‘In the vast desert of red blood, and pale death poetry is the only patch of life’

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In this city of lights
Who would’ve imagined
gassed darkness would reign?
This nightmare had never hit me
Had the suspicion ever struck you?
Curfewed Friday

Huzaifa Pandit

Huzaifa Pandit is a poet and currently, a research scholar at the University of Kashmir, pursuing a PhD on Resistance Poetry – Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Agha Shahid Ali and Mohammad Darwis. He is fond of Urdu poetry. His poems, translations, essays and papers have been published in various journals like Indian Literature, PaperCuts, CLRI Punch and Muse India. Recently, Huzaifa’s book Green is the colour of Memory, a collection of 35 poems written over a span of six years. Published by Hawakal Publishers, the book captures the resurgence and vitality of memory shaped by the trauma of lived experience of growing up in Kashmir – one of the most militarized zones in the modern world. The poems strive to record the trauma and memory of trauma. He talked to Durdana Bhat.

KASHMIR LIFE: Can you share details of the events from your life that shaped your interest towards writing?

HUZAIFA PANDIT (HP): I was interested in writing from an early age. In fourth or the fifth grade, I wrote a couple of juvenile poems one of which had a line: life in the hills is a treat/the weather is very sweet. I had them and a few pieces of prose written on themes which were typically asked in English examinations like my hobby written in a neat hand in a notebook covered with glittery paper. But as I shifted to the High School, I forgot all about it. Only after I had finished my 10+2, and joined Amar Singh College I began to write short essays for class assignments of which I remember arguing that a write-up must necessarily be written in difficult language so as to increase the reader’s pleasure. It was only a year later, in 2010 that I started writing seriously.

First I wrote a series of three essays documenting my experience of curfew titled Huzaif in Curfewland. The essays got a good response on Facebook, and I felt encouraged. I then started first with translations (See life and legends on why) and then my own poems from 2012 when I was diagnosed with PTSD. The writing was a form of therapy and catharsis so when I shifted to Pune, I studied creative writing formally. The next crisis came in 2016 summer when the whole valley elapsed into a cycle of violence. Many poems in the book were written during and after that as old wounds were opened again, and so the cycle continues.

KL: What’s the book that has been published recently, about? What according to you are the problems that are dealt with in the book?

HP: The book is a collection of thirty-five poems written over a span of six years. The poems tackle various themes ranging from conflict, nostalgia, life in academia, home and exile. I am not sure that the book tackles any problems except the problem that is fundamental to any art – the problem of existence, the problem of meaning and the problem of metaphoric language where things have multiple meanings, and one thing stands for the other. This is a problem, which I feel is intrinsic to any artistic endeavour – one is simply not content to observe but must scratch the itch of expression through whatever medium one chooses.

KL: Can you talk a bit about the title of the book. Does the content of the book talk about the memory and it’s language and semiotics?

HP: What is the answer to the question: Why Green is the Colour of Memory’? For one, green is associated with resurgence, revival and vitality. The title desired to capture this resurgence and vitality of memory shaped by the trauma of lived experience of growing up in Kashmir – one of the most militarized zones in the modern world. The poems strive to record the trauma and memory of trauma. As Kashmir slips gradually into a long inevitable decay and implosion, nothing of the security and aspiration it once stood for remains. Faced with the twin catastrophes of climate change due to unbridled urbanization, and relentless military occupation, the only resurgence in Kashmir is in chronicling grief and lamenting the past. In the vast desert of red blood, and pale death poetry is the only patch of life.

But I think it would be a simplification if I say the book is about trauma alone. There are poems that tackle various other aspects of my existence – of my student life in Pune, my encounter with Marathi, or life in academia. So while the conflict is the overriding theme, it also tries to step back from the vortex of violence and tackle other issues. After all one can’t forever be in a state of lamenting, though circumstances here certainly conspire to do so.

As for language and semiotics, certainly, that is a feature of the poetic process itself. After all, poetry is meant to exploit the malleability of language, its ability to absorb and conceive of possibilities that are not permissible or projected in ordinary language. My endeavour certainly has been to avoid a transparent reproduction of circumstances, but rather translate the subjectivity they engender. That necessarily involves delving into semiotics e.g. the radio is a recurrent image in my poetry, not just as an instrument of information, but as an instrument that performs trauma by recording contradictory narratives – the state narrative and the narrative of the people.

KL: What is the commonalities between the three poets that you are researching. And what makes them different identities at the same time?

