Neither a ritual of friendship, nor
the etiquette of enmity
Both are worded similarly
in your city.
TO write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, Adorno is supposed to have said. Yet in the case of Kashmir, where Auschwitz occurs every day, if not in scale but in tenor, poetry continues to be written. Social media stands as testimony that poetry is being written in Kashmir on an unprecedented scale, not only in English but also Urdu and Kashmiri.
This is partly true of the whole world, if not the subcontinent alone, and attributable to the ease and audience social media, especially Facebook, has engendered. However, in case of Kashmir, there is more than meets the eye. For most poetry written from Kashmir in any language reflects a certain monopoly, for want of a better term, of themes – for the most part contemporary poetry from Kashmir is a catalogue of the collective trauma of living under turmoil.
This is the poetry that passes off as resistance poetry, which is largely understood as a transparent chronicle of the lived realities of Kashmir. Hence, the motifs of a wailing mother, concertina wire, curfew, blood, weeping, martyrs, brute force, winter and mourning can be identified as common motifs in our poetry. Moreover, it is largely assumed that since such poetry is ‘resistance poetry’, and stems from an impulse to chronicle rather than please, it is exempt from metaphoricity and multiplicity that is expected from poetry. While this assumption is not entirely misplaced, it is my belief that this carte blanche accorded to poetry from Kashmir is detrimental both to the development of the poetry scene, but more importantly does little justice to the manifesto of poetry from Kashmir.
However, it is imperative to define the term and its genesis, before one delves into the phenomenon of resistance poetry in particular, and resistance literature in general in context of Kashmir. The term ‘Resistance Literature’ originates not in the west, as most of the terms in academia have, but in the east, in Palestine to be exact. Ghassan Kanafani, the Palestinian novelist and activist coined the term to indicate the literature written by Palestinians in Israeli occupied territories. In effect, this literature is not literature of exile, but a literature that is borne out of forcible dissociation between the land and its people.
Moreover, Kanafani proposed another important criterion apart from subjugation of the occupied people – the occupier must actively intervene in the cultural production, and try to create new narratives that legitimize its existence. In other words, the occupier aims to appropriate the existing narratives and put a new spin to them to suit its vested interests.
Literature emerges as an instrument to remedy this dissociation, a medium of expressing lived realities of struggle and alienation in an environment essentially hostile and inimical to the existence of the people who seek to express their realities in defiance of censorship.
Resistance Poetry draws from the same impulse of defiance, and relies on the power of poetry to mobilize people for collective action. By contesting the legitimacy of this imposition, such poetry seeks to reclaim the control of the subjugated over their collective historical memory. Why is it important to reclaim this control? The answer lies in the immense power of this memory, as a control over the collective memory implies a control over the collective experience and knowledge. This control allows the subjugated to determine the subjects and content of the memory. In other words, the subjugated don’t depend upon the occupier to shape their history, and draw their identity, rather their identity is shaped by their collective belief in a shared identity and land.
It is easy to contextualise from this definition and function a majority of contemporary poetry and indeed literature as a whole produced from Kashmir whether in Urdu, Kashmiri or English. Poetry emerges from this innate impulse of being implicated in the collective identity shaped by collective complicated grief. However, while such poetry is a defence of a personal memory of a life lived and lost under siege, it is also a commencement of a Kashmiri genesis. It is a subversion of the sustained erasure of the memory of an entire people. Poetry from Kashmir is thereby invested in an endangered memory.
Resistance then becomes an existential question, and rather than remaining restricted to an opposition, mourns the relentless march of ruinous time which has gradually reduced Kashmir to a simmering cauldron of despair, resignation and uncertainty. Poetry from Kashmir draws from this very fragility of Kashmiri survival. It is scarred by the trauma of routine of injury, death and loss, and therefore finds itself performing both a commemorative function, as well as resisting the erasure of local histories. In the absence of authentic histories, poetry provides a blueprint of the semiotics of everyday subversions and gestures of dissent. In other words, while all poetry is to some degree an account of lived experience, it is the very lifeblood and most prominent marker of Resistance poetry.
The question of function having been settled, the question of aesthetics remains. For Barbara Harlowe, who brought the term into academia, resistance poetry is decidedly anti-metaphorical. She considers such poetry to be devoid of ornamentation, which refuses conformity to the romantic ideal of inspiration and composition, since it is neither concerned with aesthetic pleasure, nor invokes the ideal of tranquility. She avers that since such poetry is composed not in the pleasant solitude of a poetic bower, but in crises, and tumult, often composed in the battlefield to commemorate the fallen, and defeated. This process of poetic production alludes back to the original debate on the function of literature – pleasure or instruction. Resistance Poetry, she points out, tilts heavily towards instruction, even as it can provide pleasure in its own right by its formal finesse. Its aesthetic is the aesthetic of subversion, and transgression, which mandates the adoption of clear ideological positions to counter subjugation.
This is often mistakenly assumed to be an endorsement of a transparent reproduction of the lived experience of Kashmir. Poetry of Resistance is thought to faithfully archive the existing realities of turmoil and trauma. Naturally, this blurs the distinction between prose and poetry, and poetry becomes a poor cousin of the news report. This is excused by the ground that since this poetry is generated in Kashmir, and is as such exempt from the requirements of craft and expressivity. Poetry is seen as a vehicle of protest, and protest is only conceived as a direct and vocal opposition to statist narratives. Therefore, it is presumed that Resistance Poetry must draw on this vocabulary of confrontation, and narrate it faithfully while trying to preserve some modicum of form or best symbol. Nothing could be further from the truth. Resistance poetry like any species of poetry achieves poignancy and effect if it conforms to the requirement of expressivity, and multiplicity of meaning, the feature Ghalib called maani afreeni.
The grief of Kashmir is neither new, nor undocumented, nor are strategies and vocabularies of resistance unknown and unexplored. What then is the role of the poet, and what makes him different from a historian, a pamphleteer or a politician? A historian can better record the histories and chronicle the realities of the era having been trained in it, and a pamphleteer or a politician can whip up emotions better? How then can poetry resist?
To answer the question, one must approach the question from defining resistance differently other than conformation. Rather, resistance must also be thought of as subversion of narratives. This means that rather than offering a singular and oppositional narrative, it offers a complicating function. Poetry offers no single way of thinking about the nation, because the metaphor offers not clarity, but introduces another object for comparison. As a result, both levels of meaning exist concurrently. Further, this duality introduces a richness of meaning and interpretation. Accordingly, poetry of resistance that seeks to code lived experiences, offers a vision of a counter-movement that cannot be plotted along a single line. It offers varied and intersecting models of a nation, which refuses to be understood as a single idea.
This ultimately is the act of resistance, for it truly reflects not only the diversity of ideas and identities that are resident within the geographical area that identifies itself as a nation, but also resists the attempts to thwart this multiplicity. The resistance of poetry then is not in offering a roadmap of a nation-state, but moving beyond the nation-state for nation-states are invariably based on the presumption of uniformity and conformity. Poetry that resists rebels against this presumption, and it is only fitting, therefore, that this could be one of the guiding principles of our poetry, presuming poetry can be guided. Resistance poetry seeks no utopias, rather depicts the transformative potential of dystopia that Kashmir manifests.
Huzaifa Pandit is the author of the recently published Green is the Colour of Memory, which won the first edition of Rhythm Divine Poets Chapbook Contest 2017. He holds a PhD on poetry of resistance from University of Kashmir.
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