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.