By Suvir Kaul
On July 25, 2015, I was honored to give the Second Annual Pandit Rughonath Vaishnavi Lecture in Srinagar. This lecture series was initiated by a committee of human rights lawyers, academics, journalists and film-makers in 2014, who are determined to invite each year “a speaker committed to the humanist pursuit of social justice,” whose work illuminates “a significant aspect of Kashmir’s long and complex history.” The organizers hope that each “talk––– and the discussions that it will spur––– will contribute to an emerging public sphere through which Kashmiris can engage with significant but lesser known aspects of the region’s long struggle for freedom, full political rights, and dignity.” Their invitation said that they see the annual talk as “a much desired step forward to connect Kashmir’s past political events with the struggles of the present, an endeavor that will enable younger Kashmiris to discern the ways in which countless Kashmiris (regardless of their gender, ethnicity, or religion) have long fought to secure their rights to decide their political future.” This history, the organizers hope, “can energize us; it can provide the foundations for a sustainable political future for Kashmir, and help us as a society to understand the logics and structures of occupation, both historically and in the present. We believe there is an urgent need to build on the creative impetus of Kashmiri youth to challenge Kashmir’s occupation through art, literature, and creative writing. The annual event will resist the normalization of coercive democracy and militarized rule in Kashmir, and further strengthen the culture of resistance through the production and dissemination of critical knowledge.”
I have quoted at some length from the “Objectives” laid out by the organizers to show just how urgent and topical such public initiatives are, but also to point to an irony that will surprise few observers of Indian politics in Kashmir. In 2014, the police, without any legitimate or legal reason, stopped the First Annual lecture, to be given by the historian Professor Mridu Rai of Presidency College, Kolkata. (http://www.hindustantimes.com/comment/a-history-of-arrogance-getting-it-wrong-in-kashmir-again/story-WEktFgq43Oz9XhRHvjhk2L.html. This police action caused the organizers, some members of the audience, and the speaker to move to a smaller venue and to engage in a spirited, if more informal, conversation. I too was concerned about similar official actions on the day I was to give my talk, but was glad to be able to join Javed Dar, whose photographs enliven my book Of Gardens and Graves: Kashmir, Poetry, Politics (https://www.dukeupress.edu/of-gardens-and-graves), to give my talk and to discuss the genesis and concerns of the book.
My talk was titled “Of Gardens and Graves: Bearing Witness in some Kashmiri Poems.” In this talk, based on a chapter from Of Gardens and Graves, I argue that poetry written in a zone of conflict like Kashmir is a profound archive of political feelings, but not one that can be treated as transparent, as yielding its meanings at first reading. These are, after all, poems of trauma, and to that extent the extraordinary experiences they speak of seem at odds with their conventional forms (this is particularly true of the ghazal and the nazm). The challenge for the poet, and thus for the literary critic, is to read poetic form both against, and as an enhancement of, theme; to see in the counterpoint of the conventional and the extraordinary the pulse of life in territories riven by violence; to find in the shared idiom of loss the suffering, the anger, and the resistance, of both Kashmiri Muslims and Hindus. To exemplify these concerns, I turn to a ghazal by Mohiuddin ‘Massarat’ and another by Brij Nath ‘Betaab.’
I was very moved by the discussion that followed, if only because it was clear that the audience had lived through, and knew first hand, the experiences articulated in each poem. Further, no one there thought it inappropriate to engage with these issues via poetry—I had expected some such resistance, as those who suffer sustained and continuing violence do on occasion demand a more direct reportage of their difficulties and their anger. In this talk I had claimed that poets who write in conflict zones become cultivators and curators of public memory; in fact the discussion confirmed the power with which these poems spoke to, even as they spoke of, Kashmiri lives. As an academic, my work often seems at a distance from urgent issues—here, in Srinagar, I knew the urgency of the moment, an urgency that stemmed from the long struggle of an oppressed people to define their own political and cultural futures.
* I close with a sad postscript: the Third Annual Pandit Rughonath Vaishnavi Lecture, planned for summer 2016, never came to pass. This was a summer of horrendous violence and of great political mobilization in Kashmir, and all academic and civic activity, including this talk, were suspended. I know that I am not alone in looking forward to the resumption of this lecture series, and of course, to the revitalization of democratic life in Kashmir.
 This post quotes the Rughonath Vaishnavi pamphlet, June 2016.