‘Who can free a captive bird mourning in his cage?
You must bring your own Freedom, O, Gardner.’
Ghulam Ahmad Mehjoor
“I’ll be back early tomorrow, you don’t need to worry about me,” Syeda tried to sound reassuring. “He will protect us”, she said to Tariq, as she packed the oily turmeric rice in a large steel lunch carrier. She placed the container in an empty plastic cement bag, hoisted it on her head and took Mishaal’s hand in hers. The faithful were reciting their durood in the mosque after Fajr prayers. The golden thread of dawn had just emerged in the skies, and she embarked on this perilous journey to Srinagar.
While the world isolates itself with the fear of the corona virus spreading its virulence across the Earth and bringing the human race to a dystopian pause, the Karachi Literary Festival limped into existence with sessions on issues like Kashmir and Jihad.
While reports have it that there are 189 cases of COVID-19 now in Pakistan, at the start the cases had obviously not surfaced. Here is what a report on the festival which commenced from February 28th to March 1, 2020, said: “While the country at large has been fortunate enough not to get affected by the dreaded coronavirus (so far, that is), the 11th edition of the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF), held from Feb 28 to March 1, 2020, was not as lucky. The threat did bite it (ouch!), bringing the number of visitors considerably and visibly down, even though there were enough at various points in time for the organisers to justifiably call it a success.”
His books transport one to a past — a time where under the green creepers on a softly moving river, a boat sails and take one into a unique world of what has been. You discover how much the world has changed and how Singapore has evolved, you meet people who intrigue and bring to the fore the roots that created the little red dot. And yet some of his books look forward to a future – a world of harmony where technology and spiritual peace co-exist… Meet the author, winner of numerous awards and a voice to be reckoned with — Isa Kamari.
Isa Kamari was born in 1960 and lives in Singapore with his wife and two children. He is currently Deputy Director in the Architecture Division with the Land Transport Authority of Singapore, leading a team that manages the design and construction of transport infrastructures. While his profession is an architect, his passion lies in writing, though his architectural background has also found a way into some of his novels.
In all, he has written 9 novels, 3 collections of poetry, a collection of short stories, a book of essays on Singapore Malay poetry, a collection of theatre scripts and lyrics of 2 song albums — all in Malay. His novels have been translated into English, Turkish, Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Indonesian and Mandarin. His collections of essays and selected poems have been translated into English. His first novel in English, Tweet was published in 2016. Isa was conferred the Southeast Asia Write Award from Thailand in 2006, the Singapore Cultural Medallion in 2007, the Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang from the Singapore Malay Language Council in 2009, and the Mastera Literary Award from Brunei Darussalam in 2018.
In this exclusive, he talks about his book Kiswah, whose translated version is being launched on 8thNovember in the Singapore Writer’s Festival; the dramatisation of his novel, 1819 and much more…
You will soon be launching Kiswah. It shuttles between various locales. Can you tell us the intent of this book? What led you to write it?
Isa: In the late 1990s, I was disturbed by the rampant spread of pornographic materials in in Singapore. Vendors openly sold X-rated VCDs near MRT stations, bus interchanges and bazaars illegally. There were also reports in the newspapers about the addiction to pornography amongst professionals and the young. At the same time, I knew from my wife, who was doing voluntary service at a welfare home, that there were many family breakups arising from sexual abuses. All these compelled me to ponder on the topic of manifestation of sexual life in relation to spirituality or the lack of it. The various locales — like Delhi, Agra, Kashmir, Kathmandu and finally Mecca — becomes the background for me to explore, confront, interrogate and somewhat find a resolution on the topic.
Finally, the time had come for the vidai (farewell). It was time for Rasiya to leave her home of twenty years and to head to a new one where everything would be a novelty; even the smell of the earth and the rustle of the leaves. She no longer belonged to her father’s home, where she had learned to crawl, walk, read and write.
Rasiya heard someone calling out to the women in the house, asking them to bring the bride out. She saw Abdul, who had become her husband about a couple of hours back patiently waiting for her at the threshold. All the women in the family came and hugged her one after another. Every time the heavy bosomed aunts squeezed her tiny body, the sequins on her lehenga (a voluminous skirt, often a part of bridal gear) pricked her soft skin. The pink and orange lehenga was so special to her since it was bought by her brother, especially from Delhi.
She was taken out by a crowd of women. She looked for her mother among the sea of unfamiliar faces. Finally, she spotted her mother, her Ammi, standing behind someone, as if she was not a part of this ceremony. Her eyes were welled up with tears and Rasiya rushed towards her. Ammi hugged her and kissed her forehead, and both of them broke into tears. Someone said, they ought to leave before midnight.
