Poets can’t remain aloof from politics, but they shouldn’t become its victims either: Rehman Rahi

Rehman Rahi / Vecharnag April 2017 / Photo by Irfan Mehraj

To begin to understand Rehman Rahi’s 'silence' is to address the question of the poet’s role in contemporary charged political times. On a warm Sunday afternoon in April at Rahi’s residential house in Vecharnag, Srinagar, the ninety-two year poet old launches himself into an energetic tirade against the accusations made by the larger society for his so-called silence on the atrocities committed against Kashmir people. Rahi doesn’t agree with the accusation, gets up from his chair and brings out his pile of books, culls out poems and verses which particularly speak about the political climes of this region and sends out a sharp rebuttal out to the world. ‘It’s not in the poet’s domain to become a politician,” he argues “but the political, which is like the air we breathe, has to be conveyed with one’s craft in such a manner so that you can enact the death of a boy on the street and the reader (the ruler) must feel they are reading about their own death”.  The interview with Rahi  - a shorter edited version of which appeared in Kashmir INK - addresses his perceived silence, or the lack thereof and the role he sees for the poet in these politically vicious times.

Wande Magazine: How does it feel being Kashmir’s greatest living poet?

Rehman Rahi: To say this myself would not be appropriate. Whatever people may think of me, I respect it. I have only ever attempted something feeble and small. It was God’s gift to me, the poetry. All my life, I have campaigned for the Kashmiri language. So when people recognise my work, it obviously makes me happy. I ask myself, ‘is this really true?’ Those who have said this about me are well known literary figures, so one feels they must be speaking the truth (laughs). 

My single-minded effort has been to raise the standard of the Kashmiri language so that it achieves a status on par with the great languages of the world in which literature is written; to bring it to the notice of world’s great writers so that they know what’s happening with this language. 

God blessed me, and verses and poems came to me that people appreciate. If people didn’t appreciate my poetry, they wouldn’t have translated it. A lot of my poetry has been translated and it has gotten me recognition. When I meet people in the city and in villages who respect me and my work, I feel I must have done something good (smiles). 

WM: Are you disappointed that Kashmiris don’t sufficiently value their poets? As a poet, what do you desire from your community?

RR: I want readers for Kashmiri poetry. I write poetry and it gets published but then someone should read it. There should be readers of Kashmiri poetry. Only after reading it can someone make the opinion whether it is good poetry or bad. Whether the poet is writing in the old traditional way or the modern – or whether the poet is representing his people and society in his poetry, this can only be known and understand once someone reads it.

I feel very sad that there not many readers of Kashmiri language. It’s terribly sad. Earlier, there didn’t used be lot of books published in Kashmiri, till even Mehjoor’s time. In his time, sixteen page poetry pamphlets used to be published; not books, not collection of poems. Today, almost every day there is a new collection of poetry and it’s done in a very professional manner. Today almost every month, new collections of Kashmiri poetry are published, but there are very few readers. Those who purchase books are different, serious readers are different. Even if you lend someone a book, it’s not expected that she would read it. The one main reason for this is that the new generation of Kashmiris, those in school, colleges and universities (these are the future readers) don’t have much of an inclination towards Kashmiri language. They have not been taught and trained in this language. It’s not really their fault. There is no such culture at their homes, or at schools or in neighbourhood. In a way, Kashmiri  language and those who speak it are looked down upon. People feel proud to speak in Urdu and other languages even if they don't speak those well. I feel really sad; our recognition, the recognition of Kashmiri language should have been coming from these young people.

If there are no readers for Kashmiri poetry, what is the fun of writing poetry? Although there are a small minority of people among these, even youngsters who show lot of interest in Kashmiri poetry, their number is very small but looking at them one is happy. There is hope that may be in future the number of these people would increase.

A modest movement for Kashmiri language is underway for which some organizations like Adbi Markaz Kamraz are specially working. There are many others who are working towards this end. If they succeed in their efforts, more people may find interest to Kashmiri language.

WM: Why aren’t major and influential poets like you participate in Kashmir’s intellectual and political discourse?

RR: Kashmir has no real tradition of what you call political poetry. There are bits and pieces of political poetry in Sheikh ul Alam’s work which speak about the times he lived in. Majorly, it is Sufi poetry which has dominated the Kashmiri literary landscape. Sufi poetry is metaphysical, it doesn’t have much to do with the affairs of this world. This is one main reason why poets haven’t been part of the political discourse.

