Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Siege of Srinagar

[First published in Kashmir Ink, June 2015]

In Mirza Waheed’s The Book of Gold Leaves (2014), the city of Srinagar has two maps. One abounding in places of love, another with sites of horror. As Waheed’s narrative unfolds, one map is placed on the top of the other till they both fuse so irrevocably that you do not know which city you’re moving in, which lanes you’re navigating, and what - the sublime or the savage - you would expect to see at the next turn.

In Waheed’s story, the lanes of Downtown Srinagar become the place where Faiz, a papier-mâché artist, and Roohi, recently finished with her M.A. from a local university, fall in love with each other. The city transforms charismatically for the lovers, enabling their courtship. It is as if its urban geography - pliable, unresisting - is moulded by their mood. The window of Roohi’s top-floor room becomes the place of anticipation, of waiting for her lover to appear among the chinar trees opposite the house. The waters of the Jhelum reflect the little beginnings of the affection between the unassuming Shia boy and the spirited Sunni girl. The Shah-e-Hamadan shrine, which is the fulcrum on which Waheed’s entire narrative turns, becomes that most crucial thing which the lovers cannot do without - a place of refuge, an alcove where it seems only the two exist, a universe, that despite teeming with scores, appears as if it is only unto themselves.


Waheed wears his love for Srinagar on his sleeves. He knows the possibilities - of charm, of menace - that each of its lanes hold. His affecting love for the city is then slowly alchemized - by the rigour of his narrative - into a careful political cartography of the city. A cartography which knows how irreversibly the experience of a city can change under militarization, how its worlds can all be mangled, how fear can come to hang heavy over it. This is the early nineties - the decade which will see the Kashmir valley turn into a military citadel, which will see thousands of its young and old, men and women, die, disappear, exiled. It is the decade which will see Srinagar being stitched with concertina wire, its own Pandits leaving, scores of its own boys crossing the border into ‘that other Kashmir’ for arms training, an arrogant military power suspending all principles in the book for egregious territoriality, and a people waging a courageous resistance under the ever-present, demotic banner of ‘azadi’. Faiz and Roohi’s narrative of love is singed first at its seams, then engulfed to its very core, by these events, of which they are first observers, then willing-unwilling participants.   

Waheed’s prose is attentive to a city cataclysmically changing. His images, his delicate diegesis, and all that he chooses to bring under the scope of his novel’s imagination, is to show how the physical spaces of this city run in tandem with the psychic duress of its people. The city is no more than the sum of its people’s everyday lives, their movements and their million interactions with each other; it is an accumulation of their very states of being. And when these begin to crumble, the city crumbles. The group conversations at a road-side shop which Roohi’s father once lived by, the long night walks till the Jhelum which Faiz often takes, the chatter of school-girls in a classroom in which Faiz’s sister Farhat participates, the familiar sight of the white-turbaned Pandit principal of Gandhi College taking a walk, even the rush at the neighborhood baker selling lavash, all find place in the heft of the narrative, all of this is the everyday of Srinagar that will be threatened with every passing page of the novel. Waheed’s images will change, the attributes of the familiar spaces will turn towards hazard, his characters’ movements will become more imperiled, all ‘beauty’ - the Irish Yeats is, after all, Waheed’s epigraph - will be rendered ‘terrible’. Even “our comings-and-goings,” wrote the Kashmiri poet Arjan Dev ‘Majboor’ in the mid-nineties, “are lost” (in Kaul; 2015: 19; tr. Kaul et. al.). Before you know it, the lanes, the lakes, the canals, that once promised love will now pose only intractabilities.   

This traumatic urban experience is evident in the way the novel visits and revisits, the way it circles around the shrine of Shah-e-Hamadan. The six hundred year old shrine is the gravitational centre of the novel, the crucial topography of its plot. The little events - Faiz and Roohi’s meetings - that Waheed plots in its balconies, its ghat by the Jhelum, its basement and its prayer-halls, are never untied from the big events that are overwhelming Srinagar. As we read, this little habitat of love finds the outside world crashing muscularly into it, the shrine transforms from something that offers shelter to something that is also embattled. From a quiet retreat for Faiz and Roohi, to a site of death, of grieving, of stunned helplessness and of courageous protest. The first time Faiz and Roohi meet, it is at the shrine, whose references - in these early pages of the novel - are as yet suffused in a soft register crafted by Waheed, the surroundings are marked by an air of promise, by shy laughter, and late-evening lights still caress this sacred geography of the lovers -

“Smiles, words, brushes of the hair, circling of the foot...Roohi wants to touch his face. He wants to see the hair...Now they look at the river flowing below, now at each other...Lights begin to appear in the water. Shadows cast by the shrine, the trees and the tall houses with palanquin balconies on either side of the complex meet each other in the Jhelum, sometimes stirring, sometimes holding hands silently. Roohi watches it all. / Faiz speaks. ‘Same time next week?’ / ‘Same time next week.’ / ‘Can I shake your hand?’ / ‘Yes.’ She laughs” (36)

