Monday, August 18, 2014

On Kashmir | The Land of Myths and Mysteries

Surprisingly, this small landlocked jewel between mountains, finds itself influenced by not just Islam and Hinduism, but also lores from Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism.

Gautam ka jo watan hai, Japan ka haram ahi
Isayi ke aashikon ka chota jerusalem hai
Dafan jis zameen mein islam ka chasham hai
Har phoool jis chaman ka firdaus hai, haram hai
Mera watan wahi hai, mera watan wahi hai

The abode of Gautama, is a sacred place for Japanese
Small Jersusalem for lovers of Jesus
Buried is there, the glory of Islam,
Every flower of this garden is a heaven, a paradise,
That is my motherland, my native land

Mughal Emperor, Jahangir's profound exclamation of Kashmir as Paradise on earth has since found a cozy place in travelogues and narratives of this land. Much has been written of the landscape of Kashmir and its similarity with the lavish description of the promised-land in the Bible yet there is more than mere visual appeal that it possesses. There is something enigmatic about this land, that has across centuries, attracted faiths and carriers of the divine message, causing it to earn the name Pir Wari (literal meaning- a bowl of saints).

Kashmir, as Stein describes it, is a 'white footprint set in a mass of black mountains', carefully cut off from the outside world. This little piece of land has been carved out and tucked away, yet over the years outsiders have found their way into this pleasant landscape and stayed to rule the indigenous people. Each of these got with them their own customs, traditions and populace. The language of a region tells the tale of its inhabitants and like the people, Kashmiri or Koshur, is a fusion that continues to mould to this day. Traveller accounts of Hiuen Tsang and Alberuni claim it to be a great seat of learning with people eager to gain knowledge. For a place that invited so many, and accepted with ease, great history and grand lores are inevitably packed into every nook and corner.

Venetian traveller Marco Polo writes about Kashmir, a province inhabited by a people who are 'idolaters with a language of their own’. ‘They have,’ writes Polo, ‘an astonishing acquaintance with the devilries of enchantment; insomuch that they make their idols to speak. They can also by their sorceries bring on changes of weather and produce darkness. (..)Indeed, this country is the very original source from which idolatry has spread abroad.'

Lawrence, who wrote an elaborate document on the Vale of Kashmir, makes an interesting remark about the general nature of Kashmiris much in line with Polo's observation. ‘The Sunni Musalmas of Kashmir are still Brahmans at heart,’ he says.  ‘The religion of Islam is too abstract to satisfy their superstitious craving (..) They like to gave on the saints old clothes and turban and to examine the cave in which he spent his ascetic life.'  Polo further testifies this by saying, 'There are in this country, hermits who dwell in seclusion and practise great abstinence (and) strict chastity,(..)so that they are regarded by their own folk as very holy persons.' Both were surprisingly accurate.

As a group of people, we live in fables, and talk in tales. We love our stories. Cut off from the rest of the world, in this multicultural, multilingual potpourri of customs and traditions we spin our own yarns to live by. We have myths to explain everything; moths here are spirits of the dead and each house has its own guardian angel. We even have our very own creation myth. Our idioms have stories to them, as do our proverbs. Our curses are graphic, and there is a vast list of un-translatable words, lacking English counterparts often making it suffocating to try and explain life to an outsider. The thing with fables however, is that they are interesting taken with a pinch of faith. Once you accept there being an eternity's worth of knowledge beyond your grasp, you can open yourself up to mysteries and immerse in the stories. Believer or not, you must engage with the lores of faith that have traversed this land to fully understand why it has been a blessed place; an exalted one for many faiths, across many centuries.

In this Valley of Saints, more than the faith itself, it is the stories we spin around it and the saints that we revere through it, that attract us to it.  We love our saints because we love our stories. For a land whose history begins in legend, this is hardly surprising.

The Rajtarangni, which gives Kashmir the distinction of being the only region of India which possesses an uninterrupted series of written records of its history dating back beyond Muslim conquests, begins with a mythological explanation of how Kashmir came into being.
In what was once the great lake of Sati-the Satisaras, today lies the legendary, paradisiacal valley of Kashmir. Jalodbhava or the water born demon inhabited this immense lake and caused the whole land to be laid to waste since humans couldn't cohabit with demons. The Gods tried but failed in their attempts to annihilate him. Then one day the sage, Kashyapa on hearing of this distress devoted himself to religious exercise and penance. As an answer to his prayers, the holy triad of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva appeared to aid him.  Vishnu assumed the form of a boar, struck a mountain at Varhamul(present day Baramulla) and the lake rushed out through this. The wily demon however, took refuge in the low ground near Srinagar. To counter him, the Goddess Sharika disguised as a myna (a hari in Kashmiri) dropped a pebble on the demon and as it fell, the pebble grew and buried the demon under it. Today, there lies a mountain, ubiquitous in all glorious photographs and drawings of the Dal Lake. This mountain, the one behind which the sun shyly hides every day at dusk, is called the Hari Parbat (or the Myna Mountain) and gets its name from this myth. The Persian name for this mountain, Koh-e-Maran or the mountain of the snake, is a telling of how this myth found acceptance into the Muslim narrative.

