Rakhshan Rizwan 

Then it begins, first with the croak of the worn-out cassette player struggling to read the tape, then a sudden loud harmonious tune, a prelude to the famous wedding song ‘Aakho Shahr-e-Sheerazo’. People have listened to this before, the young perhaps all their lives on the radio and many older people on the same cassette player since Mahraaze appeared on that starless night at the ghat fifteen years ago… He sits down by the cassette player. ‘Get ready now, hold your breath, and be brave.’ All give their full attention now, eyes fixed on the Telefunken and its grave owner and operator. As the approaching dusk casts cold shadows over the group, the houses lapping over the shrine gate, the scene begins to resemble a Muharram gathering, an elegy about to rise into the sky. Everyone is silent. The tape plays smoothly. Someone’s crying in the distance. Then they hear whacks, thuds, slaps, thuds, cracks, the sounds all rolling into one another, each flurry followed by the same stern voice. Then they hear more whimperings. A spell descends on Mahraaze’s congregation. People begin to murmur, then they don’t. Mahraaze raises his hand. ‘There’s more, there’s more. I have captured many voices, my unwise dears, voices that you may or may not hear in your dreams. I have seized them with my own hands and knocked them here. You had better listen now. (Waheed 116-117)

Mirza Waheed is one of Kashmir’s most prominent novelists and this excerpt taken from his novel, The Book of Gold Leaves which was published in 2014 to critical acclaim, represents a local Kashmiri madman or mott. In the passage above, Mahraaze gathers the residents of the old city around a tape recorder which plays a strange musical score and urges them to pay heed to the voices issuing from it. Mahraaze is described as a “Persian-conversant dervish” (Waheed 99). He is depicted roaming the streets of Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir, with a bridegroom’s garland of Indian currency notes round his neck. He delivers spiritually-themed sermons on simplicity and minimal living from the city square located close to the shrine. Madmen, mystics, and dervishes are an important part of Kashmiri spiritual life and perform an array of different functions from the sacred, to the comic and the banal (Parrey, A Victorious 179). The word mott in the Kashmiri language, Koshur, translates into “mad” and also “mystic” and, in a sense, the word captures the different strands of meaning associated with Kashmiri dervishes who are considered to be both mentally ill and spiritually gifted (Parrey 179). A mott is usually a person who is respected for knowing more about “the world than ordinary unsuspecting folk could fathom” (179). Alongside this, it is also “widely known that because his vision soar[s] in spirituality”, the mott is “clumsy in the mundane affairs of life” (179). Parrey defines the public functions performed by Sufi soothsayers in Kashmir: They are sought by members of their community to “have meals with them, to heal the sick, to fix the jobless, to concoct pregnancies, to bless the new-born or to simply drop down alms of wisdom down their pherans” (179).

However, in the above-quoted text, Mahraaze is more than a poet and a spiritual agent; he is also a witness to the unlawful incarceration and torture of Kashmiri men, who are being detained in the basement of a captured high school that has been transformed into a military outpost by the armed forces. He manages to gain access to the inner precincts of the school-turned-detention-center and, using his outdated cassette player, he records the disembodied voices, pleas, and cries of the young men who are being held in its basement. He saves these soundbites of suffering on an old audio cassette, which originally carries a traditional Kashmiri wedding song, Aakho Shahre-Sheerazo, that is sung to instrumental scores of Indian classical music instruments, namely the Sarangi and the Santoor. This particular song, according to Waheed’s novel, used to be immensely popular among newlyweds residing in the “meadowlands” of the Valley of Kashmir and evoked memories of weddings and marriage festivities (Waheed 118). In Mahraaze’s recording, the melodious vocalization of a well-loved Kashmiri wedding song and its celebratory verses is interrupted by the somber and splintered tonalities of torture that issue from the mouth of youthful Kashmiri bodies in postures of intense physical pain. Mahraaze manages to record the sound of “whacks, thuds, slaps, thuds, cracks”, sobs and even screams on his audio cassette (Waheed 117).

