In her poem “Lightness of Being in a Heavily Militarised Zone”, whose title is inspired by Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, Kashmiri poet, filmmaker and academic Asiya Zahoor writes:
“before they lay barbed wire
across our tongues
let’s sing of almond blossoms”
More than a month after the abrupt abrogation of Article 370 and the plunging of Kashmir into a state of lockdown, without internet connectivity or functioning telephone lines, Zahoor’s writing is instructive and perceptive, tackling the history and landscape of a place that has known devastating strife for decades. There is an urgency in Zahoor’s poems that feels particularly pertinent at this moment in history – time and freedom are both running out.
Born and raised in Baramulla, in the west of Kashmir, where she currently teaches, Zahoor’s newly published book of poems, Serpents Under My Veil, opens with “Medusa In A Burkha”, a radical reimagining of the Greek myth that perceived a certain kind of woman as dangerous. The burkha-wearing Medusa is a threat twice over – she is both a woman and part of a religious minority that is often at the receiving end of suspicion and bigotry. Dreams, reimaginings, and personifications recur in Zahoor’s poems. In this way, she approaches reality slant, exploring love, fear, hatred and existence by separating them from the distorting realm of humans. In a poem spoken entirely by an old Chinar tree, it dismisses the foolishness of men who think they can silence beings by cutting them down:
“Oh! the vainness of violence —a headless
Chinar still says, RESISTANCE.”
There is defiance, Zahoor shows time and again, in every existence.
The lives of women are given particular attention in her poems, where future daughters are bequeathed all that is “unsettled” and “unfinished” in Kashmir, age is “an ornament” to be worn, singing is a conduit to life and an antidote to war, and a visitor is compelled to visit each of the 999 windows in Hawa Mahal and learn the stories of women before they can leave. The turbulent history of her home state runs all through the collection as the poems grapple with the meaning of occupying a life that is marred by past and continuing violence. The poems demonstrate how a life can simultaneously hold survival, revolution, and joy.
In an interview with HuffPost India, Zahoor spoke about the end of Article 370 and all it may mean, the significance of the Chinar tree in Kashmir, the complex significance of Pashmina to Kashmiris, writers who have influenced her work, and the necessity of expression and ordinary joys even in the most turbulent places.
I want to start from the beginning. Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you come to writing?
I was born and raised in Baramulla. I have lived most of my life here except for a couple of years when I studied abroad but returned to teach in Kashmir. I grew up in a household where a commonplace exchange of poetic verses in Urdu, Farsi or at times in English was a tradition. So, it was natural to acquire some interest in literature, though I must confess I did not inherit the passion of my parents. My mother is a persistent reader even today. Like many girls of her era, she was married off young, but she didn’t give up on education. I remember my mother read me lines from the book she carried to bed, when I was about four or five years of age. I would be clueless, but it calmed me down, and so it does to this day. My mother and I wrote together, mostly in Kashmiri, our mother tongue. Some of our joint work is published but we wrote primarily for the joy of it.
In a poem, you write, ‘The roots of my history are in Kashmir. / The history of Kashmir is in my roots.’ Would you talk a little about how the history of Kashmir is part of you and others who live there? What does it mean for the history of a place to be a part of one’s self?”
Oh, the Chinar poem. A tree speaks those lines. The title of the poem is, ‘Story of a Grand Old Chinar, Kashmir’s Plane Tree, in Love with a Young Girl’. A Chinar tree narrates the plight of its love for a young girl who hides her shadow in the hollow of the tree trunk. The Chinar takes us through various stages of the girl’s life, of itself and of Kashmir. It says, “Once bountiful I am now a ‘Registered State Property’”, and when men with chainsaws behead the tree, it says, “Staying erect is my Dharma,” and even the headless Chinar preaches RESISTANCE, embracing Kashmir’s history.
Many villages in Kashmir have one or more very old Chinars in their central square around which the elders sit, and children run and play. History in a way gets locked up in its roots. Landscapes, as well as people, are the repository of history. When the girl gets angry and tries to burn down the Chinar, the tree warns that her stories too will burn down with it. As individuals, we carry history within us in the form of the lives we live. But individual stories or ‘mini-histories,’ as Jean Francois Lyotard puts it, are often at ‘ideological cross purposes with the authorised versions of History, with a capital H’.
“Many villages in Kashmir have one or more very old Chinars in their central square around which the elders sit, and children run and play. History in a way gets locked up in its roots."”
Does the end of Article 370 and the manner in which it was carried feel like a tipping point for the people of Kashmir?
