Friday, July 27, 2007

The lonesome tree

Let's say that I was born in Kashmir, a little over twenty-seven autumns back. It was the season of fall, my folks tell me, and the countryside was strewn with light hues of crimson. It is that time of the year when the Oriental plane -- Chinar -- looks its best. Stark and naked, it sheds its rusty foliage. The crisp orange leaves cover the beauteous landscape like one continuous Oriental rug. Legend has it that plane is the tree of Hippocrates, under which Hippocrates taught medicine in ancient Greece during the Age of Pericles. Booune, as plane is locally called, has always been the emblem of Kashmir.

Reminds me of the poet-philosopher Sir Mohammad Iqbal – of Kashmiri ancestry -- who in his wistful style waxed eloquent about the valley:

Jis khaak ke zameer me ho aatish-e-chinar
Mumkin nahi ki sarad ho voh khaak-e-arjamand

The land that has in its conscience the spark of Chinar
Thy celestial dust won’t douse yet
[My Translation]

The romance with Chinar that started with the widely respected Iqbal has carried on. The lanky and erudite – loved and hated in equal parts – Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah (Farooq Abdullah’s dad) called his autobiography ‘Aatish-e-Chinar’. The book bagged the 1988 Sahitya Academy award – India’s most outstanding literary achievement. Even a hugely repulsed bloke in Kashmir like Rushdie couldn’t resist it. He calls a central character in his latest book, Shalimar the Clown, Booune. Sir Salman, of Kashmiri ancestry knows the significance -- of the odd plane -- cannot be lost even in an era of hatred and intense heartache.

Poets and kings have admired the plane tree alike. The Mughal Emperor Akbar who annexed and visited the valley for the first time in 1579 fondly mentions Chinar in his memoir Akbar Nama. Booune is found mentioned in the 14th century mystic-poetess-princess Lal Ded’s saintly wakhs (poems).

Booune has been a lonesome witness to the vicissitudes of Kashmir’s fluctuating fortune and its prized possession by rulers of various stripe – cruel and benign: from the Buddhist ruler Asoka the Great, who founded the city of Srinagar in 250 BC to the various Hindu Kings, who followed him. From the mid-12th century Muslim blitzkrieg in Kashmir right upto harsh reign of the 19th century Dogra feudatories, Chinar perhaps remains the sole spectator to happenstance of everything Kashmiri.

In the olden times, the natives used to collect the plane leaves in heaps and transform them into charcoal for use in the Kangris (fire pots that Kashmiris fight the intense winter with). Not now! Not in the time of blowers and braziers. Not definitely in an age of guns. I think the romance is fading. Like everything Kashmiri, the Booune is fast dying. There was a time when every village and hamlet had scores of the graceful huge tree. Only 19,000 remain now. The systematic ruin of Kashmir seems to have pervaded onto its Chinars.

Az Jehangir Dame Naza Chi Justand
Ba Khahishi Dil Guft
Kashmir Diger Hech

On his deathbed, the 17th century Mughal Emperor of India, Jehangir was asked by his royal courtiers as to what he wished in the hereafter. With a heavy heart and in a feeble, dying voice, the poet-king replied: Nothing but a heaven as beautiful and soul refreshing as Kashmir.


Monday, July 23, 2007

How We Celebrate Freedom

I watched the compelling documentary Jashn-e-Azadi [How We Celebrate Freedom] at the Osian Cine festival in New Delhi. The film is a powerful narrative about the last 18 years of Kashmir’s low intensity conflict – a glade of earth where the Indian elite once used to honeymoon en masse. With his intrepid style, Sanjay Kak seems to have stepped onto an uncomfortable territory. I think the film's chutzpah sets it apart. It subtly dissects the desolation and travails of a struggle, which is construed as sacred and star-crossed at the same time.

On a much personal level I could almost immediately identify with poignancy of the effort. Being a Kashmiri, it felt like an emotive roller coaster. The images came rushing back to me as I saw horrors -- known and unknown -- unfold on the screen, sitting alongside an elite audience at Delhi’s Siri Fort. It is kinda tough but there has been an emotional bitterness about this war era – which a non-Kashmiri may find hard to fathom. I don’t know what went wrong and where but that is precisely what the film is trying to convey. Sanjay has stitched related narratives and crocheted them together by the theme -- Azadi or Freedom.