Kashmir too, gets its name from Kashyapa, who is also the grandson of Brahma and one of the Saptarishis in Hindu literature. On the shore of the lake Satisar, was said to be Parvati's abode. After cleansing the land of demons, Kashyapa prayed to Shiva for Parvati to cleanse this newly created land. Striking his trident to the ground, Shiva beckoned Parvati who gushed forth as the river Vitasta or Vyeth. To this day, the Vyeth flows across Kashmir, cleansing it as the celebrated river Jhelum.

Standing tall between the Jhelum and the Dal is the temple called Shankaracharya on a mountain commonly known as the Takht-e-Sulaiman or the Throne of Solomon. Originally thought to be a Buddhist temple, it now is an active Hindu one with a shivling placed inside it. Adi Shankaracharya, the great Hindu philosopher is said to have visited it, giving it its name. How Solomon penetrates into the nomenclature is still a mystery. A prophet common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, oral tradition says that King Solomon reached the Kashmir Valley and through his wisdom aided the people of Kashmir by successfully regulating the Jhelum river; the mighty task of Kashyapa is attributed to him by some. Others however, dismiss this as heresy claiming Takht-e-Sulaiman to be a common name for flat-topped mountains in Central Asia.

As an early a seat of Hinduism, Kashmir switched to Buddhism under Ashoka and then back to Hinduism under his son. Emperor Kanishka  made Kashmir the seat of Mahayana Buddhism and erected numerous Buddhist viharas. Hiuen Tsang travelled to Kashmir for the fourth Buddhist Council that convened here. Chinese travellers are said to have spent years in the valley on a pilgrimage to holy sites and in studying Sanskrit. Buddhism fell in 9th century and the present day Shaivite and Vaishanava faith got popular.

Lawrence spoke about the Kashmiri's fascination for the sacred and the relics that tie one to the faith. It is this that invites so many here. Islam spread in Kashmir primarily through the advent of Sufi saints in the 13th Century and has had a strong hold since. In Srinagar also lie strands of hair of the Prophet Mohammed. The story of how the hair travelled is a long one involving a family feud and exile of a custodian of the holy shrine in Medina, its passing down through generations, trade of the hair to a Kashmiri merchant, Aurangzeb testing it for authenticity and finally it being enshrined in Hazratbal in Srinagar with the Bandey family being its custodian.

Having spoken of two prophets of Abrahamic religions, three more await their turn for they too, are tied to this land with stories.  Moses and Jesus, founders of the largest and most prosperous religions communities of the world, are also the two we know least about. Tales and conjecture say they both lie buried in Kashmir.  To examine this claim we must trace its origins to a separate one; one that calls Kashmiris the descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel. First suggested by traveller Albiruni who wrote of how only Jews were earlier allowed to enter Kashmir, the theory got picked up by later Europeans travellers.  Lawrence, Bernier and Younghusband, have written about the 'Jewish cast of faces' of the Kashmiris and the characteristic hooked nose. The Hebraic nose, the love of money and getting better than the other seem to be amongst the physical and temperamental characteristics the Jews have in common with the Kashmiris. The first Israelite prophet, Solomon and his presence in the valley, isn't a surprising connection then. What strengthens these claims is also the similarity in the names of places that appear to in the Bible to those in Kashmir. The striking similarity between the languages, Hebrew and Kashmiri detailed in many books is another hint.

With this supposable evidence in front of us, and the story of Moses and 40 years in wilderness at the back of our mind, we can try and link the two. The time in the desert was actually that of travel from Central Asia to Kashmir. Moses, along with his tribe arrived in Kashmir but as the legend goes, wasn't allowed to enter the Promised Land. His alleged tomb, in harmony with the legend is situated on a mountain in Bandipora (earlier Bethpur) on a reddish hill, right outside the valley. The names of the hillocks and villages around correspond to those in the Bible. This small community who point out the grave of Moses also claim to have never faced a calamity because of this divine presence around them.

Oral testimony based on hand-me-down tradition, tells us of the tomb of Yuz Asaf, a prophet, that lies in Srinagar. This prophet came here 2000 years ago and rests in Rozabal today. Historians, using their deduction and timeline analysis, concluded that the only probable candidate to claim the name, Yuz Asaf, seems to be Jesus. A new proposition thus emerges suggesting that Jesus travelled to Kashmir to spread his message to these lost tribes of Israel that came to inhabit this land with Moses. He, therefore, did not die on the cross.  One reading of the Dead Sea Scrolls from 1947, suggests that after taking him down from the cross Jesus was wrapped in linen and ointment applied to his wounds. Scientific groups having studied the shroud Jesus was wrapped in, conclude that he was alive and bleeding fresh blood when wrapped in it. Wounded, yet alive, Jesus is said to have escaped in disguise and travelled to Kashmir. It is said that sometime during travel, Mary passed away near a hill on Rawalpinidi. She lies buried there in an area named Muree, eerily close to her own name.