However it is not entirely true that we don’t participate at all. Recently there was political rally I participated in. It’s not necessary to mention where. A leader had complained poets aren't part of the political discourse? I read a nazm there. They were surprised to hear the nazm in which I had talked about the Azadi tehreek of Kashmir at length. The nazm is called Khak e Karbala.  

Today and especially since 1947 on wards, many poets in Kashmir have written about the contemporary times they were living in; their political and social realities. A lot has been written. I also have written at length. Now when people don’t read, what can I do about it? It then seems we haven’t written anything.

Poets don’t participate in protest demonstrations and rallies. But whenever we felt it was necessary to participate, we did it without hesitation - especially for the Kashmiri language for which we have given dharnas for week’s altogether in Pratap Park. Men and women participated in that dharna and we sat there for a week. The result was that Kashmiri language was introduced in primary classes.

We have also agitated in our own capacity and vision. In fact, in present time’s lot of political poetry rather resistance poetry is being written.

We also have to look at the peculiarities of different eras in Kashmir. Mehjoor and Azad were political poets and Dina Nath Nadim was in and out a political poet. In contemporary times, we have Zareef Ahmad Zareef whose entire poetry is political and there are many others like Amin Kamil who have written at length on the politics of this place, especially after 1947 which we now call resistance poetry. I have also tried my hand at resistance poetry. But as I said, there is only one handicap and that is that there are very readers available. If there are readers of Kashmiri then this language will survive. If there are no readers, it will die. It is said, that every day in the world there are languages which die as there are no speakers. If the same happens with Kashmir, then what is Rehman Rahi, Dina Nath Nadim or Mehjoor? 

Mehjoor and Azad are among the first poets who have represented Kashmir’s political reality in their poems. Mehjoor showed Kashmiri people our history. He showed that we are not a small people, that we have a rich history behind us; our cultural and political past. He offered Kashmiris their history and invoked us to rise. After 1947, there has been a concerted effort to elevate Kashmiri language through the inclusion of other genres of literature, which weren’t written in Kashmiri language before like short stories, essays, novels and literary criticism.

There has also been a change because of the changing social and political times we are living in. In the past, if you would have asked Sheikh ul Alam or Shams Faqir to write or comment on political times, they wouldn’t have been able to do it. There was no such culture in those times. They used to speak or write of an otherworldly metaphysical world.

The present times are different. The present times are very political in nature. We live in a very political world.

WM: Are you worried about the future of the Kashmiri language and poetry?

RR: I am worried but not sad because new writers are being born in Kashmir and we have a handful of serious passionate readers who read Kashmiri literature who also then comment and write about it. Many books have appeared critiquing and appreciating the work of poets like me. These bunch of people have realized that writing in Kashmiri is a serious affair and should be taken seriously unlike our children in schools and colleges who pay no attention and consider Kashmiri literature not worthy of their interest and attention.

If only Kashmiri people would realize how rich our language is, we will work for it day and night. Kashmiri language has great potential. Personally, I have never been disappointed by Kashmiri language; it’s not a restrictive language. At times while writing poetry, there would be challenges such as there was no word available in Persian, Sanskrit, Urdu or even Kashmiri but such is the nature of our Kashmir language that I could I make new words, which were later accepted and appreciated.

If Kashmiri nation has to truly survive, it will only survive through Kashmiri language. Otherwise Kashmiri nation will be a soulless nation.

WM: Is there anyone among the younger crop of Kashmiri poets who you think holds promise? 

RR: There are many. They aren’t young poets, but they are my younger contemporaries. Rafiq Raaz is an excellent poet. There are limitations with his oeuvre, of course, but he is a genuine poet who will contribute a great deal to Kashmiri literature. There is Shafi Shauq, who has been a professor at the University of Kashmir. Shad Ramzan is another fine poet. Shahnaz Rashid is another promising poet. 

I have, in fact, written a verse about Rafiq Raaz in one of my books.  

Rafiq Raaz chu muchraan tilismii khanan barr 

Sarood khan chiss sormi nazar ti khamosh hi

There are limitations to his poetry because he got too concerned about the technicalities of it. He, thus, restricted himself. 

Shahnaz Rashid writes both ghazals and nazms. He didn’t write nazms but I pushed him a bit and he wrote some brilliant nazms. Ghulam Rasool Josh from Charar-e-Sharief is another excellent poet.

There are excellent poetesses as well. Ruksana Jabeen writes in both Kashmiri and Urdu while Naseem Shafaie writes in Kashmiri alone. Shafaie has received an award from the Sahitya Academy.  