Her sister-in- law took her hand and led her towards the waiting groom. Her brother and father stood next to the groom and his party. Though her father was smiling, she noticed the shine of tears in his eyes. Yes, he was upset about his little girl leaving them. But at the same time it eased him to know that she was leaving for good. She was going to be safe in her new home where she would no longer have to wake up to the sound of firing or have soldiers banging the front door in the middle of the night. She would no longer need anyone to accompany her when she stepped out of the house, even if it was to the adjacent street.
The groom, who was no longer the groom but her husband, had a family restaurant in a town away from the border. The restaurant was founded by his grandfather back in the 30’s as a tiny tea-shop. Years later, as the town started to get filled with tourists, his father grew it and now it was one of the most sought-after eateries in town. Abdul lived with his parents in their family house, a mere stone’s throw from their restaurant. And now, Rasiya would live the rest of her life in that home, helping her husband with his business and her mother-in-law in running the house.
About: In this debut collection focusing on Indian immigrants in the United States, characters deal with conflict, growth, dislocation, and renewal in a new world. But their old world is present as well, and this “in-betweenness” shapes their lives. Once immigration involved leaving all behind, assuming a new identity with your new culture. Now we move back and forth — between continents, cities, our different mores no longer tidily compartmentalised, sometimes more migrant than immigrant. Straddling two worlds, the characters in this book are acute observers—and diffident interpreters—of a much larger world that will never feel fully familiar again.
What are writers and artistes tweeting about the situation in Jammu and Kashmir? What is their attitude to the people in this region?
Rahul Pandita, author and conflict writer from Kashmir, tweeted that “In all, a majority of Kashmiris have no idea what abrogation of article 370 means. Argue with them for a minute and one realises they are totally ignorant. All they know is ‘India will now take away everything.’ From our sources we know NSA(National Security Agency) is aware of it. Big challenge.”
Mirza Waheed, Kashmiri writer and novelist who now lives in London, wrote, “August 11, 2019. Day 7 of Seige of Kashmir. We are not allowed to say Eid Mubarak to our families.” But is it a seige or an attempt to integrate the state into the country?
Vikram Chandra, a commonwealth prize winning American Indian novelist, wrote, “In his Aug 8 speech, PM Narendra Modi did say it was for every Indian to share the concerns of the citizens of J&K. Best way to do that today is to reach out to Kashmiris in other parts of India, spending Eid away from home. Make them feel that they ARE at home.”
Actress Shabana Azmi tweeted “Kashmiri Pandit Youth invite every Kashmiri who has been unable to travel home for Eid for a get together…”
Novelist and essayist Chetan Bhagat has taken a stand where he says, “August 5, 2019. Kashmir is finally free. Free to grow, free to make a future. #Article 370 goes. #OneCountryOneSystem.” And also, “Article 370 never gave Kashmiris freedom. It only created selfish leaders who created a terror filled society and robbed Kashmiri youth of opportunity. It is finally time for it to go. Anyone objects, tell them loudly: One Country, One System.”
Title: Green is the Colour of Memory Author: Huzaifa Pandit Publisher: Hawakal Publishers (2018) Pages: 64 (Paperback)
In a class on Mahmoud Darwish, we are reading aloud “Promises of a Storm” – a moment where the poet’s eyes search for flowers blooming beneath the ashes – ‘I will go on serenading happiness/ somewhere beyond the eyelids of frightened eyes.’
After class, I reach out for a borrowed copy of Huzaifa Pandit’s book of poems, looking for poetry as real as Darwish’s, and read the first poem, “A Kashmiri Fairytale”, pulled out as though from the same song of longing for happiness that Darwish sees in the future.
‘Green green grass will dance in the drowsy sun/ of warm, warm May/ we will quarrel and quibble night and day…’ writes Huzaifa in the poem which opens his debut collection, Green is the Colour of Memory. Consisting of 36 poems, this book stands out not just in the truth it aims to convey but in how it brings it to us through narratives that we don’t quite get to hear or read microscopically in newspapers or news channels that have promised a responsibility of recording history and have failed repeatedly. Little pieces of history are recorded in Huzaifa’s poems.
Huzaifa Pandit comes from Kashmir and writes poetry that deals with the everyday realities of those living in Kashmir, as well as what it is like to carry that identity into spaces like local train journeys, to having brief encounters with people outside Kashmir, to academic spaces, and it is themes such as these that appear most prominently in this collection as well.
Camus had once written, ‘Art cannot be a monologue,’ asserting that an artist cannot create in isolation and must speak of the ‘reality common to us all.’ Huzaifa’s work emerges as an excellent example then of this art, in the form of poetry that creates a tiny corner and opens its arms wide for a dialogue to begin; not only does he offer us a counter-narrative, he also engages with the reader through the sharpness of his language—sometimes you hear it from close quarters and sometimes it is a distant whisper making space for you to step in. Reciprocating then, it is in reading his poems slowly, that we’re in sync with their breathing, and it is in their breathing that we find our own lives momentarily paused. Yet there is transcendence, yet we are being transformed.