A third prophet, Noah, though not buried here is said to have his descendants living here. A good portion of the Kashmiri population constitutes of boatmen or hanjis. Though a thriving community, they are viewed as uncultured and landless as they live in shikaras, dongas and houseboats. Whether this claim is another tale romanticizing their landless plight or has actual facts to it, is something that like the rest of the myths above, will quite possibly never be known.

Some of these stories fall into place with each other, with geological evidence and historic research. However, to hope for concrete evidence is taking faith too far. For now, we can enjoy tales and revel in the fusion that emerges from them. It isn't everywhere you see that Hindu Brahmans find Buddha a part and parcel of Lord Shiva, Muslims find themselves Brahmans at heart, and Brahmans gladly relish their meat like the Musalmans. We are strange, yet we've inhabited this land full of stories, spending our days telling tall tales which survive to this day.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Happy Independence Day India, Blessings from Kashmir

This post was originally published by Kafila, here.

Dear India,

As you celebrate yet another year of the glorious independence; the independence that was the beginning of an era of doom for most of us here, I must inform you that I was unable to get my morning bread. Sixty-seven is a big number and I’m sure the proceedings will be aplenty. I hope charm behind your lucky number 7 works and you have plenty of ‘ache din’. Somehow, I have my doubts but then again, I’m sure our definitions of good differ greatly. However it may be, I have one tiny request.  Please let me eat my breakfast in peace.

It is still two days to go for the Independence Day Parade in Srinagar and I am one of the privileged few who live within a two-kilometer radius of the Bakshi Stadium, the place where the annual flag hoisting ceremony is held. Excess army is deployed all around and as in all such times, our local baker wasn’t allowed to open shop this morning.

As a child, I read your textbooks in school. I read about how Pinky and Shyam would go to their school for the flag hoisting on Independence Day and of course I’d wonder where this would happen. Independence day meant a crackdown or a curfew for all us kids here. Independence day meant that the morose army guy I hated to look at would stand at my gate, staring straight ahead with a blank, yet frightening constancy. Independence day meant my dedicated doctor of a mother had to walk to work for sometimes, they’d not even allow ambulances to ply.

The independence you celebrate to commemorate freedom has forever been associated with barbed wires on streets that restricted access to locations. It is ironical how roadblocks, surprise checks and general inconvenience is what I have forever associated with this independence. General inconvenience here also includes times where each one of the dozen, army-men on every street eyes you with contempt and suspicion. I snigger if you tell me we celebrate freedom on this day. To the many things that are already restricted here this day adds more.

This year, once again, Kashmiris will observe it as black day.  Do not let that dampen your sprits though. My blessings are with you. I hope this year is good for you. I hope you find many more lovely destinations for yatras, in this valley. I hope many more tourists come with their bag and baggage in big buses spewing black smoke from cheap petrol and litter boxes of frooties carried all the way from across the Pir Panjal. I hope you bring in more buses of expressionless army men and all that you deem fit for us because frankly, we are apathetic now. We are so complacent that it won’t bother us because if it did, we probably do something to change it. Any promise for change here will get you one reaction; that of disbelief and skepticism.

I hope you have a good sixty-seventh year of Independence and your flag flies high and the mighty saffron in it, a tad brighter than usual this year. All I ask for, is my poor morning tea to be had with fresh bread and butter.

With love,

From Kashmir

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Letters between Manto and Gandhi: A Conversation in Fiction

For my assignment on Gandhi,  I have recreated a fictional conversation between Manto and Gandhi through letters. Both Manto and Gandhi did not favour the idea of partition and had a very peaceful outlook to life. However, while one wrote sordid tales of human behaviour the other advocated complete celibacy. It is this that they discuss the concept of celibacy. While Manto mocks Gandhi in his own subtle way, Gandhi tries to explain his idea of Brahmacharya which is what is the outcome of this exercise; simplifying and concisely describing Gandhi's view on sexuality. The sources used for this include Gandhi's collected works available online and an article from FirstPost by Aakar Patel.

31 Laxmi Mansions, Hall Road, Lahore
16 December 1947

Dear Bapu,

Hope this letter finds you in the best of your health and spirits, which I assume your strict regime, good diet and teetotalism offer you already. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about myself. As a lowly drunkard often found in the streets, I can feel my liver beg for forgiveness while in the process of giving up slowly. But I digress. This is no letter to tell you of my bodily woes.

I don’t know if I can rightfully call you Bapu, since you no longer belong to my country but then again, I have never been one to go by constructs. Don’t worry. The next time onwards I shall address you as Uncle. I have gained a certain degree of infamy with my other letters addressed to this one powerful uncle.
I have long since thought of writing to you, often as a plea of help to stop the bloody slicing away of our country into two but then I thought one insignificant letter would not have made a difference. Jinnah sahib had made up his mind to deprive this insignificant writer of his cup of good liquor, so be it. Pardon me for my insolence, but this letter one is about an idea of yours that I disagree with. Now do not get me wrong, I have thought about it enough and now have come to the conclusion that it must be because I am incapable of understanding how a man as great as yours works. You are one who has shaken the root of the empire in a simple lungi and stick. I have been walking around in more clothes with my pen and stories but never had an impact. Once again, I think it was the alcohol. Have you read Mirza Ghalib sahib? He puts it most aptly when he says,

Yehmasail-e-tasawwuf, yehterabayaanGhalib,
Tujhe hum walisamajhte, jonabaadakhwaarhota.