Things hold together here. Even the shadows of the shrine, the trees and the tall houses seem to be holding hands, in soft insubstantiality. But as the narrative unfolds, this softness of register will harden, the enchantment of this site will be brutally desecrated, and the pulse of this place - Waheed knows it viscerally, it is where the novel was born - will change. Outside, the city is under siege. The streets are pockmarked with bunkers, barbed wire is growing like nettle, strange beast-like military vehicles are trapping hapless men, schools have been made into army camps, as are cinema halls, and the city is under curfew more often than it is not. And the soldiers, they are everywhere, uprooting the rightful claim that the people of Srinagar have on their own lanes. A school minibus has been caught in the cross-fire between the soldiers and the militants. The school-children and Faate, Faiz’s godmother, have been killed by the crazed firing from the bunker, from a man behind a machine-gun who knew he could have stopped. They are ‘civilian casualties’ and their murder is written off without redress. Faiz is stunned, unable to wrap his head around Faate dying in his arms. The memory burns into him. As he all but crumbles, laden with the psychic pressure of this traumatic event, Waheed’s prose projects his disintegration to the very descriptions of the city, and especially, of the shrine that had so far soothed Faiz, where he and Roohi can no longer meet because of the round-the-clock curfew. Waheed’s prose itself transforms to acknowledge this change underfoot in Faiz’s city: his sentences slow down, the softness gradually disappears, as does the possibility of touch between lovers, and Waheed’s mis-en-scene - the surroundings he plots for the readers - becomes starker, dimmer, more soundless. There is no more holding hands now, even between shadows -
“Where is Roohi? He wants to hold her and tell her everything. But they cannot meet...on the branches of the chinars, the crows maintain a stark vigil as dusk gathers its ancient mysteries over the shrine. It is all silent, except a lone muezzin, who moans from an invisible mosque somewhere...There are no chants rising today. A dim light emanates from the main hall of the shrine. The only other light in the compound is that of the two clay lamps burning at Goddess Kali’s feet in the mulberry-tree temple behind the shrine, just by the ghat. Two beams of gold ripple across the river but do not make it to the opposite bank” (88)      

In his recent book Of Gardens and Graves (2015), the writer Suvir Kaul argues that literature written in the times of conflict has a particular capacity to “illuminate not only the political and ideological issues at stake, but also states of being precipitated by violence, loss, and resistance” (136). The world of the literary, he argues, becomes a sure guide “to the intensity of feelings that result from prolonged conflicts, and which over time, play a significant role in the perpetuation of the conflict” (ibid.). That creative texts give us a clue not only about what political positions are held, instead, less obviously and more crucially, they suggest how politics comes to be breathed, how it gets into the very air of the place. How political subjectivities, often painfully, are formed. Kaul here writes specifically about poetry in Kashmiri of the last twenty-five years - selections of which he, along with others, has translated beautifully into English - but his arguments can be fruitfully extended to the stirring fiction such as Waheed’s.
The aim of such fiction is not to restate the known political positions in Kashmir as “news reportage, policy documents, or standard historiography” would do (ibid.). Instead, it guides us to understand how political positions come to be, how the slow, difficult embrace happens. How traumatic experiences come to mould one’s everyday life and shape worldviews, effect actions, even as such affect cannot always be contained into clear mandates. Let us put it this way - Waheed’s emphasis is not only on the slogan of ‘azadi’, it is also on how people come to adopt it, how and why it is birthed and then shared among thousands. His narrative highlights not so much the political community - which pervades an iconic scene at the end - but more so how such a community is formed, what experiences and iterations lead to it, how politicization of a people becomes inevitable and prized. The effect then is remarkable and disturbing, as it should be. You are not just made aware that Faiz becomes a militant - said ‘milton’ in colloquial Kashmiri, a language now infused with conflict vocabulary - as he crosses the border into Pakistan-controlled Kashmir for arms training, weeks after Faate died, and after his elder brother was injured and almost trapped by the army-vehicle. His decision is not mere information for the reader. Instead, you are lead slowly, rigorously, even brutally through his psychic processes, his falling into a vortex, emerging from which can only be brutal. The prose marks his disorientation, pays heed to it. “Faiz paints, cries when no one is around, and prays.” (88). His everyday life becomes something bewildering, something highly strung. “Again and again, he finds himself dipping into his indigo pot, even though he should be using crimson and pink for this flower…” (ibid.). “He cannot remember anything. He cannot sleep. And there is that hole in the golden heart, which he wishes would disappear now, which he wishes he could forget” (89). It only widens, it only tears through. Till, one day, he decides.
Waheed has written a remarkable novel about what one Downtown Srinagar writer Irfan Mehraj calls “love in the time of occupation” (2015). “In reading The Book of Gold Leaves,” he writes, the Downtown wrought by Waheed, “comes breathtakingly close to my lived experience.” This is the Srinagar he knew, has known, born as he was “in a desperate time; the nineties of Kashmir…[when the] city...was gripped with a mad fury to be free” (ibid.). This is a particular feat, to bring to the desk of fiction, an experience of a besieged city that is shared by most of its residents, one that is lived viscerally by them on a daily basis, and still make them recognize in these pages, in its careful craft, a reflection of their own lives, losing none of its scope or intensity. Waheed’s is the kind of fiction that is a resilient, unwavering witness to the brutalities of his times. That he finds a story of courage and love to tell in these times - one which is both subsumed in and spills over the brutality - is a mark of a writer who will hope even when the worst is true, who will hope precisely because the worst is true.

Kaul, Suvir, 2015, Of Gardens and Graves, Three Essays Collective: Delhi.

Mehraj, Irfan, Feb 2015, ‘Love in the time of occupation’, in Contributoria,

Waheed, Mirza, 2014, The Book of Gold Leaves, Penguin: London.


Akhil Katyal is a writer and translator based in Delhi. His book of poems ‘Night Charge Extra’ is forthcoming with Writers Workshop, Kolkata.


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Homo Pathetic

The Homo Pathetic: n. (thə hō′mō pə-thĕt′ĭk) A genus of gay and (sometimes) lesbian primates who arouse compassion, sadness or scornful pity.