Mahraaze’s recording is a metaphor for Kashmir itself, the famed pleasures of which have, in the past two decades, been interrupted and overwritten by enunciations and experiences of violence and pain, such that both happiness and suffering now combine to make Kashmir a unique “medley of torment”. Kashmir has been represented as a paradisiacal space since the seventeenth century when Moghul emperor Jahangir visited the Valley and famously remarked that, “If there is a paradise anywhere on earth, it is here, it is here.” (Hogan 3). Kashmir became a part of the European imagination through Lalla Rookh (1817), Thomas Moore’s “Oriental Romance”, which was published during the Romantic period (Kabir, Territory 56; Schimmel 295). Kashmiri shawls functioned as “concrete material manifestations of its beauty and exceptionality…which fulfilled the larger concerns of these narratives to educate Victorian Britons about the diverse and varied geography of the British Empire” (Zutshi, “Designed” 429). Adam Geczy writes, “Kashmir and its shawls circulated in the mid-nineteenth-century British imagination with talismanic mystique. Perhaps more than any other article, the Kashmiri shawl also showed that Victorian Britain used commodities to experience and reflect on its empire” (103). In postcolonial India, Kashmir became “a place for honeymooners and lovers” to unwind, enjoy the sights of the place and to experience romance and pleasure (Kabir, Territory 38). Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, described Kashmir as a place where “loveliness reigns and an enchantment steals over the senses” (qtd. in Kabir 38).

In the 1980s, however, Kashmir started to become a violent and militarized space, and its political destinies began to shift. This is the period represented in The Book of Gold Leaves, a time during which Mahraaze positions himself not only as a Sufi dervish and soothsayer but also as a political activist and a human rights witness. He shares incriminating evidence in the form of recordings with residents of the local neighborhood, as they assemble at the shrine of a beloved Sufi saint, Shah Hamdan, in order to publicize his ‘findings’, and to create awareness about the situation. “You had better listen now”, he urges the multitudes of people gathering in downtown Srinagar. Partly resembling a Greek chorus, Mahraaze anticipates and guides the reactions of the audience with regards to the tableau being enacted before them, issuing edicts in the form of: “There’s more, there’s more” or “Get ready now” and predicting that they will be traumatized by the voices and will continue to hear these haunted sounds in their dreams. Rather than gathering around the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine, Kashmiris assemble around incriminating evidence in the form of the cassette player, which momentarily becomes the focal point of political debate and spiritual and public life in Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital.

In times of political volatility and unrest, poets and mystics such as Mahraaze are compelled to take on multiple roles and use creative mechanisms to stage a protest and to voice their political concerns. In an instance in the novel, Mahraaze tries to rescue young men who have been abducted from the streets of Srinagar by a monstrous vehicle – known as the Zaal—by chasing it, and later berating this metallic contraption using “a long poem of expletives in a meter reminiscent of the lyric poetry form, shruk” (Waheed 115). Here, Mahraaze uses a traditional form of Kashmiri poetry – the shruk – to protest the presence of patrolling metal invaders in the streets of his city.

The primary thematic concerns of this dissertation can be located in this brief outline of Waheed’s The Book of Gold Leaves. The representation of Kashmir as a curious matrix of pleasure and pain; the multiple roles taken on by contemporary Kashmiri writers, as journalists, public intellectuals and human rights activists; the existence of human rights advocacy and activism in Kashmir; the importance of storytelling in bringing human rights issues to light; the emergence of non-violent and cultural idioms of protest in Kashmir; and finally, the role of Kashmiri life narratives, such as The Book of Gold Leaves, in articulating and publicizing Kashmiri lived experiences, in sparking international debate on the issue of Kashmir and in participating in the re-imagination and re-mapping of its political future: these are all the issues that are attended to within the course of this thesis. These concerns are tied to the central purpose of the thesis, which has to do with using selected Kashmiri literary works to re-define the generic contours of life narratives that can be used within the field of human rights. In this work, I will offer alternative theorizations and examples of human rights narratives that can operate within both literary and legal practice.

Rakhshan Rizwan has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. She has worked on Kashmiri life narratives and their role in conducting human rights advocacy. For a few more details check: https://www.uu.nl/en/events/phd-thesis-defence-rakhshan-rizwan-on-kashmiri-life-narratives