(Aah these matters of philosophy, and your description of them,
Oh Ghalib, we would have thought you a prophet had you not been a drunkard)

Before I begin, I must tell you that I wholeheartedly agree with your philosophy of primacy of truth. Through his work this poor chap Manto tries really hard to put the true misery of life into words, however the world is harsh on SaadatHasan for it. Like you, I fight a satyagraha every day.
However, there is one point on which you and I diverge. The other day, I came across this comment by you and pondered over what it could mean. You say that ‘the modern girl loves to be Juliet to half a dozen Romeos. She loves adventure and to attract attention.’You said to young boys that, “When you walk in the bazaar, keep your gaze down. Wear a hood so that your eyes don’t light upon the faces of young girls. Thus you’ll hold on to your virtue.”
To me this is all very funny. I couldn’t believe that a man great as you could have said such a thing! I am sure your hold on India is intact but alas, I think this attempt was as much a failure as that of the Congress to impose prohibition in Bombay. Since I can take it no more, I think I should be the one to break to you that the horny nature of Indian men remains intact.
But imagine if this censor had worked!
We would have seen our young men walk around the streets with hoods on their heads and with their gazes lowered. There would have been chaos in traffic. Accidents every day caused by this. And the victims would all be men. Hood on head, eyes down, directly in the path of cars coming at them. With young girls, ungazed at, walking about here and there. Horns being sounded even louder than they are now. The hospitals would soon be filled up with wounded young men. And there too the poor fellows would presumably be hooded so as to not accidentally catch sight of the young nurses. It would have made life immensely boring. Passions, like still water, would not stir. All excitement would come to an end if men were physically stopped from engaging women. There would be no spark that's produced between two strangers. The intoxication of youth would sober up. The world all around would turn serious and grim. Faces would become longer. Their glow would vanish. Deprived of an essential motivation, men would turn sluggish. We would also destroy our culture of poetry and literature. All this and I would be put out of a job I do not even have yet!
While I think you are being unfair on poor writers like me I would really want to know what this brahmacharya business is all about? From what little I know of it, it sounds so completely disagreeable that I would want to know more of it.
I do not know how much you know of me, but people have often called me the greatest short story writer of India. Of course now I belong to Pakistan; this partition has greatly reduced my claim to fame. However, I must inform you in advance that I am often regarded a pornographic writer and although the courts have charged me five times for obscenity, I have never been convicted. In Pakistan, so far, I have been tried only once but then, my new country is still young. If your faith in the justice system lies assured, then I know you will reply to this lowly creature.
Pardon me if I have hurt your sentiments in any way because of my brash curiosity. I look forward to your response.

With utmost respect,
Sadat Hasan Manto
Once Greatest Short Story Writer of India
Resident of Pakistan

Sabarmati Ashram

30 December 1947

Dear Sadat,

You are quite frank and I liked your letter for the clear enunciation of your views.

Brahmacharya is a mental condition. It means control in thought, word and action, of all the senses at all times and in all places. The outward behavior of a man is at once the sign and proof of the inner state. He who has killed the sexual urge in him will never be guilty of it in any shape or form. However attractive a woman may be, her attraction will produce no effect on the man without the urge. The same rule applies to woman.

It is the way of life that leads us to Brahma (God). It includes full control over the process of reproduction. The control must be in thought, word and deed. If the thought is not under control, the other two have no value. There is a saying in Hindustani: "He whose heart is pure has the all-purifying waters of the Ganga in his house." For one whose thought is under control the other is mere child's play.

I have heard enough of your stories about the despicable condition of humanity during partition and elsewise. I see you choose to write about a certain type of suffering. A large part of the miseries of today can be avoided if we look at the relations between the sexes in a healthy and pure light, and regard ourselves as trustees for the moral welfare of the future generations. You, of all people, would know this. I have heard of unspeakable things in those stories of yours and am certain that if your characters followed brahmacharya, the women and children would not have seen that plight.

Brahamchraya means control of all the organs of sense. He who attempts to control only one organ, and allows all the others free play is bound to find his effort futile. To hear suggestive stories with the ears, to see suggestive sights with the eyes, to taste stimulating food with the tongue, to touch exciting things with the hands, and at the same time to expect to control the only remaining organ, is like putting one's hands in the fire and expecting to escape being hurt.

The Brahmachari of my conception will be healthy and will easily live long. He will not even suffer from so much as a headache. Mental and physical work will not cause fatigue. He is ever bright, never slothful. Outward neatness will be an exact reflection of the inner.

In contrast to what you say, I feel that a life without Brahmacharya would be insipid and animal-like. The brute by nature knows to self-restraint. Man is man because he is capable of, and only in so far as he exercises, self-restraint. What formerly appeared to me to be extravagant praise of Brahmacharya in our religious books seems now, with increasing clearness every day, to be absolutely proper and founded on experience.