Look at this image. Above is the advertisement for Band of Brothers, a television mini-series about the haloed American involvement in the Second World War, produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, broadcast first on HBO in 2001. When it first aired, CNN’s Paul Clinton wrote that it “is a remarkable testament to that generation of citizen soldiers, who responded when called upon to save the world for democracy”. So basically eleven stunningly shot hours of the same old story, America bringing democracy to the rest of the world. Below, however, is something more interesting (cue the homo pathetic, hereafter THP): it is the social media announcement of the Queer Pride march to be held in Mumbai in January, 2015. “Queer Cadets and Allies / Pride is Coming”. Boo.

Hovering behind both these images is an old ghost of a shrill war-speech that celebrates bloodshed. The King of England, in Shakespeare’s Henry V (1599) right before the battle of Agincourt scolds the meek and praises the brave, says there is no place for quibbling on the battle-field, you’re either with us or against us, remain here or go home, in other words, all doubt is cowardice, all skepticism wimpish, and then offers a vision of a completely unrealistic, idyllic bliss that supposedly descends on war veterans once they return home. He wants to first seduce them into believing that even if they die gruesomely in the trenches, their memory will live on (God Promise!) and that that alone should be enough for them. And if by chance, they were to remain alive, nothing like it, there's no trauma, no shell-shock in his scheme of things, they will be and forever remain the “happy few, we band of brothers [that’s the reference!]; / For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother…This day shall gentle his condition: / And gentlemen in England now a-bed / Shall think themselves accursed they were not here [because, of course, if you’re not on the war-front, you’re most likely sleeping somewhere, you, chicken, you]”. One of the most quoted Shakespeare speeches. In short, wars are good. Fight in them. Heroism lies only in war. Conscientious objectors are actually complete pussies. And did we say, wars are good.  

What strange twist of fate made a queer designer sitting in Mumbai choose (plagiarize) an image for a queer pride march in his city from a righteous American mini-series on war that itself refers to the mother of all war speeches? What made others pass it?* What strange twist of fate in our times brings on this convergence of war brouhaha and modern queer politics, of war flags and rainbows? Is it that strange after all? In these times of the Homo Pathetic (THP), I suggest it is not. And it is certainly not about that one person, it's a bigger thing at hand.

THP is a peculiar species. He (and more rarely, she) believes that the sole aim in his life is gay rights (and more rarely lesbian rights), and, that there is no other battle to be fought along with this battle-par-excellence, this quest of all quests, this gay shiz. This species will use any convenient means for this sublime and exclusive goal of a gay heaven. Nothing else matters to him. He will come up with catchy slogans, swanky jpegs, self-abasing & pleading petitions to meet this goal.

On his way to the Holy Grail of gay rights, he is the victim better than any other. He is the most tortured being on earth. No one’s suffering, no one's pathos equals his. All women, Dalits, black folks, the poor, the droned-out war-refugees, and half those LBT’s all add up and produce a quantity of pain that is not even enough to sugar the morning tea of the Homo Pathetic. He out-victims them all.

And in order to do something about his pain, he will use any war-justifying, bloodshed-glorifying, trench-beautifying god-damn image of American exceptionalism, if that is what it will take to bring him two inches closer to his goal of gay rights. The Homo Pathetic is strategic, you see. He knows a thing or two about what works in today’s world, what will get more eyeballs for his Facebook invite, more footfalls for his Pride march which is going to be a fun affair, and not some boring, political march, for god forbid fun should have anything to do with politics. And lest this be misunderstood, there should not be too much fun either. Because you see, THP is fun-loving, no he is, really, but fundamentally, behind all this rainbow-flag craziness, he is basically a serious, obedient and 100% nice citizen. He is a pucca Sahib. Have you ever seen a pucca Sahib smile? He wants to shout in Pride marches but politely and without making any noise. He wants to be queeny but not too queeny, does not want to stand out or be an eye sore for the passers-by and those police guys who’re there to protect him. He can't offend them. He'd sooner die.

So he gives strict guidelines for those who want to come to his pride march. THP tells the marchers, among other things [trigger warning: actual guidelines copy-pasted from the Mumbai Pride invite], "Smoking, alcohol, and substance abuse is strictly prohibited. [Of course it is, the THP is a sober, saatvic teetotaler who fights the drug-mafia on weekends. He goes on to say that…] while dressing colorfully is encouraged, please use your own good judgment in your dressing or behavior, that it does not offend anyone [Because of course Pride marches ever since they were first held in the 70s were done by people marching in muted, eye-soothing black&white shades of fully-buttoned shirts and grey cotton trousers, all of them making a bid for good old respectability, but, but, that’s not all, the THP does not forget to mention, the ruffling feathers bit, so he says in his strict guideline number n…] do not dress up as a political icon, historical figure as this may be objected by the authorities [for cursed be you, if you actually make a political statement or somethin' of that kinda sort of thang in our god-damn establishment friendly Pride march of good, responsible, soberly-dressed, inoffensive, smiling-but-not-over-smiling citizens.]"

The THP, you should know, wants to be in the good books of the authorities. He likes the authorities, never raises his voice in front of them. He will agree to all they say and turn a blind eye to all they do if only, you know, that gay-rights-thing. He won't ask a question. He won't lift a finger. He won't speak to others. He will just walk in front of the authorities in a straight line with his hands behind his back. Walk in a straight line with hands behind his back. A straight line, hands behind his back. Like prisoners of war do, like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Gharaib inmates did, like frost-bitten soldiers in Siachen do, like Kashmiris did when paraded in their own villages during early morning crackdowns. In a straight line, here we come, hands tied safely behind our backs, “queer cadets”, Regiment THP001, reporting Sir.

