On Dolmut

Eid congregation | Photo by author

In this reflective essay, Muhammad Tahir presents an interesting understanding of the Kashmiri expression Dolmut by examining a recent literary broil between a Kashmiri author, his followers and his critics and through personal anecdotes of the use of the word in varied situations and contexts.

Dolmut is a polysemous Kashmiri term, and it is typically used as an informal noun: a lunatic, a crazy person. It is also used for someone who is a non-conformist. Moreover, the term is often employed as an exclamatory expression, similar to telling someone admonishingly: “Idiot!” And yet, this phrase or expression has a range of other uses. For example, imagine you send a long slipshod piece of writing to your busy friend for her feedback and she opens the document and quickly skims through it. She whispers to herself, “Dolmut!” Here, the expression implicitly means: how come the sender expected that I will waste my valuable time reading such a long, tedious, and badly punctuated text. Yet, one more example: two friends calculate expenses of their recent trip. One of the friends, who is little clumsy, says the total expenses incurred on the trip were ten thousand bucks. The other friend, a smarter fellow, snaps back: “Tse ma dolmut!” reminding him that he forgot to include the hotel rent. Here the expression is a context-dependent locution, specific to close interpersonal relationships; it is analogous to: “Dude, are you crazy!”

To be frank, my interest in the term Dolmut was spurred by the controversy raked by Kashmiri author Mir Khalid’s interview in Kashmir INK (27 Nov 2017). After Khalid made rather unflattering comments about the emerging Kashmiri writers of English, whom he dismissed as “vectors for an epidemic of sloppy writing,” and called their efforts “a pathologized literary trend,” a verbal skirmish ensued. In a joint riposte to Khalid, two Kashmiri students of English literature—Towfeeq and Sahil—from Jamia Millia Islamia criticized Khalid’s blunt remarks, which as per them, betrayed an orientalist mind set. They wrote: “one must ask Khalid here if the western authors who have provided an overview of the ‘general human condition’ are the ones like Conrad, Kipling, and Eliot. One wonders why even after reading so many ‘serious’ western authors, Khalid has missed a book as important as Edward Said’s Orientalism,” (Kashmir INK: 4 Dec). However, in a rather curious case of riposte-against-the-riposte, Imtiyaz Assad, an occasional contributor to Greater Kashmir, defended Khalid’s remarks in his article published in Greater Kashmir on 15 Dec 2017. After taking down Khalid’s young critics, he rhetorically said: “Why should it get on our nerves when it is purely in our better interest and likely to act an impetus to the active breed of writers to give birth to something great and set a glorious example? We celebrate mediocrity, and make holy cows of our local authors who are yet to step out of their narrow orbits and shed their goddamn hubris.”

While not about the controversy per se, this essay was certainly inspired by it. Because what I observed in the whole episode was that one side was telling the other: “You are Dolmut, dude!” For Towfeeq and Sahil, Khalid was dolmut, because he didn’t conform to the prevailing ‘consensus’ regarding the literary merit of the emerging Kashmiri writers of English, and betrayed certain orientalist tendencies in his interview. For Imtiyaz, the young literature students, Towfeeq and Sahil, were dalmit (plural), for, as he put it, they were “glorifying the half-baked stuff.”

Let me clarify. This piece is not to pour scorn on any side, nor do I intend to assess the merits and demerits of what each side said. Rather my attempt in this short essay is to present a nuanced understanding of the expression Dolmut than its colloquial usage might suggest.

A Few Illustrative Anecdotes

On the fine morning of 3 September 2017, on Eid’s eve, I told my family that I was joining the Eid prayers at Tanchi Bagh (local name of a sports ground). Traditionally, our family performs Eid prayers either in Eid Gah or Jamia (of Pampore). Little surprised, my father, otherwise a moderately ritualistic man on religious matters, said, in an authoritative first person plural: “We are not going there, pray quietly in your own mosque.”

“Why? What is wrong praying there?” I asked him, in a light-hearted manner.

My father gave me a rather pithy, but allusive, reply: “Se’yat Yii.”

Now, Se’yat Yii is a remarkably complex phrase, and difficult to pin down to its literal meaning. In its rough translation it could mean: “You might invite divine retribution!”

I fully understand why my father would use that expression. Firstly, our family has remained closely associated with sufis and shrines. Though well-travelled, my great grandfather was a little whimsical man—his only picture shows him sitting cross-legged on a lawn chair, lost in thoughts over a hookah. Around his middle age he had started religiously following a godman called Ahad Bab, who, for some time, also lived in our home. My great grandfather was a devoted disciple and did what all good disciples do, which naturally endeared him to Ahad Bab. Their association didn’t break even after death; they are buried near each other: Ahad Bab is buried under a modest Pagoda-style stone-and-wood tomb, and my great grandfather just near the tomb’s entrance. My father was the favourite kid of my great grandfather; and from very early age, he was introduced to the mystical world of Sufism by him. I remember, during the mid-1990’s, when people would dread walking through Frestabal, the bastion of notorious state-backed militia leader Papa Kisthwari, my father took me, a shy and gauche ten-year-old kid, with him to attend a Sufiana mehfil (Sufi recital) at his sister’s home in that neighbourhood; it was evening time and we briskly, and gingerly, crossed Papa Kishtwari’s guarded residence. Father loves Sufiana music, and, like his siblings, he is also a shrine goer. So, when he said Se’yat Yii, he meant he didn’t want me to stray from the tradition.

Secondly, from the last decade or so Tanchi Bagh (the sports ground) has emerged as an alternate site where Eid prayers are organised by Jamiat e Ahl-e-Hadeeth, a religious organisation relatively new to our town, and whose negative image has been contrived by its rivals which has stuck in the minds of old school people like my father. The organization is viewed as anti-saints and anti-shrines; and its adherents are pejoratively termed as “Badd Ateqaed” (badd: bad; ateqaed: faithful).