I urge you to read more about this, wherever you can and practice it in your life. You will soon see a sea of change in your behavior and life.  I am Bapu or uncle, whatever you heart desires to call me. I shall pray for you and your country;our neighbors. My greatest regards to our friends across the border.



31 Laxmi Mansions, Hall Road, Lahore
11 January 1948

Dear Uncle,

Pardon me for this abrupt start but the after effects of the last letter were quite shocking. Like you suggested, I tried to read more about brahmacharya. Eventually, I read little but spoke to many. And what horrid tales I hear!  Is not this complete brahmacharya that you speak of something you practice yourself?

Pardon my sinful ears, but I overheard one too many talking about you and your experimentation with brahmacharya. Tauba! At first I could not hear them speak such vile things about such a pure man like you! Sleeping with your grand-nephew’s wife naked at night! Never I said, and tried to shut them up. I think your detailed response in the last letter has created a bond between us and honoring that, I tried to stop the filthy talk. It must be one of the Pakistani ploys for defamation. Do you know what they talk of you here? In the spirit of upholding satya, I thought it my duty to inform you of untruths they speak.

I told them that the brahmacharya Mahatma refuses to hear suggestive stories with ears and see suggestive things with sight! What makes you think he would sleep next to a naked pulsating mound of female flesh, let alone bathe withthem.Do you not know, I say, that brahmacharyas cannot let any sense be aroused? How can you say that Bapu’s grand-niece massaged his naked body from time to time? Do you not know that by virtue of being Bapu he is the father and mother to all and such things need not be spoken against such a pure bond?

I think the vile demon of nationalism has possessed them. You think if I spoke such filth of Qaid-e-Azam I would be alive today in Pakistan; a country still without a constitution. But I think I understand their saying this of a father of the enemy nation. After all, are not all our insults directed at family; our poor mothers and sisters bear the brunt of every curse we cuss.

Do not worry Mahatma, Bapu. I know you are wise enough to know that activities may be sensual but not explicitly sexual. So what if there is no penetration, you have taught them all to practice complete brahmacharya of all senses. For a while you had me, this staunch opponent of all things celibate, convinced too. When you said that this practice rids you of ailments, I seriously debated it in my head. You know, my head has been constantly throbbing for a while and to cure it I thought I’d give it a try but thankfully my friend bought me a new bottle of imported liquor which did the trick.  Thanks to his mercy,I didn’t have to go on the hard path of brahmacharya.

I suggest you don’t worry too much now. These moralists of Pakistan target me too. Had I not told you about the 5 cases of obscenity on me? By the grace of God, there is a 6th one now. I can tell people looking at me now wish I weren’t born to talk about the pornography that they live. This seems quite unfair to both of us. Why don’t you teach me how you deal with this and in turn, I will fight for your cause?

While I am sure you have other, much more important things to deal with, I beg you to spare some time for this cross border son of yours. Till then you must not worry. Your cause is being well fought in the land of Pakistan by this crusader of yours. I may not agree with your ideas, but like I said, you are my Indian father now. I will not let you be shamed and will stop every tongue that speaks filth of you through ahmisa. You are no pervert and every one in Pakistan shall know this!

I await your response with more eagerness.

Your Pakistani Son/Nephew,


31 Laxmi Mansions, Hall Road, Lahore
15 January 1948

Dear Bapu,
It has been a long while and yet I haven’t yet received a reply from you for my previous letter. Being hopeful, I shall blame it on the Indian Postal System, who in an inane bout of patriotism have not allowed my communication to reach you. How could they let a Pakistani son steal away any bit of your time. Anyhow, I am glad it did not reach you. I had said some things in haste that might have been slightly uncalled for in light of recent findings. Do forgive me and disregard all that if you ever get the letter.

My pundit brother Nehru-ji also seems to have similar disagreements with you as mine. I hear, he too, calls your brahmacharya abnormal and experimental. I hear a lot more stories now, most of which I can tell are true. I am now angry because I had been fighting for you like a fool without knowing the truth. Nehru-ji says that your experimentation with brahmacharya can lead to frustration, inhibition, neurosis and all manner of physical and nervous ills. I do not know whom to believe! One a Kashmiri brother and the other, my Indian father!

Anyway, I hear you tell people that one who conserves his semen acquires unfailing power? I have a bone to pick with you here then. You know what a bloody massacre the partition was and how it was an unnecessary exercise.  I’m sure you have conserved enough vital fluid over these years. Why, then, did vital fluid not keep India united? Baapuji if it had, today we would be one country and not two and I’d still be the greatest short story writer in India and an undisputed son of yours. I am very disappointed that despite knowing this secret of power, you didn’t exercise it.

I am discontent with your ideas, yet I will continue to fight for you. At least you have spared me a thought. My government hasn’t done that too. I shall await hearing back from you because being an optimist; I still hope you will dispel some of the stories I hear about you.

Your Son,

Sabarmati Ashram
24th January 1948

Dear Manto,

I have your letter. I apologize for not having responded since there has been a lot going on and I haven’t had the time to read my mail.  Despite all your disagreements with me, I address you as a friend, a son, and that is no formality. I own no foes. My business in life has been for the past 33 years to enlist the friendship of the whole of humanity by befriending mankind, irrespective of race, colour or creed.
The last time I wrote to you, I had left out certain important parts of my philosophy which I think you need to understand and will answer the questions you pose to me.