The elusive Azadi! I have been in Kashmir during those difficult militancy years. I vividly recount the dreary nights. The gunshots. The screams. It was a pain with no end. Of watching parents with hapless eyes. Their children being dragged out of homes and killed in cold blood. The persecution. The wickedness of it all. And the quitetude. Jashn-e-Azadi rips open these closeted taboos. It attempts to zoom in on tears that routinely get consigned to dust of the dell. It follows the steps of a father, who visits the Martyr’s graveyard in Srinagar – only to forget his son’s grave.

Kak’s oeuvre is varicolored. His ritornelle leaves you touched. He is effortless in his coalescing of numerous fragments of the war in Kashmir – psychological scars, bruised souls, a poet's lament, the clowns’ hamming, dissident's spiel and the army's truculence. Sanjay talks to the miscellaneous Kashmiri. It must be hard being a sister and losing a brother in the bloody conflict and telling a film crew about how he died after all those years. In her limited vocabulary. Trying to seek a shy solace after years of anguish.

The film gives you no breather. The motif flickers swiftly. An old man tallying those killed in his village explains the sombre truth of Emperor Jehangir's Firdaus. A tourist’s cheer in the meadows of Gulmarg only adds to the idiom. As the poet Zarif croons in one of the film’s many frames:

I’ve lost the city of love I’d found,
What frenzy is this
My gaze has been silenced
What frenzy is this?

Jashn-e-Azadi is coming of age of independent documentary film making in India. Sanjay Kak is so much more real than the jingoistic crap that India's free media passes for. He showcases the innocence that incidentally got stolen in a little paradise, once wintry night in 1989.

And is still missing!

July 2007, New Delhi

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Rubbish Rowling

For once, I don't mean to demean the darling of kids -- JK Rowling -- the creator of the Potter series. I am amused at the hype. For I have come, with some regret, to this conclusion: her style is toxic. And this is Rowling's fault. I know that I am anticipating what the style of the latest book will be in advance of actually seeing it, but really, I don't think I'm going out on a limb here. Of course, if she has turned into a first-class writer with her forthcoming Potter book, I will happily, no, joyously, eat my words.

But until then, we have to swallow hers. And for all that she is gifted enough in devising popular scenarios, the words on the page are flat. I think it was Verlaine who said that he could never write a novel because he would have to write, at some point, something like "the count walked into the drawing-room" - not a scruple that can have bothered JK Rowling, who is happy enough writing the most pedestrian descriptive prose.

Here, from page 324 of The Order of the Phoenix, to give you a typical example, are six consecutive descriptions of the way people speak. "...said Snape maliciously," "... said Harry furiously", " ... he said glumly", "... said Hermione severely", "... said Ron indignantly", " ... said Hermione loftily". Do I need to explain why that is such second-rate writing?

If I do, then that means you're one of the many adults who don't have a problem with the retreat into infantilism that your willing immersion in the Potter books represents. It doesn't make you a bad or silly person. But if you have the patience to read it without noticing how plodding it is, then you are self-evidently someone on whom the possibilities of the English language are largely lost.

This is the kind of prose that reasonably intelligent nine-year-olds consider pretty hot stuff, if they're producing it themselves; for a highly-educated woman like Rowling to knock out the same kind of material is, shall we say, somewhat disappointing. Children exposed to this kind of writing aren't learning anything new about words, or being stretched in any way; as Harold Bloom said, they're not going to be inspired to go off and read the Alice books, or any other enduring classic.

People go hoopla because they're delighted that Rowling has got children reading books - big, fat books without pictures at that. Can't argue with that: and maybe they will learn something about sheer reading stamina in the process. But it's all too easy. The popular writer whose style is most similar is, it suddenly occurs to me, Jeffrey Archer (all those dead adverbs). All that paper, all those trees felled, all those words ... surely Rowling could have chosen some better ones, or put them together in a more exciting way?

She has, in her grasp, the power to galvanise minds instead of reeling out cliché after cliché. Will The Deathly Hallows do this? I hope so. But I fear not.

In complete agreement with Nick Lezard!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

In your Soul

Lets dispel the foggy curtain
Lets stand in the light
not in the shadow
When will we stop playing these games?

You can cry sometimes
when something breaks inside
Tell me about the moments of fear
It is much easier to be afraid together

'And when cold winds rage outside
I'll send hot fire through you
Someday you may stop running between the shadows
In your soul


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Kashmir Pics

Attention plz: Wasy and me listening to the instructor before the 3 km rafting trek in Lidder

Reflection in the lake: Nagin Lake, Srinagar on a summer's day

Starry nights: You can't help give in to the stunning vastness of the night sky