* At the time of writing this piece, the image was part of the event invite page. The image has since been removed.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

How a gay poet became “the poet-laureate” of Kashmir

On 9th February, 2013, twelve years after the attack on its parliament in Delhi, the Indian government hung Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri Muslim and a surrendered militant, on the charges of facilitating that attack. The merits and reasoning of the Supreme Court judgment were immediately contested. Protests, prayer-meetings and funeral prayers in absentia were performed for Guru in Kashmir, and in different Indian cities, particularly by young Kashmiris. Mudassir Kamran, a Kashmiri Muslim doctoral student studying at the EFL University in the Indian city of Hyderabad participated in such a protest cum prayer meeting in February. By 2nd March, however, Mudassir had committed suicide by hanging himself in his hostel room. The web of stories that emerged from this incident takes us into a problem of what shape do the sexual and the national take when seen together. It takes us to the heart of the connections, the knots, that lie between sexuality as such and forms of dissident Kashmiri nationalism, particularly of the last two and a half decades.
In the months before his suicide, Mudassir’s friendship with Vasim Salim, an Indian Muslim co-student, had soured. They had lived as roommates for years and were almost always seen together on the campus. Lately, however, there had been fights, verbal and physical, leading to a series of complaints to the university authorities by Vasim against Mudassir. Student reports stated that Mudassir had expressed his love for Vasim, which became a problem only when that love took on the forms of physical violence and acute jealousy. Crucially, it also became a problem when that love was understood within a particular form, the form of sexuality, which instrumentalizes love in a very particular way, into a question of being this or that, gay or straight. Vasim reportedly said that ‘[m]y friends look at me suspiciously as if I am also that type of a person’ (sic). Mudassir’s love becomes suspicious when it assumes a type, when it projects that type onto Vasim, when they both congeal – visibly – into types of people.
The many reactions to Mudassir’s suicide used the figure of the ‘gay’ male and the figure of the pro-freedom Kashmiri Muslim and deployed them in relation with each other – the absolute disconnection being only one such form of relation. The University Proctor, who had not thought of any internal resolution or counseling measures for Mudassir, had called the police to the campus and made them take the Kashmiri Muslim into custody for the night. The proctor’s office, in order to justify its measures, foregrounded Mudassir as a mentally unstable man given to violence. In an attempt to heighten this emphasis, they deployed the old figure of the homosexual to establish a popular faux-teleology between violence, fringe criminality and homosexuality. The university constantly and publically spoke of the matter as the ‘homosexual issue’ and salaciously offered proofs that Mudassir was ‘gay’, of the ‘touching, hugging and kissing’ with which he apparently drove Vasim away and which was mentioned in the police report.
Some students who questioned the insensitivity of the university authorities in sending Mudassir, a Kashmiri-Muslim, to the police, especially days after Afzal Guru’s hanging in an Indian jail, ended up taking on a strange ontological task onto themselves, trying to prove, somehow – and nothing could be more double-edged – that Mudassir was ‘not gay’ in order to stress his Kashmiriness, his role in the Afzal Guru protests and his vulnerability as a Muslim in Indian police-stations. The posters saying ‘Kamran was not homosexual’ appeared on the campus walls. One such student cited the 'problem' as being simply an instance of ‘brotherly love’ as against, presumably, gay love. ‘Gayness’ in this narrative was posited only as a rumour. Rejecting the composite implications of inherent violence and sexual deviancy being projected by the university, these students, some Kashmiris but mainly Indians, rejected the composite figure of the ‘homosexual’ itself, that is to say, that very form. Brotherly love remained where it was.
In this fray entered two Indian writers. Ashley Tellis, gay activist and writer, and Samia Vasa, a PhD student at EFLU pointed out this double appropriation of Mudassir, this widening cleavage of forms on which this incident was proceeding. Mudassir’s fate had meanwhile been parceled into a series of formal bytes in Indian and Kashmiri newspapers – ‘gay’, ‘not gay’, ‘brother’, ‘brotherly’, ‘best friend’, ‘close friend’, ‘friendly’, ‘roommate’, ‘lover’. Tellis and Vasa, however, saw Mudassir stretched out between two primary subject-positions, Kashmiri and gay, which they posited as completely irreconcilable, their unison painfully impossible.
‘[T]he pressure of being gay,’ they argued and I quote them, ‘in an extremely homophobic society like Kashmir’s…would not allow the articulation of such desires let alone the adopting of an identity based on them. The public outing of the latter,’ they said, ‘…in combination with the former was a combination too heavy for Mudassir to bear’. So among other things, they premised Mudassir taking his own life on the proposed negative relation between gayness and Kashmiriness in which that negative was absolute and Kashmir was held as an ‘extremely homophobic society’ which does not ‘allow the articulation of such desires’. The opposite of this desirable articulation was presumably, at its best, an empty, menacing kind of silence, or at its worst, overt forms of violence. Tellis has elsewhere written in support of the Kashmiri right to self-determination and has joined pro-freedom marches of Kashmiri students in Delhi, so it is interesting – not least analytically – that he is not at least intentionally touting Kashmir’s alleged homophobia in a ‘homonationalist’ manner, to score political points for India’s six decade old occupation. However in not sufficiently opening up the formal question of sexuality, Tellis and Vasa’s account remains susceptible in being used precisely in such a manner. It draws a lamentably easy relationship – what could be easier than absolute negation – between sexuality and Kashmiriness. I want to make difficult this ease. I want to argue for a more layered and unpredictable relationship between forms of same-sex desire – not only homosexuality – and forms of Kashmiri nationalism, of which some turned armed in the late 1980s.

Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001)

Exactly ten years after he died, in December 2011, I was attending a memorial meeting for the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali organized primarily by the Kashmiri Muslim students of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. About to begin in a packed room of more than hundred and fifty, I was speaking to some of the Kashmiri students outside. We spoke of Shahid’s poetry and what it is doing for young Kashmiris today. Telling him that I was writing some biographical sketches on Shahid, the young Kashmiri man started to prescribe what all it should include. His first point – first, not a side-detail but something he wanted me to consider substantially – was made by asking, in jest and not in jest: “What country other than Kashmir can boast of a gay poet-laureate?”
I could think of a few but I don’t think the question was meant to test accuracy; it was to displace the usual rhetorics of hardline Islam taking over Kashmir that was on offer regularly in Indian newspapers since the 1980s and specifically mouthed by the Indian army and media personnel to neutralize the troubling demand of Kashmiri azadi, freedom. In that touted narrative of Kashmiri Muslim conservative body-politic, he sneaked in an interruption in the form of a "gay poet-laureate", as a figure of playful incommensurability. He did this both as a piece of information and a hope. Days after Mudassir’s death, several young Kashmiris had started sharing a note on different online forums; it said ‘[w]e want to tell all those who are not prisoners of India’s collective conscience that If we die and it is made to look like a suicide, please hold India’s collective conscience responsible for it. We want to live, even if we are straight, gay or lesbian and still want azadi for Kashmir, even if we are young women wearing jeans or a burqa or both…even if we have a long beard and believe Islam is the best religion, even if we believe in democracy…and find it nowhere in the world. We hope. A very charitable hope’.
I sense, that in the specific forms of gayness or homosexuality, same-sex desire emerges primarily, if now not exclusively, as silence in the local Kashmiri public sphere. A public sphere that also operates in the shadow of the late 80s-early 90s militancy years, which also mobilized, though this is not true of all groups or even consistent, an orthodox understanding and practice of Islam that interrupted, even if partially, the local Kashmiri shrine-based Islamic culture which flexible prayer sites, rituals and adherence. But this resultant silence is of a very particular form. It is not of an emptied, hollowed out kind, as if only stifling possibility or only erupting in violence. It is also a kind of silence that is held in the name of many kinds of motivations, ranging from care, from fear of (precisely) public disapproval, as a gesture of making place by remaining quiet, and as a form of implicit acceptance.
In the last three years when I interviewed Kashmiri friends of Agha Shahid Ali, I have noted a peculiar conceit among most, if not all. During the interview itself, we speak openly about Shahid’s ‘gayness’, we recall stories of his campiness, him scandalizing ‘straight’ men by dancing too close to them in the discos of Amherst, Massachusetts, his love and imitations of the heroines of Bombay cinema ranging from Meena Kumari to Madhubala – for instance, he used to laugh uncontrollably but still manage to deliver the dialogue from Kamal Amrohi’s 1972 film about a courtesan, performing, with ada, Shahid in the guise of Pakeezah's Meena Kumari - ‘har tawaif ek laash hai, mai bhi ek laash hoon or tu bhi, hamara ye bazaar ek kabristan hai aisi aurto ka jinki ruhein mar jati hai or jism zinda rahte hai, ye hamare kothe hamare makbare hai’ (‘every courtesan’s soul is dead, only her body lives on…these - our brothels are also our tombs’). Even as we populated such stories in the interviews, those I was speaking to, in Delhi, in Lucknow, in Jammu or in Srinagar, made it a point that I either keep the stories to myself, or more often, that I do not attribute it to them. Silence is not hollow, it is a maze. Every one said things, but only for a particular circuit. Silence did not work like a universal precarity or burden, it was a constantly managed thing, administered in local, uneven ways. Everyone spoke but everyone prescribed the audience to whom it could then be spoken. A place was made precisely by the promise of not telling further.
Efra (name changed), a Kashmiri pro-freedom activist and writer in Delhi, told me that when Mudassir died, she received several letters from other Kashmiri men and women saying that we should not speak openly like this about Mudassir’s ‘sexual orientation’, that it would be uncomfortable for his family in the village of P****** in the P****** district of Kashmir, that it would make problems for them, that this form of speaking is too shrill, that it was precisely the involuntary and sudden breaking of silence that prompted Mudassir to kill himself. Silence in this version was at least offered in the name of care, it acknowledged Mudassir’s desires but threw its weight behind the inability of Mudassir’s family in rural Kashmir to publically acknowledge all the reasons of his death. Mudassir’s brother A.H., who is a small businessman in P******, cited a Kashmiri doctor’s autopsy of Mudassir’s body which found cigarette butt burns on it and injuries on the back and head. ‘He was tortured,’ by the Hyderabad police, he claimed. Asked – with some insistence – by the New Indian Express journalist Vikram Sharma to react to the version of the Hyderabad police that Kamran had been in love with his roommate Vasim, his brother ‘dismissed it,’ we are told, ‘sticking to the torture narrative.’
In the putative idea of martyrdom, to die of torture for the cause of freedom is never the same as to die for love of your roommate. Shahid unsettles precisely such a division in his poetry. He unsettles the hierarchies of sublimity of one cause over the other, unsettling even their distinction. When one of Shahid’s friends spoke animatedly of Shahid’s boyfriends, he was quick to point out that when I write – he did not ask me not to – I should be careful, for it might derail the 'credibility' of some pro-freedom groups in Kashmir who even as they acknowledge that ‘part’ of Shahid, they would come under the fire of the other factions of Kashmiri separatists who are more conservative and might use their championing of this 'gay' Shahid as a device to score internecine points in the internally divided terrain of Kashmiri separatist politics. Silence, then, in each of these examples, was a place-making gesture, its intention, at any rate, was that. It conserved a place for same-sex desire even as it conceded to the conservative dictum of not to speak some things, refusing its allied rule not to acknowledge some things.