I will explain why brahmacharya is necessary in marriage, why conserving the vital fluid is important and why I engage in my little project of experimentation with brahmacharya.
I have practiced brahmacharya for over thirty years with considerable success though living in the midst of activities. After the decision to lead the life of a brahmachari, there was little change in my outward practice, except with my wife. For me the observance of even bodily brahmacharya has been full of difficulties. Today I may that I feel myself fairly safe, but I have yet to achieve complete mastery over thought, which is so essential. Not that the will or effort is lacking, but it is yet a problem to me where from undesirable thoughts spring their insidious invasions.

Human society is a ceaseless growth, an un foldment in terms of spirituality. If so, it must be based on ever-increasing restraint upon the demands of the flesh. Thus, marriage must be considered to be a sacrament imposing discipline upon the partners, restricting them to the physical union only among themselves and for the purpose only of procreation when both the partners desire and the prepared for it. The vital fluid you speak of has the potentiality of creating human beings. Is it strange then that one who is able completely to conserve and sublimate this, will have immeasurable creative strength! Imagine the potency of such sublimation, one drop of which has the potentiality of bringing into being a human life?
My brahmacharya was not derived from books. I evolved my own rules for my guidance and that of those who, at my invitation, had joined me in the experiment. If I have not followed the prescribed restrictions, much less have I accepted the description found even in religious literature of woman as the source of all evil and temptations. Owing as I do all the good there may be in me to my mother, I have looked upon woman, never as an object for satisfaction of sexual desire, but always with the veneration due to my own mother. Man is the tempter and aggressor. It is not woman whose touch defiles man, but he is often himself too impure to touch her. I am experimenting. I have never claimed to have been a perfect brahmachari of my definition. I have not acquired that control over my thoughts that I need for my researches in non–violence is to be contagious and infectious, I must acquire greater control over my thoughts.

I am glad you are fighting my cause and do consider you like my own son, but to address each of your questions is difficult as I am an old man. I sincerely hope you find the answers you are looking for in this humble letter of mine.

Yours truly,

Friday, November 1, 2013

Othello and غالب: A soliloquy

For a paper on Shakespere I recreated Othello's last speech using Ghalib's poetry. The deviation from the plot here is that he kills himself without knowing the truth about Desdemona and Cassio; in his sorrow, he wants her back. At the end,  it is still unclear if he thinks Desdemona innocent or not. Along with verses in Urdu, I have also put in parts of the text from Othello. These parts are in English and Italicized; the changes in voice in these are in regular font. Its quite fun.

I am a moor; I was always the Moor.
My story bears no audience, yet I still narrate it once more to lament over how I was tricked. Happiness is a mirage; a distant dream in the hot desert of sorrows. Just when you think you’ve reached the green, oasis of joy, the blistering heat snatches it away from you. Such is life. Such are the times. How can one love and live, at the same time?
Bas ki dushwar hai har kaam ka aasaan hona,
Aadmi ko bhi mayasar nahi insaan hona

(Although it's difficult for every task to be easy,
Even for a man, it's not easy to become humane)

My tale is one of deception and how this wicked, treacherous world makes it so hard for man to be human. I loved; I loved and I lost. I lost because of treachery; no I lost because of my own jealousy. Or was it treachery? My mind deceived me; tricked me the bastard. Could she ever do what they say? They said she cheated her father of twenty years. Could she cast aside our sacred vows that easily?

Jee dhondhta hai phir wohi fursat ke, raat din;
Bethien rahien tasavur-janan kiye hue

(My soul still seeks those nights and days of leisure,
When we would idle away, picturing the beloved in our head)

Desdemona and I used to lie on grassy slopes, looking up at the sky while I enticed her with my tales of travels far away. I could see her cringe at every mention of an adversity and see her fair, lovely face light up at the mention of conquests. I could guide her eyes to go from wide, smiling surprise to misty empathy in seconds. She lived vicariously through me. I was the Marco Polo and she my Kublai and for her I painted the invisible cities; their people, their mysteries; their stories. For me, I took delight in changing contours of her beautiful face and knowing I was in charge of her emotions, even if it were for just those few hours.

Manzar ek bulandi par aur hum bana sakte
Arsh se idhar hoga kaas ki makaan apna

(We would have been able to make a viewing-site on an excellent height;
If only our house were on this side of the sky)

It seems so long ago that the night breeze rushed past our faces as I caressed her lovely hair and told her of my dreams for us; for us to go beyond this world and soar the skies with happiness. We were to settle in Cyprus, you know; move to the beautiful city of Cyprus and have a new home. She wanted to see the marvels of the East I had I’d so often told her about; the painters with their paraphernalia, the Chinese traders with their reams of silk, the buzz of this port city where the East and West came together.

Tere wade par jiye hum toh ye jaan jhooth jana,
Ki khushi se mar na jaate, agar itbaar hota

(If we lived on your promise, then know this-- we knew [it to be] false,
For would we not have died of happiness, if we had had trust (in it)?)