Kashmiris have produced great poetry because they have faced oppression. Sufi poetry, in fact, was a response to the deplorable conditions of our people. Today, though, there are few genuine Sufi poets in Kashmir. 

WM: How do you see the rise of Narendra Modi in India and now Yogi Adityanath? What does it portend for Kashmir?

RR: There is always reason to worry when men of narrow thought come to power. They might think they are right in themselves, but they are not. Take Modi, he is a Hindutva man and he might think Hindutva is a great philosophy. To an extent that is fine if he or other Indians feel Hindutva gives them some historical identity, they have some sort of past to live up to. But it becomes problematic when it adopts a narrow-vision of politics. If we don’t accept the narrow politics of some Muslim leaders who believe that Muslims are the only great community, how can I accept Hindutva?  

Another problem with the current polity is the specter of party politics, the notion that one's party should win by hook or crook. In my younger days, the youth used to look up to the political parties as philosophical bastions; they were attracted to them mainly because the parties had some philosophical ideas to offer. I, for one, was attracted to the communist ideology and became a member of the Communist Party in Kashmir. I really thought they had something new to offer, some new idea. I was disillusioned later and today I can’t call myself a follower of Marx. But back then, it did seem that Marx was saying something that no one before had articulated.   

With the coming to power of these people, if the Kashmiri identity is attacked, I will oppose it. It should be opposed by everybody. The Kashmiri identity has some peculiar characteristics which should be protected.   

We often hear of the killings in Kashmir, that someone was shot on the roadside or someone was shot while buying essentials. We also hear of men entering homes and killing people. I just remembered a verse. There is a word in this couplet, “mogjaar”, which means freedom. 

Parwardigar’e saane ti mogjaar mekh karam 

Kath poshe waare baaghe barikh boale badle bamm 

Wech aasi daare lyie, ti pellet gun aechen pharrem

Shah taan kruuth pyom pepper krath seene dam 

Almighty, show mercy, guide us to the path of freedom

Every word of this flower garden they barter with a bomb

If a window opens the breadth of an eyelid, a pellet gun robs the eye of light

Pepper guns make the air bitter, metonymy, a lung pogrom

This was written during last year’s uprising, on 28 September. I saw a picture of a young girl who had been blinded and it moved me, made me cry. There is tremendous oppression here and we must raise our voice against it. As a poet, this is my protest against it. I can’t do anything else. 

WM: Did you ever think of returning your award when artists across India were doing so to protest curbs on artistic and intellectual freedom? If not, why?

RR: Had I been given any awards by the government, I would have returned them. But the awards I have received are from literary organisations like Sahitya Academy, Jnanpith or Kabeer Samaan. These are not awards from politicians. The awards I have received were in recognition of Kashmiri language. Why should I return them? 

When I got the Jnanpith, journalists asked me how I felt. I told them frankly that with this award, the Kashmiri language has moved forward. Whether I, as a poet, have moved forward or not, the Kashmiri language definitely has. This was recognition of Kashmiri language. Why should I reject it? How can I reject it? 

WM: Kashmir witnessed a bloody summer in 2016 during which nearly a hundred people were killed by government forces and hundreds lost eyesight. But there was no word from Kashmir’s greatest living poet? What was the reason for your silence?

RR: It is totally wrong to say that I have been silent. I have written many poems in protest, not just last year but also in the turbulent nineties. I have written many poems about the oppression in Kashmir and the resistance as well. Not just me, many poets have been actively writing. 

I will recite a poem I wrote in 1990 and you tell me whether the accusations against me hold any truth. I once recited this poem at a political rally. I told the gathering they weren’t truly aware of what was happening, that they might be in politics but they didn’t know much. The poem is titled Khak-e-Karbala, or the dust of Karbala, which is used by the faithful to heal the wounds inflicted as part of marsiya during Moharram. I sent the poem to many prominent newspapers at that time but none published it. In my recent collection Kadla Thatis Peth (On The Pier of the Bridge), there are a few poems that expressly talk about the present political situation. It’s not my fault that people don’t read. What can I do about it? 