This is a difficult theoretical proposition – especially if it is judged on the touchstone of liberal gay politics – but precisely in this non-'progressive' form, it is more layered, more embedded, more attuned. In the hands of those who keep it, it also serves as a resistive screen. A former militant and presently the leader within a Kashmiri pro-freedom group – one that is known to have championed Agha Shahid Ali – when asked in a private conversation with a Kashmiri writer about how the case of Mudassir should be spoken of, given the Indian police insistence on the room-mate love story, he said, ‘Aadmi aur aadmi toh kabse ye sab karte aayein hain aur kab tak ye karte rahanege, iski baat karne mein kya hai’ (‘Men and men have been doing such things for ages, and they will do such things for ages, what is there in speaking about it’). It is a kind of silence that proceeds from deep acknowledgment, that gives a localized place for same-sex desire but one which finds no political value for it when it comes in the particular form of ‘gayness’, often transcribing this desire into other forms to accommodate it, to ordinarize it, whether forms of excess, of age-old habits, of ordinary addictions that men have. Which brings me to the last point of this piece – which is – that same-sex desire and forms of dissident Kashmiri nationalism are related precisely by manifold formal contracts. That same-sex desire is plotted in idioms other than homosexuality and in some of those forms even occupy a central position in the politics and the aesthetics of freedom movements. Today I will choose just one such idiom – that of poeticness, of being a shayar.
A pro-freedom young Kashmiri poet Najaf (name changed) who currently works in Srinagar told me that ‘Shahid is like a brother to me, and to so many of us here, his poetry about our freedom is important to us, his love-shuv is important to us. It is like he sits with us, keeps his hands on our hands through his poems. When I read his collection The Country without a Post-Office I wish I could hug my brother, crying’ (sic.). At the centre of that collection, the most written about in Shahid’s oeuvre, is the eroticized body of the militant boy and Shahid’s haptic and sentimental relation with it. The poetry is written in the longing for this body, in weeping for this body, in caressing this figure.
In the poem The City of Daughters – Shahid speaks of the kiss that he steals from the screens of the Palladium cinema, the theatre which was gutted in 1993 when the militants attacked the armed forces which had camped there. Several cinemas in Srinagar had closed in the early nineties both because a radical militant group Allah Tigers condemned cinemas (and bars) as unislamic and threatened violence to the sites, and also because subsequent to such closures, the Indian CRPF and the army set up bunkers and camps in the cinema complexes. Shahid steals a kiss from the screens of such a contested site – locked between one faction of Islamist militants and that of the Indian army – and that kiss is for the martyr, a boy from the ranks of many young Kashmiri boys who – in the cause for freedom – crossed the LOC into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir for arms training. Several of whom died in this passage or in their return at the hands of the Indian army bullets, their "blood sheer rubies on Himalayan snow."
This militant-martyr is the standard of beauty is Shahid’s poetry. ‘‘Dear Shahid’,’ I quote from the poem, ‘they burned the Palladium.’ / There, the kiss each weekend at 7:00 P.M. / was enshrined, and we tried it, merciless / to ourselves – we pulled the kiss off the screen. / Then the Angel forced us to shut our eyes / when his wings red-darkened those epic skies: / In A Tale of Two Cities the guillotine / did not stop falling…But when the martyr / went (‘’Why wasn’t he afraid to die?’ cried Caesar). / smiling with each step to death, his lips ajar – / targets for a kiss! – our eyes were open. / Now when bullets vine-scatter their petals / on our walls…’. The kiss - the bosa - is within the sentimental strand of his poetry which extols a sensibility of male togetherness, of a heightened comradeship in that togetherness. It is also possible within an idiom in which, among others, Shahid clearly saw himself, that is, the old north Indian Urdu aesthetic tradition, at least since the 18th century, that centres around the sentimental figure of the shayar, the tormented poet who has lost his beautiful object of love and hopelessly desires to recover it. ‘In the Casmir,’ he writes in the last poem of the collection, ‘…Poison and Brut air, my rare Cashmere / thrown off, the stranger knew my arms are glass, / that banished from Eden (on earth: Kashmir) / into the care of storms (it rains in Kashmir, in Lahore, and here in Amherst tonight), / in each new body I would drown Kashmir / A brigadier says, The boys of Kashmir / break so quickly, we make their bodies sing, / on the rack, till no song is left to sing.’
The shayar persona can do what the gay persona cannot do. The shayar is not simply a writerly figure, it is a form that makes possibly certain expressions, certain desires. The poetic-type assimilates what the sexuality-type cannot explicitly. In the Kashmiri writer Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night, his account of growing up in the 90s in Kashmir, male effeminacy, softness, appears twice and precisely in relation to this figure of the poet.  Once when a stranger ‘Shabir, an effeminate young man, introduced himself as a poet, and asked me what I was doing in Kupwara’ and second, when the Kashmiri writer, Rashid Nazki, tells Peer that ‘Shahid was a very fine boy’ and adds that ‘[h]e used to walk like a drunken man.’ The comment on Shahid’s way of walking is resonant both with campiness, with exaggeratedness, with something that catches the eye, but also possibly an effortfulness which would be read as a sign of impending illness that was to later take him. Nazki continues telling Peer that Shahid’s father "is my friend and I told him once, ‘Shahid is not well.’ But he [Shahid’s father] believed it was just a poet’s way of being."
A poet’s way of being can make possible and articulate a range of desires, becoming a place for those desires. What emerges as silence if told as a story of sexuality actually emerges as central to the politics and aesthetics of voices of Kashmiri freedom if told as a story of sentimental friendships and haptic togetherness among men, a form of story in which Shahid’s poetry is immersed. It was more in this frame, in this mould that the fact that he loved men was acknowledged because it was of a piece with a sense of political comradeship and visceral togetherness that is attendant to struggling for freedom. We should remember that public prayers were organized by a group in 2001 in mosques in Srinagar, the year that Shahid died. The figure of the shayar, the idiom of the poetic – intoxicated, male, sentimental, erotic – makes place for same-sex desire among men in a way that posits this desire as central to the desire for freedom. The comrade and the lover from the last night become one in this eroticized universe. Shahid ends the collection The Country with this tense overlap: "Freedom’s terrible thirst, flooding Kashmir, / is bringing love to its tormented glass. / Stranger, who will inherit the last night / of the past? Of what shall I not sing, and sing?" It is a difficult thing to do but Shahid sings these songs - of his love, of freedom, of the love of freedom - together, precisely in their difficulty.   