HP: I heard the ghazal of Faiz Ahmed Faiz sung by Fareeda Khanum: Toofan Ba Dil Hai Har Koi Dildaar Dekhna (“Every heart here shelters a storm/My Love, won’t you see?”). It was 2010, the couplet immediately appealed to me as a true representation of the leadership crisis in Kashmir –both the mainstream and separatist leadership –Hurriyat Conference were unable to provide a proper response to the crisis unfolding around them.

I had read Faiz briefly at school, but this spurred in me a new interest in him. I found a lot of Faiz poems like Raqeeb Say (To the Rival) and began reading him earnestly. All his poems appeared to resonate with not only my emotions, but also those of the other Kashmiris around me. I started translating him and by 2015, when I got into the PhD program, I had read quite a bit about him, so he fit in naturally.

I had read Shahid’s translation of Faiz, The Rebel’s Silhouette, and The Country without a Post Office. It is one of the widely quoted books in Kashmir, since it deals with the dark days of 1990’s. Since I wanted to speak of Kashmir, he too fit in nicely. Then Darwish was an obvious choice because the Palestinians and Kashmiris share a common experience of life. His poetry is a clear representation of the subjugated all around the world.

It appears to me that the three poets present a perfect demonstration of Resistance Poetry, i.e. poetry written from a clear anti-imperial and anti-colonial politics. Such poetry is often thought to be reactionary and propagandist in nature. My endeavour is to point out that they present three different models of such poetry, and prove that such poetry can not only serve as a counter-narrative to official narratives, but also it can actively engender and accommodate strategies of resistance.

The three different styles point out that it is possible to conceive a trans-national model that critiques imperialism, including cultural and economic imperialism in its myriad forms, along with the various ideological state apparatuses that sustain it.

KL: Is there an invisible movement in Kashmir about young men and women writing English poetry? How serious is this movement and how far is it correct that the turmoil is forcing them to talk in a language that is global?

HP: There is a movement, and it is pretty visible. I can see a lot of people trying to write various stories in prose and poetry. The trend has picked up during the last three four years, and if you check the sales of self-publishing houses like Notion Press, you will see that Kashmir is among the most lucrative markets.

As for the question the turmoil is forcing them to speak in a global language, I don’t agree. We all write in languages we are comfortable with, therefore poetry and prose is being composed in Kashmiri say by the likes of Nighat Sahiba, or in Urdu by Faisal Fehmi. It could be argued to some degree that English gives you a wider audience, but I think social media has been a great leveller. There is an audience for every language there as long as it touches the readers. I seriously doubt that one can be forced into writing in a certain way; it doesn’t occur to me that such writing will be effective.

KL: Agah Shahid is credited for taking the Kashmir crisis to places where it otherwise would rarely reach. But how Kashmir treated Agha Shahid?

HP: Interesting question! Shahid’s legacy can’t be disputed but I think its contours certainly can. First, Shahid’s volume of writing is quite vast, and Kashmir forms only a small though special part of his writing. Almost all of it is restricted to The Country without a Post Office, and maybe a scattered reference here and there in Call me Ishmael Tonight.

Second, Shahid is not an ideologue. He himself confessed that he has a culture not an ideology. He is primarily a poet who is quite concerned about Kashmir, and therefore his poetry while being very moving is not of the same nature as Darwish, Faiz or Qabbani. It lacks a lived experience, and is primarily a literary product of a sharpened poetic imagination rather than experiential.

Therefore, we must guard against appropriating him, as we tend to do. This is not to dismiss Shahid’s contribution or suggest that his poetry has nothing of the trauma of Kashmir. Indeed, it does reproduce it effectively, it is just that even this part doesn’t comment only on Kashmir, it is as much about other parts of his identity – an imagined exile from home, his voluminous reading, and a loss of a nostalgic connection to Kashmir, and to some extent a suppression of his sexuality. That much about his contribution to Kashmir crisis.

As concerns the question of reach, Shahid was product of an elite education, and was located squarely in American academia. It was natural that his voice should reach more audiences than one in the East, because the academy enjoys a monopoly over networks of publishing. So it is least surprising.

How did Kashmir treat him? I think it treated him quite well – he is eulogized here, is he not? Or do you mean Kashmir University? Legend has it he wished to teach there, at least a few classes, but was not allowed or discouraged from doing so. Even that is not surprising. Kashmir University is not exactly known as a bastion of free and critical thought. It is set in the old feudal system where hierarchies are quite rigid.

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