When the book opens, we find the poet addressing a denied harmony — a quarrel which is softened by love, a moment so far away, one may only see it in a fairytale. What does one do then? What does one do? It is perhaps in search of an answer to this question, that the poet begins many poems in the collection with dreams and returns to nightmarish encounters, or eventualities.
In April 1993, the same month Prime Minister Sharif promised Prime Minister Rao that Yakub Memon would be extradited to India, the valley was rocked by a JKLF occupation of Hazratbal, a delicately beautiful Shia shrine built in white marble, rising from the banks that separate the majestic Dal and dreamy Nigeen Lakes. Hazratbal was the most popular shrine in Kashmir, a place that Sunnis also worshipped at and that Sheikh Abdullah had made a centre of his political mobilization. The JKLF controlled the streets and outlying areas of the Hazratbal area and had gradually moved to occupy the shrine and adjoining buildings in the Hazratbal complex. The Indian Army cordoned off the mosque and, after negotiations led by Rajesh Pilot, then minister of state for Home Affairs, the guerrillas accepted safe passage in return for vacating Hazratbal.
The Indian Army protested the offer of safe passage. A siege of the mosque, they argued, would force the guerrillas to surrender and be arrested. But the Rao administration, through Pilot, was committed to restart backchannel talks with the JKLF that started under Governor Saxena and continued under his successor. Rao had just taken office when the April occupation took place. On the JKLF side, Hamid Sheikh, who was imprisoned with Yasin Malik, was principal messenger in the backchannel. Released in 1992 in the hope that he would persuade the JKLF to enter a peace process, he ended up rejoining one of its militias and was shot by the BSF in November, along with a group of guerrillas who were trying to cross the Jhelum to flee across the Line of Control. The Hizbul Mujahideen, security sources added, set up death squads after Sheikh’s release to ensure peace negotiations would fail. In April 1993, the Hizbul guerrilla Zulqarnain murdered Abdul Ahad Guru, a doctor and JKLF mentor, who negotiated the releases of Congress leader Saifuddin Soz’s daughter, Naheed, and Indian Oil executive director, K. Doraiswamy, in 1991. Though it was a Hizbul guerrilla who killed Guru, the police colluded in his killing, according to Habibullah. Guru presented ‘a reasonable face of separatism’ and was widely respected, so he was a counter-insurgency target. Zulqarnain was killed in a security operation soon after. Frustration in the security forces grew in the months to follow. In Sopore, the aftermath of the market firing saw growing support for insurgency. Reports of guerrillas massing in the town began to flow from May 1993, but the state and union governments did not react. ‘Intelligence and others urged decisive and early action’, wrote Arun Shourie, editor of the Indian Express. ‘Nothing was done. By September, about 600 [of the guerrillas] were reported not only to be there, they were reported to have entrenched themselves in bunkers dug out in some houses at various points in the town. Minimal action in May–June would have seen the end of them. By September, a Blue Star-type operation alone would have sufficed. And intelligence was warning that if that sort of action was not launched immediately, and the snow were allowed to set in, the mercenaries would get another four to five months to fortify their presence. What sort of an operation would be necessary then?’
Publisher: Leaky Book (2017)
Tikuli knows her mountains well. Not only their physical scale and magnitude, but also the silence and solitude they subsume. Like mountains, she knows how to stand tall amid loneliness and rocky treacherousness. And like them, she has harnessed this solitude to distill it into something beauteous.
If solitude is nature’s essential condition, loneliness, its second cousin, is a function of being human. As Wayfaring shows, we don’t always choose loneliness; sometimes it chooses us. When it does, it’s seldom romantic and more like one’s own shadow, impossible to disown. This is Tikuli’s relationship with the pain of loneliness. Her words bear scarring anguish, and yet instead of exhausting the spirit, they nourish it. Such is the luminescence of her expressions; they betray a heart that’s gone through fire to turn into gold.
I listen to the silence of the trees as the leaves spiral down and dance to imaginary music along the pathway, they cling to my worn sneakers, my gaze follows two pairs of wings chasing each other in the clear, blue sky [Trail]
Where she diverges from the mountains is in her movement, voluntary or not. She and her poems drift through different terrains as the section names evince: Trains, Exile poems, Remembrance, Travel, Mosaic, Acrostics, Delhi poems. The “Train” poems set the tone of this roving spirit with quickening grace. Between the span of two poems, Mist and City Metro, the scene changes from rhododendron-flanked valleys to a shopping bag laden cityscape. Even in the movement, there is a steadiness that comes with a contemplative eye, one that pauses long enough at the view out of a train window before letting it escape. The poet’s attention is equally unwavering inside the train. The Local Train is a photographic example of this and places the reader inside the packed coach of a train in motion. In Rain, a short poem, train and rain magically become one.