Kashmiri Literature in English
An introduction to Kashmiri literature in the present cannot be complete without invoking the one name that put Kashmir on the map of world literature. No, not Salman Rushdie but Agha Shahid Ali. Even though Shahid wrote English poetry, his name today is difficult to separate from literature and the literary in Kashmir.
Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001) was a leading “Kashmiri-American’ (as he would describe himself) poet who taught creative writing in different American colleges and Universities. Many of his poems can be found online but he was best-known for his collection of poetry, The Country without a Postoffice, which confronted the political violence in Kashmir in the 1990s. Among some of his collections of poems are A Nostalgist’s Map of America, A Walk through Yellow Pages, In Memory of Begum Akhtar, The Beloved Witness, Rooms are never Finished and Call me Ishmael Tonight. Recently Norton published his collected poems, The Veiled Suite. It is perhaps the influence of Shahid that encouraged many young Kashmiris to take up creative writing in English.
Another English poet to emerge in the 1990s is Subhash Kak. Subhash Kak was born on March 26, 1947 in Srinagar. He writes in both Hindi and Kashmiri. At present, he lives in the United States. Kak’s The Secrets of Ishber gained him wide recognition. The opening poem of this collection, Exile, sets the tone for the rest of the collection:
Memories get hazy
even recounting doesn't help
I need to look at pictures
or listen to music to remember
and sometimes walking through narrow lanes of my town
a sudden perfume escaping from a window
halts my steps and I am transported
to my childhood years.
What other memories live behind the barred doors?
The Secrets of Ishber was published in 1996. In another poem, Snow in Srinagar, Kak writes:
We are banished because we remember
tales that grandfathers told us
because we remember
Syed Ather Zia is a young Kashmiri woman writer who writes in English and Urdu. She has published a collection of poems titled “The Frame”, which was sponsored by Cultural Academy of Languages and Arts of Kashmir, besides several booklets, monographs and papers. In a poem published in the Pakistani newspaper The Dawn, called The Undead Woman, Ather Zia writes:
I do not recognize kings and queens,
Soldiers and crusaders,
Guerillas and martyrs,
Peacemakers and rioters
I fail to understand nations and nationhood
Perhaps one of the finest Kashmiri poets writing in English is Lalita Pandit. Lalita Pandit was born in 1950. She lived in Kashmir but moved to the United States in 1973 where she teaches English at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Lalita Pandit might be thousands of miles away from Kashmir but her poems speak of an intense love and longing for her homeland. She has published a book on the French psychoanalyst and philosopher, Jacques Lacan, and many other books on Sanskrit poetics. Lalita Pandit’s family had to move out of Kashmir in 1990. Lalita Pandit has also focused in her work on the aesthetic theory of the Kashmiri Saiviter philosopher, Abhinavagupta.
Lalita Pandit began writing poems about Kashmir when she heard the news that her house in Kulgam in South Kashmir had been burnt down by Kashmiri militants. I would like to quote here from some of Lalita Pandit’s poems from her collection, Sukeshi Has A Dream.
Azadi 1989-1995You thought Azadi
could be courted, wooed, and wed,
without shedding blood.
You thought it could be made
to become a wife who does not stray;
never demands a price, a gift, a sacrifice.
Rain in Wisconsin reminds
me of rain in Kashmir,
when my mother was young.
July rain still falls in Kashmir
gently like tears of a mother
whose daughters turned against her.
Whose sons forgot her.