In the year 1992, when she was a 19 year old creative-writing student at Hamilton College, N.Y., Kamila Shamsie was talking with her favorite teacher, the poet Agha Shahid Ali, about where he had spent his last summer. 'I was in Delhi, and in Srinagar,' he had said. She casually asked if he had also gone anywhere other than India. Shahid quickly repeated, 'I was in Srinagar'.
Shamsie, now a well-known novelist, told me in a long conversation about her teacher and friend, that increasingly after the early 1990s events in Kashmir, Shahid had begun making that distinction in his head. 'With more and more pain,' he had said, he had started to make the difference. This was big precisely because it was a difference of imagination, the most difficult sort we wrest with. For Shahid, who had grown up in Srinagar, this distinction was huge and was to seep into almost everything he wrote since.
Kashmir, before it is anything else, is a question of imagination. How we speak about it casually, how we visualize it in our heads, how we constantly place it in relation to us. Any lasting resolution in Kashmir will first have to wade through and question the common-sense that amasses around it.
For generations of Indian school kids, Kashmir begins as something visual, something cartographic. I grew up and went to school in Lucknow. When I was about ten or eleven, we started studying maps in class. My classmates and I always thought that the map of India was particularly shapely, more well-formed than those of the other countries. It looked like a body, full with hands, legs, torso, and especially, the head that was Kashmir. In fact, the head was the crowning piece of our juvenile image, its favorite bit. It surprises me now how much that first image became part of the way a lot of us were to talk about India, the way we were to speak of its fullness and its integrity. It always anchored our discussions.
This was a very amateur version of pride, imagining our country as full-bodied, as intact. Imagining political borders as doing something figurative, as making up a person. The head was key to this imagination, an integral part of it. That we were studying maps in the geography classroom was crucial. Within a discipline that was taught as if it was untouched by politics, as if it was only about real contours. Topography as something primal, something before human disputes. For a lot of us, this worked as first base for thinking. Wholesale maps of ‘physical India’ and ‘political India’ available in local shops in Lucknow had no LOC, no mark of a disputed region, no particular shading. This worked perfectly for our pet metaphor, for our childish game of anthropomorphizing our country.
Any real debate about Kashmir will have to question these most basic images we have grown up with, these most common terms in which we have always spoken of it. For these images and terms have a damaging afterlife in the main stream of our print and primetime. When they reappear in our newspapers and television, they seem intransigent, and worse, irresistible. They ride high on sentiment because they carry the force of something deep-seated like an image learnt early on. The urgent debate on Kashmir in India can not begin if we have already made up our minds, already pictured the whole thing in our heads.
Any real debate cannot start with the common line that Kashmir is an integral part of India. We have to, at the very least, let the question remain open. Let the idea remain elastic. Now more than ever, we have to be able to look through those first bits of maps we learnt in our classrooms, we have to offset them with an eye for history and for tracking popular opinions among the Kashmiris. This will happen only if we revise those first metaphors we had custom-built for Kashmir, only if we take down that childish stubbornness we had for totality. Only once we do this, we would have come on track for any lasting answer for Kashmir.