A woman’s ode

Naseem Shafai, is the first Kashmiri poetess to win the Tagore Literary award. She was published two collections of her poems, which mostly reflect what a woman in a conflict zone, feels. Shazia Yousuf reports.

The 57 year old Naseem shafai, a teacher and poet, is the first ever Kashmiri women writer to be honoured with Sahitya Akademi’s Tagore Literary award for her contribution to Kashmiri poetry. It was her second book Na Tschay Ti Na Aks (neither shadow nor reflection) published in 2008 that fetched her the award. Her first anthology of poems Dereche Metchrith (open windows) published in 1999, was the first collection of poems by a Kashmiri woman in the 20th century, to get published.
Born in 1952 and brought up in her ancestral house in Guru Bazaar Srinagar Shafai recieved her primary education from a local government school. She says she as a child was neither inclined towards studies nor towards things children usually shows desire for. “My father wanted me to study science and become a doctor like him. He would look at my hands and say, Naseem you have got surgeon’s fingers,” says Shafai.
Her elder brother Shafi Shafai, a well known radio artist, exposed her to the works of famous writers like Krishna Chandra, Saadat Hassan Manto, Ismat Chugtai in her childhood. He would take her to literary activities and radio recordings. “I can say I grew in Radio Kashmir’s lawns. I would sit in the studio and see how they record programs. I would enjoy the literary activities most,” she says.
Shafai matriculated in 1970, through Kashyapa Girls School. “I got minimum pass marks. I still wonder how I passed that examination. I would hate mathematics,”  says Shafai.
Going by her parents’ advice, Shafai took up science subjects in the higher secondary. “I came back the very first day when they gave me an earthworm for dissection. I felt bad for the poor creature and refused to go back. I was allowed to change my subjects after our family realized that I was not comfortable with studying science,” she says.
Shafai opted for arts and passed her higher secondary with 66 percent, which was break from the barely passing marks she used to get.
“I was unburdened. For the first time I felt like studying. I read lot of literature mostly Urdu; Dewaan-e-Ghalib which I would hide among science books I started reading aloud,” says Shafai.
Shafai graduated in 1976 through Women’s college M.A Road with Urdu and English literature. She started writing poetry during college. “I woke up in the dead of a winter night and felt like writing. There was no source of light and finding a pen and paper was out of question. I took a charcoal and wrote, whatever came to me, on the wall.”
Next day the wall read – Tyem kaalie tufaanan che dapaan cheez neemit zeiy…Akh chaanyi kuthich daer beyi myean nazar raath. The couplet later became the first verse of her poetic collection- Dereche Metchrith.
In 1977 Shafai got selected for one year diploma in Kashmiri. “It was started the same year and I preferred it over PG in English or Urdu,” she says.
The course included Adbi Mehfils where young writers would read their compositions, which would be discussed and commented upon. Shafai wrote many poems that fetched her lot of encouragement from her mentors. Shifai was among the first batch of students that pursued post graduation in Kashmiri that was started by University of Kashmir in 1979. The same year she got married to Zaffar Mehraj, a well known journalist of valley. By the time she completed post graduation, she was mother of a son.
In 1982 she was appointed an adhoc lecturer and her services were regularized in 1984.
Shifai started taking part in literary functions and got acclaim for her poetry.
At the end of millennium there was an Indian women writers meet where Shafai read her poem Na Tschay Ti Na Aks. “I decided there only that if ever I get published another book it will be titled Na tschay ti na aks.”
Shafai’s poetry reflects concerns and perspective of women living in conflict region. Her poem Akh aes paadshah baai, (once there was a queen) is about a Kashmiri mother who loses all her sons one by one. Waswaas (fear) depicts the apprehensions of young girls. Tchaandaw (search) is for those who lost their husbands and sons to enforced disappearances. Baaq(scream) is a cry of a women over sudden loss of her dear one to the conflict. “Through poetry you reflect what you see around. For months I tried to write about the killings and deaths but I couldn’t. Then one day I was coming from Bemina to lal chowk and I saw seven funeral processions. When I reached home I put my anger on paper and wrote Baaq,” Shafai says.
Many of her poems have been translated into English and many Indian languages including Urdu, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi and Telgu.
For Shafai carving out a space in male dominated Kashmiri literary circle was not easy. “Earlier male writers would say that someone else writes for me, it was painful,” Shifai says, “but I think Kashmir needed a poetess who could pen down the misery of women. I could think like a mother, daughter or a wife and write what it feels like.”
To the young women writers who do not get the encouragement and support, Shafai says, “Pen down and preserve your writings, may be things get better one day, put your imaginations on paper.”

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