As I write this essay, the curfew clocks ticking for India-held Kashmir (IHK) in different cities of the world — including Islamabad, London and New York — have counted 96 days. But they are mere clocks. They can only count time. They do not know how to count the pain inflicted in split seconds, lamhas [moments] and daqeeqas [minutes]. Their inability to document suffering makes me resort to reading The Country Without a Post Office, a collection of poetry published in 1997 by the late Agha Shahid Ali. In this book, the celebrated Kashmiri-American poet mourns the inhumane curfews imposed on the inhabitants of IHK as no artist has ever done. One reason for this is the nature of curfew itself.
All the dictionaries define ‘curfew’ as a regulation that requires people to be off the streets and stay indoors between specified hours. This means that a curfewed community is one that has had its mobility restricted, a community that is not allowed to directly interrupt the outdoor operations of a state. In IHK, however, this cruel tool of control means a lockdown, not just of people, but also of news about their misery. In the early 1990s, Ali noticed this and saw Kashmir as “a piece of earth bleeding” where “hundreds of canvas bags” of “undelivered mail” represented repression. He saw Srinagar as “the city from where no news [could] come” as it “was under curfew.”
Today, nearly a quarter of a century later, when all traditional and modern means of communication — landline telephones, cellular networks, the internet and, of course, post offices — have been shut down for Kashmiris, and the media are not allowed to cover their oppression, Ali’s pain of newslessness begins to make sense: “…no news escapes the curfew.”
In the absence of any reliable news about the situation, Indian statist narratives construct a discursive peace that, in reality, has been spreading nowhere in IHK but in its sprawling graveyards. “They make a desolation and call it peace,” Ali would have read from his poem titled ‘Farewell’.
Agha Shahid Ali’s “shrine of words” speaks to Kashmir’s curfewed heart
Apart from claiming over 70,000 lives, the violence of the last three decades has forced more than 50,000 Kashmiris to move out of the occupied valley to live in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan and some other countries. The exiled hearts of the displaced Kashmiris beat with the valley where they have left their blood relations and friends. But what happens to a heart that has lost track of its beat?
Today, the human eye is able to see the events of a galactic world that is billions of light years away from our planet, but our advancements in physics have invented no way for a Kashmiri youth, studying at university in the United Kingdom, to see how his mother is doing in curfewed IHK. It is this successful operation of disconnectedness that enables “someone else” to be tasked with tailoring and televising news of ‘happy’ mothers, as reports Ali in one of his poems: “Someone else in this world has been mentioning you, gathering news, itemising your lives for a file you’ll never see.”
Even if the internet is restored, the phones come alive, the media begin reporting and the world comes to know that the tongue of the trespasser is lengthening, that trees are falling on their shadows, that the semiotics [demographics?] of the cities are changing, that cinemas and schools have been turned into detention centres and that people who have been hit by pellets straight in their eyes do not want to go to hospital for fear of being registered as terrorists, will the slumbering conscience of the world awaken? Will there be “any sign of blood in captions under the photos of boys, those who by inches ... were killed in fluted waters” of Kashmir? Will the shining stars of the mighty and powerful cry? Will the noisy bazaars of the world observe a momentary silence? Will the seas that court the cargo ships stir?
“The world will not stir,” writes Ali in “blood shaken into letters” because “no one is ours.”
With the world utterly deaf and blind to the plight of Kashmiris, Modi-brand madness continues to rub salt into the wounds — both old and new — of the Kashmiri people, robbing them of Article 370’s shield against outside invasions of their land and of their honour by imposing upon them the 21st century’s worst operations in silencing.
Left with no news and little hope, I again read The Country Without a Post Office and it makes me obey America’s pioneering ghazal writer’s command: “Each night put Kashmir in your dreams.”
In my “dream within a dream within a dream”, I see Kashmir’s curfewed heart madly searching for a healer. Badly injured by the disgrace, tired of the long decades spent mourning over massacres, it finally lands in Ali’s “shrine of words” by the River Jhelum.
“Mad heart, be brave!” shouts the shrine to Kashmir’s heart as it touches the shrine’s doorsteps.
“The defenceless would have no weapons.” “Everyone carries his address in his pocket so that at least his body will reach home.” They “will die, in autumn, in Kashmir” or more precisely, “that day in late October,” the sad heart cries out all its anguish in one breath.
“[O]ne day Kashmiris will pronounce that word truly for the first time.” Using “heartbreak as its craft,” the shrine sings Azadi.
“There’s curfew everywhere,” the phantom heart of IHK reminds the shrine.
“I’ll take you anywhere, even in the curfew hours!” promises the shrine.
“Troops will burn down the garden,” warns the grieving heart of paradise.
“Our hands [will blossom] into fists till the soldiers … disappear.
We will hear our gardener’s voice, the way we did as children...”
“I want to live forever,” demands the mad heart.
“I have tied a knot with green thread at Shah-i-Hamdan, to be untied only when the atrocities are stunned by your jewelled return.”
I wake up to the horror snorts of the world’s slumbering conscience, or perhaps to the alarm of New York’s curfew clock facing the United Nations building, but find no one there planning to stop the atrocities.
The writer is Chair, Department of English at the International Islamic University, Islamabad, and author of the Urdu-language novel Sasa
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 24th, 2019