When she told me she wanted to marry me, did I not bring forth crowds to cheer at our wedding? Did I not do all but part the Red Sea for that vow of fidelity from you?
Did I not once tell you that if it were now to die, 'Twere now to be most happy? Why then did that damned handkerchief make its way into someone else’s bed?
Why then could you not promise me serenity? This tinkering seed of doubt that Iago has sown in my head is still not uprooted. I can feel it grow its parasitic tentacles deep into me. I know it shall be the death of me. You were too good to be true.

Mohabbat mein nahi hai farq jeene aur marne ka,
Usi ko dekh kar jeete hain kis kaafir pe dam nikle

(In love, there's no difference of living and dying
Having seen only her, we live-that infidel over whom we breathe our last)

Now, I sit here; the dagger in my hand raised to my chest over the body of my beloved. The wife I choked to death with my own hands. Reality goes by you at unfathomable speed sometimes. How could I let this happen? My Desdemona; my beautiful Desdemona. I was misled. Will my tears wake her up?
That whiter skin of hers than snow now lay lifeless before me, and my beloved, there is no way I can again thy former light restore. It wasn’t Iago; it was me who did this to her. Tis true that her love left me in a trance; morning and night would go just looking for the beloved. Oh, you beautiful, my lady fair of face.
Was I wrong to love this Venetian; this kaafir of mine? They didn’t want me, I was the treacherous moor who had entered into their city and now stolen their girl from amidst them. In their eyes, I was the other. Truth be told, I still do not know if she was faithless or I. At the end, which one of us emerges the infidel?

Zikr us pari wash ka aur phir bayan apna
Ban gaya rakeeb aakhir tha raazdaan apna

(The mention of that Fairy-faced one; and then-- my description
He who was my confidant, became my rival; finally)

I be damned, I should have never professed of my love to her so publicly. Oh who wouldn’t be jealous; who wouldn’t want her. That must have been it. He wanted her. I described her beauty; her fair skin, her rosy lips, her dark eyes. It was me. I let her slip through my hands. That is the cause and that is the reason; Cassio and Iago, both wanted her. It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.

Dard e dil likhunkab tak jaon un ko dikhlaon,
Unglian figaar apni khaama khooncha apna

(How long would I write the pain of the heart? I might go and show to her
My wounded fingers, my blood-dripping reed-pen)

I cannot but write about us; this epic of ours breaks my heart as I pen it down. Do you not see the blood flow down my hands; trickle down the paper leaving beads? But our tale needs to be told. A tale of how I, like the base Judean, threw a pearl away richer than all my tribe.

Qaid-e-hayat o ranj o gham Asal mein dono ek hain,
maut se pehle aadmi gham se najaat payen kyun

(The prison of life, and the bondage of grief-- in essence both are one,
Before death, why would a person find release from grief?)

I killed my own wife for her infidelity. I killed my own wife on the pretext of what a possible adversary told me. From here on, I will either live life knowing I killed my unfaithful wife, or my one true love; neither of which will justify the agony this act brings with it. This life is not meant to be lived happy. I loved and I lost. I think it is time I free myself from these miserable shackles of human existence.

Hue mar ke hum jo ruswa hue kyun na gark e darya,
Na kahin janazah uthta na kahin mazaar hota

(If disgrace after death was to be my fate, I should have met my end by drowning,
It would have spared me a funeral and no headstone would have marked my grave)

But Alas! Even the decision of death seems to have taken its revenge on me. Fate, you tricky bastard; I see the sly game you played there. Oh how I wish I escape the misery of a funeral. I wish to have plunged into the rivers and drowned. With a strong wave, I’d have been forgotten. No processions to glorify me; no whispers to malign. But they must know that, I loved not wisely, but too well. Not easily jealous, but being wrought, perplexed in the extreme.

But Oh, my soul’s joy! I once told you that if after every tempest come such calms, may the winds blow till they have wakened death. I crave the tempest and the calm after now, let me come to you and let us now be together.

Come, Desdemona, Once more, we’ll meet at Cyprus

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Kashmir: An Imagined Community asserting its Identity through Language and Cricket

When I first read Benedict Anderson’s concept of an imagined community, it blew me away but its sheer simplicity. I had often been at conflict with my nationality. Being a Kashmiri, I belong to a minority that can ideologically choose to pledge its loyalties to one of two nations. The first of these nations is the sovereign, socialist, democratic, Republic of India; my identity on paper. The other-and I’d finally found a rationale for it- an imagined political community based on an ethno-nationalist conception called Kashmir.
“Nationality or nationalism are cultural artifacts of a particular kind. To understand them properly we need to consider carefully how they have come into historical being, in what ways their meanings have changed over time, and why, today , they command such profound emotional legitimacy.”
I write this piece to examine the sentiment behind the feeling of nationalism that is so inherent, in every Kashmiri. I will try to sketch, taking two instances from popular culture, how an ordinary Kashmiri individual asserts his defiance against the state of India.  One must be careful while defining an ordinary Kashmiri and my subset here, is the average Kashmiri Muslim. I have taken the liberty to exclude significant chunks of Sikh, Pandit and Christian population and taken into account only the majority.
The concept of a nation state of Kashmir can be put into context with Anderson’s definition of an imagined community,
“It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members meet them or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.”
Kashmir has always been a conflicted territory and so I will try to briefly sum up the history of the conflict.  As a princely state with majority Muslim population and geographic accessibility to both India and Pakistan, the Maharaja was to ideally accede to Pakistan. After much delay and an infiltration by guerellias from the NWFP, the Maharaja acceded to India for protection. The accession was accepted with the promise of a plebiscite, which 66 years hence, is much awaited. Today, a half of what we remember sketching out as Jammu and Kashmir on India’s political map is actually occupied by India.  

