Of Gardens and Graves by Suvir Kaul

Reviewed By

After Shahid: Kashmiri Poetry in Translation

When you read the poetry of Najwan Darwish, the young Palestinian poet, who is no relation of Mahmud Darwish, you realise the disconnections are even starker. Mahmud spelt out the stakes, asserting Palestinian identity firmly in the soil, the olive gardens, the scent of jasmines, the welcoming and proud Arab heart, the bewildered victim of an occupation, seeking reconciliation against barbwires, against tanks and gunshots, against history. Najwan’s poetry, like his grief, is more irreconcilable, because the thin hopes which Mahmud left behind have been bulldozed and gunned down further. The difference between Mahmud and Najwan, you realise, is ultimately a difference in the escalation of violence. Too much violence has ripped the soul of Palestinian poetry. The difference is summed up by Najwan, most brilliantly in these lines which tell of a larger climate of horror we are living in:

In the 1930s

it occurred to the Nazis

to put their victims in gas chambers

Today’s executioners are more professional

They put the gas chambers

in their victims

In the light of this change that has taken place in the Palestinian situation and its reflection in the poetry, I read the poetry in Suvir Kaul’s Of Gardens and Graves, endearingly published by ‘Three Essays Collective’. In this review, I shall concentrate, only on the exceptional poems in the book, which are translations of poems mostly from the Kashmiri by Suvir. I shall leave alone the essays by the author, which trace the literary, political and historical phases of Kashmir’s predicaments. It is also beyond the scope of this review to engage with Javed Dar’s chilling photo essay, showing people of a landscape at once outraged and disconsolate, facing the territorialising beastliness of military occupation. To address all the genres would need different approaches that would split the thematic coherence of the review. 

The poems chosen in this collection, a lot of them ghazals, reverberate with the passing away of another era that I associate with Agha Shahid Ali and his poetry. That era did not end long ago, for Shahid died in 2001, but since then a spate of violence, like in the case of Palestine, has unleashed inconsolable wounds into the Kashmiri landscape, psyche and life. For India, Kashmir has been reduced to a territory to defend, if necessary against its people. The shape drawn by the coloniser’s pencil is dearer to the postcolonial nation than the breath, song and hands of the people who inhabit a place they call paradise.

The intentions of the Kashmiri voice are laid down in these lines of a ghazal by Ghulam Nabi Tak ‘Naazir’:

That which could not be told, tell now

Keep, keep writing the value of speech

The urgency is twofold: That which was perhaps not being said so far in hope that the nightmare shall pass, needs to be said now when the nightmare has worsened. That which was perhaps not said in the past because everything was too present, too near at hand, too palpable a bruise to immediately reflect upon, needs to finally be spoken aloud, put on paper. The time has come for Kashmiris to write the history of their present. It is the only way tongues can utter their freedom against the jaws of occupation.

So the poet, Arshad Mushtaq writes, when time went out of joint in Kashmir’s summer of 2010, on the painful images that prompted him to pick up stones:

When they left Lal Ded naked

On the banks of the Rambiar,

When they killed Yusuf before Zooni’s eyes

That’s when I threw stones!

It was the Mughal emperor Akbar who deposed and exiled Habba Khatoon, or Zooni’s husband, and Kashmir’s ruler, Yusuf, to Bihar where he eventually died. Shahid had written in ‘A Prologue’, how it was since Akbar’s act of imperial injustice, Kashmir seized to be free. He also writes how it was Habba Khatoon’s grief – “alive to this day” – that “roused the people into frenzied opposition to Mughal rule”. That was when, Arshad reminds us Kashmiris picked up the stone. Against the history of the technology of violence, a stone sounds like an innocent, idyllic object of resistance.

The reference to the mystic saint-poet, Lal Ded, is symbolic in the poem, Rambiar being the river in Shopian, where two young women, Neelofer Jan and Aasiya Jan, were found murdered in 2009. Zooni and Lal Ded are not mere names of the dead in Kashmir; they are present in the everyday language of poetry, because Kashmir’s history draws its sustenance from their shining examples of rebellion against loss.

In the ghazal by Ghulam Hassan ‘Ghamgeen’, you read further proof of how remote the Kashmiris have grown, even from themselves. Medicines don’t work, when the heart is suffering. No war epic or love poem can be read in times of war and grief. 

If you have something to say, come yourself

Don’t you send a messenger here, matyov, not even one

Easy to put a shoulder to a hill and shift its location

But very difficult to change a mind, not even one

In these two calmly intractable couplets, Ghulam gives you the impression of a people who are deaf to the intentions of middlemen. If the once-endearing neighbour wants to say something, let him show up, or it would be silly of him to imagine anything else will work. You can change the address of a hill, but not the estranged state of its inhabitants.

