In his book ‘Of Gardens and Graves: Essays on Kashmir | Poems in Translation’, Suvir Kaul introduces us to the narratives of pain, suffering as well as the struggle of Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Hindus (Pandits) in the valley during and post 1990s. It is a collection of essays written by him, photographs by Javed Dar and poems by Hindus and Muslims from the valley, witness to the violent circumstances that marred their lives after the outbreak of armed militancy in 1989 and Indian state’s militarized response to it.
Kaul has collated his essays written at periodic intervals in response to the ground situation in Kashmir with an aim to frame it in a historical context covering the turn of events between 1989 and 2014. He offers a historical analysis of the making of modern nation-states in the moment of European colonialism to present insights into the formation and practices of a post-colonial nation-state like India.
Through chapter 1 and 2, Kaul throws light on the circumstances in the 1990s in which Kashmir spiralled into a vortex of violence. He does this by weaving together the social, political, and electoral history of Kashmir with the innumerable stories of experiences of harassment, exclusion, humiliation and violent oppression faced by Kashmiris. He documents his conversations with his friends and relatives to convey how acutely he felt their loss of trust in India, which manifested in the youth in the valley enthusiastically participating in protests against the atrocities of the Indian state in 2008 and 2010. At the same time, he gives us an account of the complicated history of the territorial dispute between India and Pakistan – partition legacies, strained circumstances in which Kashmir acceded to India and the way the colonial history shaped postcolonial governance of Kashmir by the Indian state.
Critiquing the existing literature, Kaul argues that the accounts of academics and journalists are often written in the language of international relations, political science or public policy, which conceals the texture of people’s lives and experiences, central to their political feelings and aspirations. Therefore, in his attempt to represent more fully, the intensities of political feelings and aspirations of Kashmiris, Kaul focuses on the evidence contained in cultural production, the witness offered by poems.
In chapter three, he reflects upon the capacity of poetry to thicken and complicate our understanding of the political and personal trauma. He analyses how by writing and sharing poetry, people engage in culturally constructing a landscape of memory. He explores how the poetic intensities of feelings become the effective glue that binds the composers and readers of this poetry into a community. The trauma, pain, aspirations and inspirations embedded in this landscape of memory is never only that of an individual but is experienced and shared by individuals as a community.
In chapter four, he enquires into the nature of sovereignty exercised by the postcolonial Indian state and traces its relationship with colonial history in the inheritance of colonial governance, legislation and attitude. Borrowing from scholarship on postcolonial sovereignty and new imperialism, he conceptualizes the Indian state with its militarized state apparatus as a ‘modern empire’ underlining that Kashmiris also understand themselves to be at the receiving end of an imperial state security apparatus.
The poetry collated by Kaul in his book captures the perpetual state of the poignancy of life under occupation. It’s an account of Kashmiris dealing with unbearable grief and loss, which is not temporary, but prolonged. Kaul brings forth the narratives of longing and pain of both Pandits and Muslims from the valley, marking their desire to be back in the world that they inhabited in camaraderie. However, narratives of women and their struggle against sexualized and gendered oppression by armed forces appear to be scarcely recorded in his collection. While focusing on the narratives of trauma and pain, Kaul also appears to have eluded the narratives of resilience and determination that drives Kashmiris in their life and struggle for self-determination, a glimpse of which appears only in the last section of the book, through Agha Shahid Ali’s verses.
Kaul expresses his dilemmas by virtue of his identity as a Kashmiri Pandit and an Indian. He shares the complexity and contradictions endowed with being a Kashmiri and an Indian at the same time. He recites an anecdote of him questioning an Indian soldier near a shop in Srinagar and the soldier responding to him courteously. It was here that he realized that as opposed to his Muslim counterparts, he could afford to question the soldier because he was a Hindu who could speak Hindi in an ‘Indian’ accent. With this privilege, flow both his right and obligation to question or shame the soldier, Kaul underlines. To him, Kashmir poses an intractable problem for Indian democracy rendering inescapable a broad re-examination of the very definition of India.
Of Gardens and Graves: Essays on Kashmir | Poems in Translation.
By Suvir Kaul.
New Delhi: Three Essays Collective, 2016. 256 Pages.