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.