Mohiuddin ‘Massarat’, in a post-Shahidian atmosphere of grief, is no longer speaking of a grieving I, the lone, exilic and searching self, or the figurative and symbolic self, looking for its other. Grief is no longer addressed as a letter of endearing complaint to the disappeared neighbour, the “you”. All of that is reminiscent of Shahid in ‘Farewell’. Mohiuddin is ironically indifferent, a cynic poet who registers the insignificance of witnessing. The landscape watches too many dead, breathes too much death, and its excess shadow has entered into people’s silences.

Our own become strangers sometimes

Flesh is pulling off nails, what’s to me?

We know how Kashmiris are separated within themselves today, not merely across communities but through their different responses (ideological and political) to the crisis at hand, so relations are tearing apart, and so is the shared language between them. And to all this, the poet, almost sneers in a mock gesture, it’s nothing to him, he isn’t bothered. 

The hopes of reconciliation in Shahid’s poetic imagery, lying however frozen in time, has already passed into a zone of nostalgia, a nostalgia that has been trampled by further acts of state violence and its machinations to keep even a semblance of reconciliation further apart. In such times, the poet Bashir ‘Dada’, surveys the scene with disturbing clarity. With a wrenched heart, he writes about the failed dream of reconciliation, of homecoming, in these unforgettable lines, which evoke sadness and wonder at the same time:

For I cherish the failures of love – and willingly we will fail:

I – become the evening – will search for you everywhere;

as you – become the morning – disappear, o lost one.

Shahid had left addressing the pessimism of rationality, where the disappeared (Hindu) neighbour is not expected to forgive, precisely because there is everything and nothing to forgive after the sudden severance of ties. Bashir puts another nail to this coffin of expectations by admitting, both sides are now willingly ready to fail each other.

I would like to end by adding my thoughts further on this exceptional poem in Urdu on which Suvir pauses and meditates with diligence and care. It is a poem in Urdu by Shabir ‘Azar’, titled ‘Corpse’. The poet sees a corpse in the lake. The lake is a mirror. The face of the corpse is a stranger’s. The corpse disturbs the poet. It stalls thought and casts a shadow on the (poet’s) future. The poet has often thrown stones at the lake’s mirror, trying to scatter the corpse’s image in the water. But the corpse’s face would still raise its head at the edge of the lake and stare back at him. The poet questions his gesture, trying repeatedly in vain to smash the reflection of the dead. For the mirror and the corpse are locked in each other’s reflections. The poet is as doomed and locked in the gaze of this reflection as much as the lake and the corpse’s face. They are excruciatingly tied to each other. In ‘Farewell’, Shahid imagined the temple and the mosque “locked / in each other’s reflections.” In Shabir’s poem, the image is starker and real, it is bodily, with an eerie suggestiveness: The face of the corpse is a stranger’s but the stranger is too close, perhaps, the self’s double. If the origins of the lake in Kashmir began with Shahid’s mythopoetic imagery of how Brahma’s voice of torn water ran down the slopes of Zabarvan and turned Kashmir into a lake, in Shabir those mythical ties have no bearing, replaced by an irremovable image, of a corpse that refuses to disappear. If Kashmir is a lake where its face can seek the reflection of its solitude, that reflection is now haunted by the presence of its double, the image of death. It is, as if, the face is being tempted or invited to consider making peace with the image of the corpse:

if the corpse

is in the lake

the lake too

is in the corpse

suvir-kaulThe poem ends by suggesting disturbing questions to the reader: Does the corpse belong to the past, the present, or also the future? How long will the corpse keep appearing on the lake’s surface to haunt Kashmir’s face of solitude?

The range of poetry in this book is remarkably chosen, arranged and edited by Suvir Kaul. It offers ample evidence of Kashmir’s poetic scene, somber, lyrical, and often numbing, with an acute sense of history and place. The poets, many of them deeply invested in the ghazal form, are remarkably thoughtful and they offer critical insights into Kashmir’s desperate situation. It won’t be an exaggeration to persuade readers to buy and read this book just by the strength of the poetry alone. Javed Dar’s photographs and Suvir’s essays will surely open up different horizons of engagement regarding what’s gone terribly wrong in Kashmir. Our future is intertwined with the future of this martyred place. 


Manash Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer, translator and political science scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University. He has contributed to Guernica, Huffington Post (UK & India), Democracy Now, EPW, Outlook, The Hindu, Biblio, etc. His first collection, Ghalib's Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. More from this author →