Yes, this should be a tipping point, less for the people of Kashmir more for those who had a very strong faith in the sovereignty of India’s Constitution and in its federal structure. Kashmir has anyway seen many political machinations. Let us scan recent history. In the year 1846, Kashmir was sold along with its people in a very humiliating deal, known as the Treaty of Amritsar. The East India Company sold Kashmir to Maharaja Gulab Singh for a sum of Rs 75 lakhs (approximately $104,167 in 2019) as one-time payment as well as some goats of ‘approved breed’ and a few Pashmina shawls that were to be presented to the British Government annually. In the postcolonial period, imprisonment of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953, gradual dilution of autonomy over many decades, and rigging of elections in 1987. But yes, this recent one and the manner in which it was done is shattering. But… let’s see how it plays.
What can people in the rest of the country do that would be helpful at this time?
People of this country can do themselves a favour: they can read the constitutional history of Kashmir, if not to demur the depletion of our Fundamental Rights at least to probe their own celebrations. As individuals, we are able to think. In a crowd, we can only feel, that too from our baser selves. Julius Caesar the historical play by Shakespeare (written around 1599) dramatises this very well. By way of comic relief, Shakespeare includes a scene pregnant with dark humour, wherein a Roman crowd, whipped into a frenzy by the fervent rhetoric of Mark Antony, moves to assault the conspirators of Caesar’s assassination. In a case of mistaken identity, the crowd catches hold of Cinna the poet, who urges them that he is not Cinna the conspirator but Cinna the poet. Someone in the crowd shouts out, “Well, kill him anyway for his bad verses.” The scene ends with Cinna captive and the crowd exits, declaring its intent to burn the houses down. Wonder why am I reminded of this particular scene?
“People of this country can do themselves a favour: they can read the constitutional history of Kashmir, if not to demur the depletion of our Fundamental Rights at least to probe their own celebrations."”
The poem, “Lightness of Being in a Heavily Militarised Zone”, speaks of two very different uses for words: singing one’s joy and bearing witness. How did this poem come into being? What does it mean to “sing of almond blossoms” in a heavily militarised zone?
People who live in places torn by war also have to carry on their routine, seek happiness to the extent they can or fall in love. Yet, there is an urgency with which they have to do all this. They have to live but also bear witness to what’s happening around them and register their protest. Art seeks leisure. So does love, but our need is immediate. The almond blossoms in Kashmir are short-lived. Life is ephemeral, therefore the ‘lightness’. One must sing before tongues are tied, dream before sleep is walled, see before eyes are blinded, and write before words are erased.
Where do your poems generally arise from? Would you talk a little about what writing brings to your life?
Well, I don’t claim any creativity but there surely is some restlessness, some political rage or existential angst leading to a subconscious urge to engage in a conscious act of communication primarily with myself. I too, like most of us, dabble in various genres, scribbling a private catharsis.
Who are some writers (in any language) you’ve read who have influenced your poetry?
I am indebted to so many of them. To begin with the Persian masters Hallaj and Attar. Al-Maʿarri, the 11th century Arab poet. European symbolists, Baudelaire in particular. Milan Kundera to whose novel I allude in the poem about ‘lightness of being’ you just mentioned. Most of them, of course, would not have been available to me without the translations. Sylvia Plath and Derek Walcott. I also want to mention the Kashmiri writers Shafi Shauq, Rafiq Kathwari, Naseem Shafai, Mirza Waheed and Agha Shahid Ali. I find stories in religious texts fascinating. I have reworked some in my poems. There is a line in an Argentinian film I saw long back, “We are also what we have lost.” The idea is that nothing is lost. It remains latent within us and sooner or later surfaces in a different form.
“One of the earliest uprising in Kashmir which took place in 1865 was led by Pashmina weavers. The shawl-weavers protested against very low wages and exorbitant taxes laid on them by the monarch of the time. There is a lot more woven into that fabric."”
Why did you prefer a silent medium for your short film, Stitch, about a Kashmiri Muslim girl growing up in the middle of political violence?
I always believed language was a privilege. It almost always sided with the powerful. I wish one could afford to do away with it. Not in compliance, but as revolt against loud noises. The silence in the film is a conscious act of resistance against the infidelity of language.
The poem “My Grandmother Spun Soft Revolutions on a Charkha” is one of my favourites from your collection. What does a “soft revolution” mean to you?
Thank you, I’m happy you like it. Many women in Kashmir have made their living by weaving pashmina. Pashmina has different meanings for us as for those outsiders, Kashmir is just Pashmina. As I just mentioned, we were once sold for it. One of the earliest uprising in Kashmir which took place in 1865 was led by Pashmina weavers. The shawl-weavers protested against very low wages and exorbitant taxes laid on them by the monarch of the time. There is a lot more woven into that fabric. For some Kashmiri women even today weaving like writing is one of the processes sustaining the best of Kashmir, where, given the ominous circumstances, spinning a soft revolution is in itself an insurgency.