In 1989–90, an Islamist insurgency broke out in the Kashmir Valley. This was a time when much else was happening around the world. The mighty Soviet Russia had taken a beating in Afghanistan. Many Communist states in Central and Eastern Europe were facing uprisings, the period sometimes called the ‘Autumn of Nations’. The Kashmiris who supported the insurgency brought about by a few boys trained in Pakistan-administered Kashmir thought that the time for ‘revolution’ had come.
Some of them would pray that their next ration be delivered in Islamabad. By the beginning of 1990, the police and civil administration had completely collapsed. Hundreds of thousands of people would come out on the streets, demanding Azadi. Sometimes, masked militants would appear among them, firing celebratory bursts of gunfire in the air. The walls were filled with slogans of ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ and ‘Indian dogs go back’. But the ‘dogs’ wouldn’t. Instead, the Indian state sent more and more army and paramilitary personnel to quell the uprising.
By this time the international media had become interested in the Kashmir story. Throughout the 90s, journalists flocked to the Valley to tell the story of how people were being brutalized by the Indian state. Kashmir became the sexy story. The ‘revolution’ was happening there; the guns were there.
But in this narrative, one story was forgotten completely: the story of the minority Hindus, more popularly known as Kashmiri Pandits, who were driven out by the Islamist extremists from a land where their ancestors had lived for thousands of years. More than seven hundred of them were killed, sometimes at the behest of their Muslim neighbour, friend, or colleague. About 400,000 of them (almost all of them!) were forced into the exile that twenty-five years later is almost becoming permanent. But for the media and the civil rights walas, the Pandit story became just a footnote in the Kashmir story. It was like that tobacco statutory warning that has to be endured before a Bollywood potboiler began.
The America-based academic Suvir Kaul’s book Of Gardens and Graves is a collection of his essays on Kashmir written over the last decade and his translation of poems written in Kashmiri during the years of conflict. The title, as he tells his readers in the preface, derives from a phrase in Oliver Goldsmith’s poem ‘The Deserted Village’. The collection is also interspersed with photographs from the Kashmiri photojournalist, Javed Dar.
In the preface, Suvir tells us how he always felt that Kashmir was home rather than Bengal or Bihar where he had moved with his metallurgist father. So he would visit Kashmir during the summer vacations. His assessment of how Kashmiris have become used to violence around them is correct. Like him, I have also witnessed Kashmiris, especially young Kashmiris born after 1990, talking nonchalantly about death. There is a whole generation of young Kashmiris who were raised in the times of curfews, crackdowns, cross firing, and beatings at the hands of Indian security personnel. They grew up in the times of disappearances, sometimes at the hands of the Indian Army; they grew up hearing stories of brutalities in interrogation centres codenamed Papa 1 and Papa 2. The poems Suvir has chosen for the collection reflects that violence and pain caused by that violence. Like a ghazal by Mohiuddin Massarat begins with this couplet: Blood drips from hands, what’s to me? Bit by bit the body burns, what’s to me?
Suvir admits that his Kashmiri is poor and that he can read the nasta’liq script slowly, but with the aid of his friends, some of whom know Kashmiri very well, he has done a fine job with retaining the ‘meanings’ of very complex Kashmiri words and phrases. Suvir has also taken care to include poems from Pandit poets whose words reflect the pain of displacement and their longing for the homeland and what was lost there. In a moving ghazal, Brij Nath Betaab writes: Do the village children still gather at the milkman’s store? Do they still invent nicknames—fightercock—as in the past?
Suvir has made an exception in his collection for a poem called ‘Corpse’ by Shabir Azar—it is the only poem in Urdu that finds space in the collection, and one can see why. In Suvir’s words the corpse in the poem ‘possesses a violent agency that violates the poet’s hoped for communion with nature’: the corpse! as if it would steal my musings today…! or fold the imprint of my future into the vastness of the lake!
But, sadly, in his essays, Suvir sticks to the fashionable discourse that is in vogue among the majority of Left liberal intelligentsia, especially those who teach in South Asian departments across universities in America, United Kingdom and elsewhere (Suvir being one of them!). He presents a very black and white view of history that is not nuanced at all. For example: were the rigged elections of 1987 in Kashmir the only reason why militancy broke out in the Valley? And if the majority Kashmiri Muslims were looking for freedom alone, why was there an ethnic cleansing of the minority Pandits in which a majority of the majority community played a role, directly or indirectly? Suvir is so apathetic to the story of Pandits that he has refused to even acknowledge that hundreds of them were brutally killed (something that he lays stress upon several times in case of the majority Muslims). The young 37-year-old Pandit telecommunication engineer, B.K. Ganju was shot dead in a rice drum in which he hid in the attic of his house in March 1990. The militants could not find him, but as they were leaving, a lady neighbour who had seen him hiding in that drum signalled to the militants. They returned and killed him.
Suvir invokes Sahir Ludhianvi’s ‘Yeh kis ka lahu hai kaun maraa’ to the banality of violence and bloodshed in the post-Pandit Valley. But the story of Pandits is like that tobacco statutory warning—Suvir acts like a teenager in the cinema hall, his head bent over his smart phone, busy whatsapping his friends while an important message runs by.
Suvir notices with concern that several Hindu shrines have been taken over by the paramilitaries guarding them. Well, Sir, my ancestral village is Tula Mula, home to the Goddess Maharagnya that my grandfather till his last breath would visit every single day in the ambrosial hours, reciting Durgasaptashati. The first place I go to every time I visit Kashmir is that shrine. And I thank the paramilitary jawan from Bihar, or Uttar Pradesh, or Punjab, for guarding it lest it would have met the fate of so many other temples burnt down or vandalized in the last twenty-five years. The jarring signboard put up by a military officer is there. But at least I can sit at the same spot where my grandfather used to, and feel connected with him. That may mean nothing to you. But it means everything to me, and to thousands of other Pandits I know.
Brij Nath Betaab will return home, as he writes, when his friend Afaq Aziz sends word. That is a poet’s hope. But Suvir fails to record that the chances of Aziz sending that word is almost nonexistent.
Ignore the essays. Read the poems, soak in their meanings. Savour the sheer brilliance of Moti Lal Saqi. Embrace the beauty of Fayaz Tilgami’s words when he writes: Like me, you must have lost your being Like me, you wish to change your name, do you.
Rahul Pandita is the author of Our Moon Has Blood Clots, a memoir of a lost home in Kashmir. He is currently a Yale World Fellow and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org