Thursday, October 23, 2014

From a Professor to a Showman :: Kishen Pattnayak on Prannoy Roy

(March, 1994)

Kishen Pattnayak (1930-2004) was a socialist thinker and writer. He had been a member of the Indian parliament from Orissa. Pattanayak was the founding editor of a Hindi monthly periodical called 'Samayik Varta'. In this Hindi essay 'Professor Se Tamashgeer' published in March, 1994, he understands Prannoy Roy as representative of a new class of intellectuals which came into being precisely with the changing economic policies of the Indian government in the early '90s.

Tr. from original Hindi by Akhil Katyal

Those who do not know English in this country might not know Prannoy Roy. But knowing him is important because Prannoy Roy represents a new social phenomenon. Prannoy Roy’s fame has been sealed by the program “The World This Week” running every Friday on Doordarshan. Not unlike a magician putting on a show, it has lately become quite an art for Doordarshan to concentrate the attentions of the TV viewers and keep them spellbound with only select news and statements on the channel. Pritish Nandy’s show and Prannoy Roy’s weekly program etc. are prime examples of this art.

Among the country’s intellectuals, such folks must surely be rare, who apart from being immensely intelligent, can also put on a circus-show in the middle of a street. Television professionals are always on a hunt for such gifted intellectuals. Through them, the TV business gets some intellectual prestige, making it reputable to carry on showing several dreadful and obscene things.

When he became popular among TV viewers with his Friday’s “The World This Week”, Prannoy Roy was then given the responsibility of relaying information about the government’s economic policies.  The use of Doordarshan for the new economic policy had started from the last year’s budget, and this year, its duration and money spent has been considerably increased (possibly, a foreign company is giving money for this). On the evening of February 28th of 1994, the budget speech of the Finance minister in the Parliament was directly broadcast. Because of the complexity of the language, very few people understand the details of the budget; most just wait for others to explain it to them.  Those who know English and want to explain the budget to the others after understanding it themselves, such opinion makers – businessmen, professors, writers, journalists, political leaders etc. are all excited to hear the explanation of the budget. These kind must be around 2 lakh who share their say with about fifty lakh to one crore educated people. These folks were all in their homes on the evening of February 28th, glued to their television sets from 7pm to 10pm. This time the budget commentary went on in two installments for one and half hours and for one hour, the Finance minister himself, Manmohan Singh, sat next to Prannoy Roy and kept answering the questions. The animated questions were pouring in – from London, Hong Kong and New York; from Mumbai, Calcutta and Bangalore. It is estimated that Prannoy Roy got around ten lakhs rupees for this ‘show’.

Before his services began at Doordarshan, Prannoy Roy was a professor at a famous study and research centre for Economics in Delhi (the professors in Delhi get paid quite handsomely). From received information, not only was he a good scholar but he was also closely connected to a progressive line of thinking, and you could see this inclination for progressivism clearly reflected in his essays. Leaving the world of study, practice and research, Prannoy Roy became the program producer for Doordarshan.  As a social phenomenon, the significance of this step lies in the fact that a progressive intellectual of an acute mind, despite his middle-class standard of living being fairly exalted, felt no hesitation to leave his activity of study and research, and for earning a lot of fame and money (thus for a prevailing, licit purpose) he, quite happily, became a showman (the Marathi word is ‘tamashgeer’) on Doordarshan.

On 28th February this budget broadcast was shown very skillfully. Sitting next to a famous business-magazine editor, and through a discussion with him on the matter, Prannoy Roy laid down the highlights of the budget. It was evident that the purpose of this initial conversation was to decide on the main points of the budget-related discussion, and each of these points was bookmarked through the criteria of liberalization. Precisely those four to five points which had been underlined by Prannoy Roy, were the ones which were being confirmed for the rest of the budget-program. The excessive deficit in the budget, substantial concession in customs, the before-time repayment of the International Monetary Fund loan, etc. were these main things. All of the discussion was concentrated on these three to four issues. When it was the turn of the metropolitan businessmen, even they politely made these points. News came from the Bombay share bazaar that it is declining. But why? Because the businessmen had expected an “even better” budget. But this was no particular problem. Overall the budget was moving in the ‘right direction’. The share market will resume its speed in a few days. The Finance minister, in an answer to one of the questions, even stated that everything would not happen ‘overnight’.

When almost all the time of the budget-program had gone in a discussion with the international and metropolitan businessmen, then Prannoy Roy (or Doordarshan) remembered that conversations with some common folks, like farmers, women, youth and consumer citizens, should also be shown, or the budget-program might seem incomplete.