However, despite my father’s half-hearted advisory, I went to Tanchi Bagh. I was perhaps the first person from our family to break the long tradition and pray in Ahl-e-Hadeeth Eid congregation; probably, I was the first person from our neighbourhood lane to do so. But my decision to join Tanchi Bagh Eid gathering was simply guided by my curiosity to see how different it would be. After praying on a fresh blue tarpaulin, spread on the gentle turf of the sprawling ground, I went to meet a friend Sartaj, who also comes from a traditionally Barelvi leaning family. At the cusp of his adult life, however, this friend had embraced the Ahl-e-Hadeeth school of thought. Of course, his family was not pleased with this ‘conversion’, but they soon got used to his views and practices, and whenever he tried to assert his opinions, they waved them aside with a good laugh. Though, his cousins and other relatives taunted him and told him half-jokingly: “Tse chukh koett’i baneomut,” (You have become a koett’i; the term koett’i is a pejorative metonym used by some people for a person of Ahl-e-Hadees school of thought).

If their views regarding Sartaj’s conversion—from a traditionally Barelvi to Ahl-e-Hadeeth—were mildly disapproving, there were others who had a rather harsh opinion of people like him. I had a chance to have a long conversation with such a person. One of my neighbourhood acquaintances, Jamshid, a man in his mid-thirties (who also has deep interest in English literature), terms people like Sartaj as ‘Dolmut.’ For Jamshid, not only people associated with Ahl-e-Hadeeth but even the adherents of Jamaat-e-Islami are actually “Watti Dalmit.

Here, the expression Dolmut assumes double meaning: lunatic (a noun) and strayed (an adverb). It is in this double sense that the expression “Waati Dalmit” can be understood in relation to Sartaj’s ‘conversion’ and the adherents of the school of thought he follows. Watti means from the path and Dalmit (plural noun/adverb) means having strayed.

In such seemingly banal situations Dolmut is not simply an innocuous colloquial phrase shorn of any underlying political or ideological meaning. Rather Dolmut has definite characteristics of what Steven Poole calls Unspeak. As Poole (2006:3) explains, “It represents an attempt to say something without saying it, without getting into an argument and so having to justify itself. At the same time, it tries to… [erase or silence] any possible opposing point of view, by laying a claim right at the start to only one way of looking at a problem.” Thus, within itself the expression Dolmut (or Dalmit) carries an ideological violence by accomplishing naturalization of one ideology and demonization of other. That which has strayed from the path has strayed from which path? Of course, the mainstream path. And, mainstream path does not need to be explicitly spelled out, as it is already assumed which school of thought is the mainstream. Since it has a taken-for-granted status, it is the prevailing ideology, or what Gramsci calls hegemony.  

However, since you being Dolmut means you have strayed from the path, you still have a chance to salvage your position to get back into the mainstream fold. This also means that by joining the other school of thought, Dolmut is but a naïve and immature person, if not one who is bereft of faith. Though, interestingly, when I broke the news to Jamshid’s uncle that I had Eid prayers at Tanchi Bagh, he responded with a sardonic smile and said, “Near’ kalmi par naiyee masjid manz!” (trans: go and declare kalima anew in the mosque)—when he said mosque he gestured to a nearby Hanafi mosque.      

While the expression Dolmut is employed in a range of situations with varied illocutionary force, I have heard it more dramatically used by a journalist friend from Srinagar. He often uses the expression to sneer at his political opponents. But, characteristically, to augment its smirking effect, he adds a slang to it: “Hah’r”. Thus, his way of denouncing, say Minister Drabu’s latest statement or irritating news anchor Arnob Goswami’s ranting, would be “Dolmut Hah’r” (this bastard has gone crazy!).       

For the prosecution, and the society at large, Meursault, the protagonist of Albert Camus’s novel The Outsider, was Dolmut because he showed no remorse on the death of his mother. The right (or appropriate) thing was to say I felt sad, devastated on her death. But for him, his mother’s death was more of an annoyance, or so it seemed to him when he faced the reality of her death. That he didn’t feel sad or devastated was one thing, but it was socially blasphemous to declare so. And it is here, in this specific situation, that he was accused of being Dolmut. Because he had strayed from the path of social codes. In the foreword to the novel, Camus writes, “Lying is not only what isn’t true. It is also, in fact especially, saying more than is true and, in the case of the human heart, saying more than one feels.” Paradoxically, for being true to his feelings and expressing their state in an unadulterated manner, Meursault received reprobation from the society.

What endows the word Dolmut with its certain illocutionary power is that it is essentially a metaphorical expression. For Aristotle, metaphor is a decorative linguistic device which serves a purpose in rhetorical discourses: to persuade. But Nietzsche takes a different line, and sees metaphorical expression as fundamental human impulse. “To be truthful,” says Nietzsche, “is to employ customary metaphors…this is the duty to lie according to a fixed convention, to lie with the herd and in a manner binding upon everyone.” A rational being, thus, is the one who behaves and acts as per the conventions of society and its definition of literal truth of things; one acts rationally when one acts as per the conventional metaphors. Even if Meursault had lied to himself and publicly said in the court that he felt sad or devastated on his mother’s death, he would have been ‘truthful’, because, as Nietzsche says, “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions.” His untrue statement—untrue because he didn’t feel it inside—would have been, though, manifestation of his being rational, because only by playing by the (metaphorical) conventions of the society, by expressing the ‘truth’ that society wants to hear, one is considered rational. Acting otherwise threatens the self-image of the society, and the social order itself. But, by forgetting that he was supposed to forget his truer feelings and only express the ‘truth’, Meursault strayed from the conventional path and became Dolmut, an outsider. ♦

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