To pacify the conflict, a certain degree of political autonomy under the Indian state was awarded to Jammu and Kashmir. Few know that as a special state, till 1965 Kashmir had its own Prime Minister. Article 370 gives the state not only a separate constitution but also prevents non-Kashmiri’s from buying land in Kashmir. A political identity is thus well defined in the minds of Kashmiri’s. It stems both from a sense of dispute in the ownership of the land and India’s need for pacifying it through a certain degree of exclusivist political autonomy.
A defined political identity, a strong alienation from their perception of the state of India on the basis of ethnicity and a strong resentment that stems from the feeling of being an ‘occupied’ territory gives rise to the sentiment of nationalism. Kashmiri’s have never identified on an ethnic basis with India or Indians. Regular human rights violations and the draconian law of AFSPA have further strengthened the sense of a repressed communion. Kashmiris still think that the rightful claim to the land was that of Pakistan. In light of the practical failure of the state of Pakistan, its gradual descent into anarchy has changed quite a few minds. What will never change is the resentment towards India.  Kashmiris now believe in an ethno-nationalistic conception of a nation and they assert it in tiny, almost subliminal ways.
The state language of Kashmir is Urdu. What people speak in Kashmir, like anywhere else in India, is essentially a mixture of Hindi and Urdu. While Ghalib called it Rekhta, it is now popularly known as Hindustani. The insistence to define it as Urdu and not Hindi like the rest of the country asserts yet another aspect of identity. Kashmir is the only state with Urdu as its official language; the only state with a non native language as its official one.
Urdu has little place in Kashmiri culture outside the religious context. As an ethnicity we ought to speak Kashmiri. Yet under Indian accession this language, is how we state our individuality. Over the years with its slow demise, Urdu has reduced to an identity symbol for Indian Muslims. If you happen to be lucky enough to know it, you would be amongst the few who can actually follow the plot in Dastangoi or a few plays in Delhi.
It is not incidental that Urdu, which happens to be the state language of Pakistan, is yet another medium of identification with the nation state of Pakistan. Kashmiri’s, through their music, television and now the internet, culturally identify more with Pakistan than they do with India. This, again, is a strong assertion of identity.
Kashmiris seek to disconnect linguistically and their assertion is stronger than that of a Manipuri who speaks a different language. An ordinary Kashmiri speaks the same Hindustani any Indian does, but as opposed to them he chooses to call it Urdu over Hindi.
This is not the only form of passive, subconscious defiance. Cricket has always been a passion in the subcontinent; the economy halts when India and Pakistan play. In Kashmir, the streets are deserted, shops shut and the economy stunted temporarily because fates are being decided by Gods chosen representatives running around on a grassy pitch.
 For an average, apolitical person, the only way he can display his patriotism is through sports and in India cricket is the national binding religion. Few in Kashmir support the Indian cricket team everyone else in the nation cheers for. In the early 90’s most supported Pakistan; quite a few still do. The majority however, have one simple rule. They will support whoever plays against India. The West Indies team gathers Kashmiri support in a match against India; a country whose islands most of them would not be able to spot given a map. As the frequent local notebooks with Imran Khan plastered over the cover all my childhood reminded me, life was different from the ideals of the national anthem I was taught in school. Kashmiris resent India and they defy it through whatever little symbolic actions they can.

Anderson says,
 “Every successful revolution has defined itself in a national terms and in so doing has grounded itself firmly in a territorial and social space inherited from the prerevolutionary past.”
The revolution that every stone-pelter in Kashmir seeks gets real when you strive towards an ideal; the ideal being a nation state of Kashmir. As Anderson says, ‘people kill and die for these limited imaginations’ and we see it hold true every day. A ‘deep horizontal comradeship’ going beyond limitations of age, class and caste is created and it is the only reason why everyone from little school going boys to PhD. candidates come out and protest.
Jammu and Kashmir Board of School Education decides the curriculum of the best, most prestigious schools in the valley post Class 8. When I reached that stage, I was excited that it included curriculum specific to the state. Sadly, the information never went beyond the types of soil or names of districts in Kashmir. There was never a word on history. The history you learn is in your homes or off the streets.

I often joke about the Republic of Kashmir with friends of mine but if I were to seek absolute solidarity with the concept I would know that it is this ideal which the streets seek through their cries; it is in the light of this ideal that the streets still resonate with the ubiquitous, hum kya chahte, aazaadi.