In the beginning they reported the responses of some business-organizations from the Indian metropolitan cities. But then when the Finance minister came in, then for talking with him, for asking him questions, Doordarshan’s door was opened to the world and the budget was effectively globalized. Even before a summary of the budget could be presented to the people of the country (as in, through the medium of different Indian languages to Indian cities and towns), the businessmen in the capitals of the rich nations were shown discussing it, to see how much they like it, to see what faults they find with it, and all this was being done in front of our own Finance minister. The foreign businessmen sitting in London, Washington and Hong Kong thanked Manmohan Singh for fulfilling his promise of reducing customs, going on to ask then and there as to why such a large deficit has been kept. Why weren’t the continuing state subsidies put to an end? Won’t the enthusiasm of the foreign businesses take a hit because of the instability of value as a consequence of the deficit? What else does it mean for the Finance minister of our country to sit answering such questions of the foreign businessmen in front of the whole world except that our budget has to somehow be fully answerable to the businessmen of the rich nations? This was the review of the budget through the definite criterion of liberalization. One farmer was shown who was old and was wearing a suit in the foreign style. There was no grammatical mistake in his spoken English and his pronunciation too was brilliant. This was the Doordarshan image of the farmer of the new economic policy. He just asked one question and fell silent after Manmohan Singh’s answer. When there were barely a couple of minutes left for the program to end, then some folks were quickly shown sitting in an office in Bangalore (after all some common men and consumers had to be shown). One unemployed youth, who was to ask about unemployment as someone having known it, had barely taken the name of unemployment when he went onto ask about whether the investors would lose their enthusiasm seeing the deficit of this budget and what this would mean about increasing employment in the country. This made it clear that the questioner was no unemployed youth, instead he was a young businessman (as was also indicated by his clothes and face). In the last one or two seconds, one woman asked a question related to the consumers and was satisfied after hearing the answer of the Finance minister. By showing her both as a woman and a consumer, Prannoy Roy would have thought that he has connected the whole society to the budget and that the response of every class has been taken.

Just like the editor of the ‘India Today’ cites conversations with a few metropolitan students and on this basis makes special conclusions about the whole youth of the country and tries to popularize a special image of this youth, Doordarshan’s Prannoy Roy makes a similar effort. Conversations are shown with businessmen from London, New York, Hong Kong and Mumbai to speak of the merits and demerits of the budget. The budget, which carries all the money of the Indian government (including its debt), does it have meaning only for these kind of people? First, the businessmen from America and Hong Kong, and then, secondarily, from business organizations and share bazaar from Mumbai and Calcutta, on the third level, some suited-booted landlords and on the fourth level, to some extent the well-to-do middle classes of the metropolitan cities. All other people and communities are absolutely irrelevant to the budget. This is the message of Prannoy Roy.

Why have the country’s poor and masses become irrelevant for Prannoy Roy? We can get to the answer of this question if we consider Prannoy Roy to be representative of a rise of a new class of intellectuals, whose affinity to the public has ended. Here we should try to see Prannoy Roy not as a person but as a social phenomenon, because Prannoy Roy’s role is no individual accident. It has permeated around us a lot. One middle-class, gifted intellectual, whose inclination was towards progressivism in his youth, was a Professor at a reputed educational institute in Delhi. He got a good amount as his salary and was financially secure. Because of his progressive leaning, he felt a connection with the common masses. Around four to five years back, an advertisement-driven culture makes its entry through the medium of television. The economic policies of the country start changing so fast that one middle-class, highly educated, intelligent, progressively inclined young intellectual now sees the possibility of not being middle-class anymore and earn up to twenty-five to thirty lakhs a year. This combination of the television media and the new economic policies presents before him an attraction of promoting himself and earning plenty of wealth. He is taken in by this, and both money’s charm and the spectacle of the modern media dominate him. His social affinities are left by the wayside. Crores of common men in India become irrelevant for him. Multinational companies make a beeline for paying him a lot and making use of his brilliance. They are cautious to not let him know that he is saleable goods for them, which is why he is put to such jobs where he is under the impression that he is miraculously engaged in intellectual work. So that he happily sells himself, it is important that his work has an intellectual image and that he can develop a self-image whereby he thinks he is galvanizing the nation’s progress. For Prannoy Roy to bring progress to the nation in this way, it is imperative that crores of common people in India should be considered irrelevant while thinking about the nation.

Tikait is not very far from Delhi. Two hours after the budget-speech when Manmohan Singh came on TV, then the farmer leader Mahendra Singh Tikait could have been called. Prannoy Roy is Bengali. Maybe a middle-class housewife from Calcutta or Jalpaygudi, who has the facility of a telephone, could have been spoken to directly by Doordarshan, she could have been told how much deficit there is in the budget, and that this much deficit can only mean a mark-up in terms of value. But Prannoy Roy did not have the freedom to speak of the budget within the terms of a rise in value. The deficit was talked of a lot; all the businessmen from London, New York and Hong Kong had raised the issue of the deficit. From the perspective of the common man, this large deficit can only mean an increase in prices, but this solid aspect never came up in the discussion. Economic uncertainties that will be caused by the deficit, and the fear that this will create among foreign investors, only these worries were expressed in relation to the deficit. Using the word ‘uncertainty’ for describing the consequence of the deficit effectively hid the problem of the increase in prices for the common man because for Prannoy Roy, the centre of his commentary on the budget was occupied by the interests of the foreign investors, which was the guiding criterion.

The combination of the new economic policy and the modern communication media has led to the rise of a new class of intellectuals. In the first leg of this rise, are the metropolitan intellectuals who in a bid to make themselves a part of the advertisement have become ready to make crores of common men irrelevant.

Kishen Pattnayak (1930-2004)