I will recite some lines from Khak-e-Karbala: 

Agar ni saanen chokken zabaan kanh 

Magar yi rath gassi ni raaiygan zanh 

Phezaar dyitan beshoar keatil 

Yi daage laanath yi yas ni challnai 

Yi rath mushuk saar boambran hyund 

Yi rath haya mand yemburzal’an hyund 

Yi rath talatum jawaan johdun 

Yi rath tafazul qayaam ohad’uk 

Yi rath ba faize Hussain khoda joo 

Yi rath ba fazle khoda sorakh ruu 

Yi rath chu baarav divan buuziv

Shaheed qoamuk bayaan boeziv 

Setha setha kaal annigaetis manz preyn gulami 

Lalluv bye sakh zuv zante zahar heattis manz

Setha setha kaal chaangi dod rath 

Na aayi kanh ath na draayi kanh wath 

Zamaan woth nindri aes wathav na

Cztaan chi zanjeer aes chattav na 

Bedaar ehsaas prazznatte gov 

Choppyear Azadi hyund talab pyov 

Dua mongukh aes ti gash sarrhev 

Chu kya lyeakith laani, pane parhev

Shurren muqabal sippah treavikh 

Machine gun kotran chalevikh 

Su foaj koachan ti angnan manz 

Mahali jang zan ti bazran manz 

Jawaan thod woth ti gueel siinas 

Buzargh broah poak ti prathh jabeenas 

Aennis dopukh woth kuthen muchar barr 

Kaellis dopukh raam naam sathe parr 

Saleem maerikh Salaam moarukh 

Habib moarukh Hishaam moarukh 

Hu beang balai baam moarukh 

Yi muktidu ko imam moarukh 

Yi shahar moaruk yi gaam moarukh 

Kasheere hund subah sham moarukh 

Agar ni sannen chokken zabaan kanh 

Magar yi rath gassi ni raiy ganh zanh 

Yi rath amanat chu Karbala huk 

Yi rath tas ni tehreer inqilab’uk 

Zamaan hargah pricchev haqeeqat 

Dapyus reashe maale ker bagawat 

I have recited this poem at many places, even in the presence of resistance leaders. There are five-six collections of my poetry that have poems about the present conditions, and about my fundamental concern, which is of a man in this universe. 

Let me also share some of the verses from Kadla Thatis Peth:

Moarukh ti moar keym ti matte ma chu kanh hyevaan 

Aaa yedd karaan chus bitti magar bithi ross nikaab hyoth

These verses are for a Mujahid:

Temis thippi kaane manz nazar gov nabb 

Temis thippi kaane rath chavan kota math 

Yeymi khanjar korrum paiwass jigras 

Mye teas doikhear karnavan kota math

These verses depict the mass graves in Kashmir:

Allarwin koh mallar manzar samandar 

Khatith kabran watith thavan kotamath 

Yi myen aatyel zyev pataal baavyekh 

Dillas manz chum ye dyev savan kotameth 

WM: Do you think an artist, poet or writer should be distanced from the political life of the place he belongs to? 

RR: One cannot stay aloof at all. Politics is like air, it reaches everywhere. In Kashmir, if a man goes to a baker’s and finds that the size of the bread is not what he expected, politics over it will start: ‘Yi ha kor hindustaanan (This is India’s handiwork)’ (laughs). What happens in Kashmir on a day to day basis can make an artist politically conscious. But the artist or the poet doesn’t have to become a politician. He has to remain a poet. What does being a poet mean? It shouldn’t be only translating experience into verse but to present it in such a way so that the reader sees himself/herself through that experience. 

Poets can’t remain distanced from the politics of their place but they shouldn’t become victims of the politics. It’s one thing to do poetry and another to do sloganeering. Mehjoor and Azad did some bit of sloganeering, but they wrote wonderful poetry. Mehjoor’s most popular poem Wala Ha Bagwano is more of a slogan than poetry. Azad was an avowed Marxist; he used to agitate for farmer’s rights. They were great poets, yet political. 

WM: What do you think is the role of a writer or intellectual in a place like Kashmir, where large-scale violations of human rights are the order of the day?

RR: The primary role of a writer or poet is to agitate and protest through his craft alone. His role is to move the reader, to make him feel the agony. The poet doesn’t report -- that is the journalist’s job. The journalist explains that this person was killed in these circumstances; the poet’s job is to depict the killing as if it happened in front of the reader, as if the reader himself was being killed. The living reality of a poem should move the soul of the reader. 

The craft and imagination is the key for the writers and poets. Their craft should make the written word as a living reality. The role of the poet is creation, that why it’s called takhleeq (creation) because what the poet sees and feels he translates (creates) it onto the page.

(A version of this interview was originally published in Greater Kashmir weekly magazine Kashmir Ink. www.kashmirink.in) 

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