unsorted inside the cupboard, against which one of the militants rested his head. He had his eyes closed and was reciting verses from Quran loudly.

Constructed in 1966, Madhosh Balahami’s ancestral house was one of the biggest in the village. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

“I felt it inappropriate to tell him to move his head so that I can save a few pieces of paper,” said Madhosh. Without saying a word, Madhosh left the house quietly, followed by his wife, who stayed for a few more minutes with them. Lost in his thoughts, Madhosh walked straight to his brother’s house, located at five minute’s walk. “Within no time there was intense firing followed by shells,” recalls Madhosh. “From my brother’s place, I could see smoke rising from my house.”

For next nine hours, Madhosh sat in a corner of his brother’s house, listening to the gunshots, and thought: what will happen to the boys. Would they survive!

At 3 am, when the firing suddenly stopped, and the entire village fell silent, Madhosh knew why.

At 7 am, Madhosh got up and went straight to his house, to see what was left.  “There was nobody there. The army had already left with two bodies. There was just fire and smoke,” said Madhosh.

As Madhosh sat in his courtyard, with his eyes fixed at the smoke and ashes, rising from his house and life’s work, the names of three militants started ringing in his ears: Shabir, Owais and Hamas.

It was there he started humming: Jafa ke bijliyoon ne mera ashiyaan jala diya…acha hua, rah-e-haq main mai’ney be kuch gawa diya. Meri he manzil ke woh musafiran-e-khaas they… azm main Shabir thy, Owais thy, Hamas thy, Shaheed ho gaye, mujhey be hosla khass diya.

(Enemy’s lightening burned my house to ashes. It is good, at least I too lost something for the truth. They (militants) too were companions of my destination. But in stature, they were Shabir, Owais, Hamas. They got martyred, and gave me new strength.)

“They shook a poet out of his slumber,” said Madhosh, as he washes his soiled hands after days of work at his new house. “I have no regret for my house or my work. As one of them said, it was destined to happen, and it happened.”

As Madhosh sits down to take tea with his family, after giving finishing touches to the plinth, he looks at the debris of his original house and smiles: “It is a rebirth.”

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