The Poetics of Memory


History is being repeated and rewritten every other day with the latest land laws and conversion of the erstwhile state into a union territory, and the process has been accelerated of late, even as the project predates the current era

WHAT do we remember? Why do we remember? How do we remember? Does our history determine what we remember, or does what we remember determine how we view and recall our history? How do we understand what is our collective ‘truth’ and what doesn’t classify as our ‘truth’? These are questions that demand answers but have no easy answers and raise more queries than they provide solutions. But you might well pause and ask what is the relevance of these questions to you or to our condition in general.

My answer to your query would be that these are very important questions because we are at the cross roads of history both at the global level and at the level of Kashmir where winds of violent upheaval are blowing. History is being repeated and rewritten every other day with the latest land laws and conversion of the erstwhile state into a union territory, and the process has been accelerated of late, even as the project predates the current era. While the old order is gradually and irrevocably fading from collective memory, it is worthwhile to recall what will be the relation of this old world order to the new era? Compounding the peculiarity of this relationship is that change is mired in resentment, where two contradictory pulls exist in the narrative space simultaneously.

One is the narrative of the collective trauma engendered by years of strife, and the pervading sense of betrayal post abrogation that is wedded to the iteration of remembrance of things past in order to stay relevant in the world of narratives. The other contradictory pull is the pull of the state’s ideological machine that is bent upon creating a parallel narrative erasing all traces of the collective past, and thus giving a lie to the collective trauma wrought by militarization and subsequent dismemberment of land and subjectivities. These two contradictory narratives exist at the same time in the narrative space, each wresting with the other and demanding of us what to recall and how to recall. It is precisely this duality that informs my earlier question of what do we recall, and how do we recall. I propose to answer this question by explaining the role of poetry in this clash of narratives, and its utility in safeguarding the old world order in the narrative space even as it vanishes from the ground.

It merits reiteration here that a majority of poetry and literature produced from Kashmir, especially the one categorized under ‘Resistance Literature’ and ‘Resistance’ poetry draws from the memory of the collective trauma wrought by strife and militarization. This has interesting implications for the question of ‘truth’ and recollection of ‘truth’. Traumatic experience is belated and excessive. By this I mean that trauma is realized post the event in the form of recurrent flashbacks which represent the attempts of the mind to comprehend the full magnitude of the event and ascertain the actual ‘truth of the event’ that belies the rational mind. Trauma, and more so collective trauma or received trauma (in which the individual may not directly have suffered the traumatic experience but is nonetheless implicated in it due to being part of the collective that also counts the individual(s) who suffered trauma among itself, and thus shared by the collective as a whole) is excessive in nature, since it resists any attempt to completely know it, and belated since it is realized post the moment rather than immediately like a physical injury would be. As such, this complicated grief and mourning for an absence cannot be fully integrated into experience and language.

Since this integration is always, therefore, incomplete, it has noteworthy consequences and effects on the act of writing history, and supplying testimony, both of which (as I have already explained in an earlier column) are functions performed by resistance poetry. I do not mean to say that resistance poets are historians, rather I mean they document lived experience and thus provide a more authentic account of lived histories. Since narration of a traumatic event is always retrospective, and is necessarily incomplete it implies that testimony is not an ‘authentic’ record of the event, in the sense we commonly understand authenticity, but as an account contaminated by interpretation. Cathy Caruth, a theorist of trauma, therefore suggests, “The historical power of the trauma is not just that the experience is repeated after its forgetting, but that it is only in and through its inherent forgetting that it is first experienced at all. For history to be a history of trauma means that it is referential precisely to the extent that it is not fully perceived as it occurs; or to put it somewhat differently, that a history can be grasped only in the very inaccessibility of its occurrence.” Since the poem or literature in general is an imaginative rendering and the audience is implicated in the fictionality of the narrated event, the poem is an acknowledgement of the inability to produce a ‘true’ and ‘authentic’ account of the ‘real’ magnitude of the turmoil in the valley.

The acknowledgement of the collapse of understanding is itself a subversion of the singular narrative of the state, which postulates it as a simple matter of defense of the nation’s sovereignity while at the same time nullifying any singular counter-nationalist narrative like a theocratic one or even a secular one. Rather, the implicit acknowledgement of the ‘fictionality’ of poetry and literature exposes the simplistic nature of ‘singular’ narratives of nationalism, and as such does justice to the lived experiences and the richness of the counter-strategies of resistance.

Poetry outlines therefore a key marker of resistance – the oral narrative, which ensures that the memory of oppression and repression remains a legacy that is bestowed and transmitted from one generation to other. Since, the poems are recited, and quoted in public they expand the vocabulary through which collective trauma is expressed. Poetry contributes to the debate of memory and truth by drawing a culturally constructed landscape of memory that is determined by not only the social and personal importance and peculiarity of specific memories, but also draws from meta or implicit models of memory that greatly determine the recollection of ‘truth’. Poetic narratives that draw from trauma can be this understood as cultural constructions of historical and political memories. These culturally constructed landscapes visibilize and questions strategies of political mobilisation against the state, as well as the repressive response from the state to such mobilization. The mourning expressed in poetry transcends the individual self of the poet, rather coalesces into a community mourning – a building up of a heritage of trauma and defiance that must be continued and perpetuated such that the search and desire for justice is not abandoned.

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Huzaifa Pandit

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 the University of Kashmir.

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