What prompted your interest in poetry?
My interest in poetry was prompted by the crisis in Kashmir. I never wrote with any conviction till I was 21. In 2010, a bloody cycle of curfew lasted the whole summer and consumed 110 civilian lives. For my generation, it was coming of age as political subjects, and a painful realization of our historical realities as perpetually alienated and isolated. Depressed and angry, cooped inside my home I started listening to and reading Urdu poems. There was a ghazal of Faiz – Toofanbadilhaihar koi dildaardekhna/Gul ho najaaye mish-a-le rukhsaardekhna (Notice each heart shelters a storm, Love pay heed/Let the beryl torch of your cheeks/never be slaked, pay heed.). It particularly appealed to me as it resonated with the commonplace emotion of anger and fury against the Indian state, which finds no channel or expression in face of state imposed curbs. I translated the ghazal to English, and the translation found an eager audience on Facebook. Gradually I read and translated other Urdu poets like Nasir Kazmi, Amjad Islam Amjad, Noon Meem Rashid, and Parveen Shakir. This was my first serious introduction to poetry.
What are you reading?
Due to the current spell of curbs in Kashmir, I have had a lot of time to read. Currently, I am reading an anthology of translations of four women poets from Kashmir by Neerja Matoo. The book covers selections of the works of Lal Ded, Habba Khatun, Rupa Bhavani, and Arnimal. The woman poets date from different periods in history and employ completely different idioms, yet they are household names in the valley. Their poetry is part of the collective oral tradition that has played an integral role in shaping the literary and political sensibilities of Kashmir. While Lal Ded has been extensively translated, the other three have received sparse attention of the translators. The detailed introductions and classification of the poets along the axes of mysticism and lyricism is quite illuminating, and greatly helps the reader place the texts in a relevant historical context. Besides this, I am reading Kalaam-e-Ranjoor – a selection of the poems of the Kashmiri Leftist poet Abdul Satoor Ranjoor, who took an active role in the politics of Kashmir, and was inevitably assassinated in 1990 for his political views. I am working on a translation of his poems.
How do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration in the pain and struggle of being an individual caught in a vortex of violence, and subjugation, and the knowledge that there is no hope in the foreseeable future. The poems are all out there on the roads – the deserted roads, the barbed wire, the baton and gun wielding soldiers, the shut businesses, the deaths and injuries, the helplessness at the whole situation and the inevitability of the scenario. I find inspiration in the blockade imposed on Kashmir, at being prohibited to speak, and express our allegiances and desires. When there is no outlet for your frustration, anger and despair, poetry is the only recourse left. Moreover, I find inspiration in the poetry written by the likes of Mahmoud Darwish who articulates the Palestinian struggle without resorting to rhetoric, or preaching but simply contends himself with recording, how the cause and the person blend, each straining against the other to be free.
Where do you write?
I usually write at my desk on my computer. I like the freedom to chop and change, and reverse that a word processor allows. But it primarily depends upon where the germ of the poem strikes me. I write on the first medium available to me. Sometimes, I scribble the draft of a poem on a pocket diary or a scrap of paper in my car, if a poem comes to me. Often, if I hear an interesting phrase or a line that sounds like a poem could be weaved around it, I note it down as a note in my cell phone. I rarely write with pen and paper, usually if no electronic medium is around.
Why do you write?
I write because otherwise I would die. There are only two choices for me – go out on the street, pick a stone or gun and be killed, or express yourself through poetry. I write partly out of cowardice – I value my life, and partly because it appears one can convey protest through words too. I write because I wish to record my experiences with trauma and mental illness due to over-exposure to death and violence. I harbour no pretensions that my poetry is the collective voice of Kashmir or that it contributes to the struggle for freedom and dignity. I write simply because I suffer like everyone else, and wish to give adequate expression to this feeling of indignity and powerlessness. My childhood was spent in the turbulent 90’s when militancy was at its peak in the valley, and now my youth is being spent in cycles of siege which keep repeating themselves at intervals – the Amarnath Shrine Row in 2008, Patribhal fake encounter and killings in 2010, the post Burhan Wani curfew and strike in 2016 and now curfew and strike post abrogation of special status of Kashmir in 2019. I write to convey how life passes under these cycles.
What is your advice for emerging poets?
My advice for emerging poets is to stay true to the craft of poetry. I speak in the context of Kashmir where there is a great temptation to resort to sloganeering through poetry. While no work can be apolitical, I have noticed an anxiety among us to spell out to the reader our political views, and hammer it home. This blurs the distinction between propaganda and poetry. To appreciate this distinction, one needs to read and closely study a diverse range of poetry, especially those closer to home. Due to the needs of our school curriculum, we read a lot of English poetry, especially written in the west, but hardly read any translations either of non-western poetry or European poetry for that matter. Anyone who aspires to write poetry must widen the range of their reading to include translations, or poetry in languages other than English.
What is the role of poets in shaping future?
This has no clear answers. Mahmoud Darwish – one of the few who embodied the role of the poet-prophet best, eventually concluded that a poet cannot do much to shape the future. I partially agree – a poem doesn’t have the same materiality as that of a gun or a stone, which can leave a greater impact of legacy in terms of visible transformation. That said, I feel poets can leave a trace on the past by recording a present, which is sought to be censored or supressed. Poets can perform the function of historians to some extent, and so guide narratives of mapping the future. Since the word can’t be confined or erased completely, as it survives in memory, it follows that the past survives in it, which can insure it against future revisions to suit vested narratives. Poetry helps to preserve narratives and perpetuate them.