We have to repair trust and rebuild homes: Prof Suvir Kaul

We have to repair trust and rebuild homes: Prof Suvir Kaul

Of Gardens and Graves also features a photo-essay by the Srinagar-based journalist Javed Dar, whose photographs “offer a visual counterpoint to the poems in the volume.

Professor Suvir Kaul is the A. M. Rosenthal Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. He has published three books and edited a collection of essays entitled The Partitions of Memory: the afterlife of the division of India (2001). He has also co-edited an interdisciplinary volume entitled Postcolonial Studies and Beyond (2005). 

Kaul received his B. A. (Hons.), M. A., and M. Phil. degrees from the University of Delhi, and his Ph. D. from Cornell University. His first job was at the SGTB Khalsa College in Delhi. Since then, he has taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, at Stanford University, and at the Jamia Millia Islamia as a Visiting Professor. He has also held post-doctoral fellowships at the University of Canterbury at Kent and at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University. He teaches courses in Eighteenth-century British Literature, Contemporary South Asian Writing in English, and in Literary and Critical Theory. 

In his new book ‘Of Gardens and Graves: Essays on Kashmir | Poems in Translation’ now available from Three Essays Collective, Prof Kaul examines ‘the textures of everyday life in Kashmir after 1990, the years of pervasive militarization of the valley. It combines personal essays with enquiries into the pre- and post-Partition histories and political actions that underlie the present conflict.’ The volume also features translations of poems written in Kashmiri in these last twenty-five years of conflict. 

Of Gardens and Graves also features a photo-essay by the Srinagar-based journalist Javed Dar, whose photographs “offer a visual counterpoint to the poems in the volume. Dar’s remarkable pictures juxtapose spectacular events and daily life, showing just how intertwined they are in Kashmir.” 

In an interview with GK Features Editor Majid Maqbool, Professor Kaul talks about his visits to Kashmir, discovering and translating Kashmiri poets working in the vernacular language who he says give a sense of the cultural and political work done by Kashmiri poets in the past decades, and the need for academics to pay critical attention to Kashmir’s cultural productivity. 


The title of the book of ‘Of gardens and graves’ is an apt summary of contemporary Kashmir capturing its beauty and tragedy; as you write it is ‘blooming with gardens and graves’. Did you want to give a sense of textured, lived experience of Kashmir in this anthology of your essays well complemented by powerful images and selected Kashmiri poetry? 

That is indeed what I have sought to do in this book. I come to Kashmir as a visitor to our family home in Srinagar, and each time I do so I am struck by the inescapable reminders of the violence suffered by people in the last twenty-five years as well as their great resilience in the face of that violence. All the Kashmiris I know—both those who live in Kashmir and those who live elsewhere—have either experienced some form of violence or know someone who has, and our very definitions of being and citizenship are now derived from such suffering. As we know, Kashmiri writers, artists, and filmmakers have produced remarkable work that traces the many ways in which trauma has become one of the features of everyday life. There is a generation and more of Kashmiris who have grown up thinking of themselves as exiled or displaced from home or, if they live in Kashmir, as subject to the arbitrary, militarized power of Kashmiri and Indian authority. Kashmiri poetry testifies to the “everydayness” of such loss, but also, I hasten to add, hopes for a better future.

In the preface of your book you write that on your yearly visits to your home in Srinagar, you found the same old state having a tighter grip on the lives of people in Kashmir: ‘there seemed to be no shift in the political imagination of the Indian state, Indian political parties, or indeed institutions and politics in Jammu and Kashmir’ and that ‘the more things changed the more they seemed to be the same’. Do you see any hope in the coming years or decades, say a positive and meaningful engagement with the political aspirations of people in Kashmir beyond the state sponsored interlocutors who visit Kashmir post killings, as they did after over 100 unarmed youth were killed in the summer 2010 uprising. Will Indian state remain forever in control and keep managing conflict instead of addressing the existing political realities in Kashmir? 

This is a question that a journalist like yourself is much better equipped to answer, but I doubt that even the best informed journalist will attempt to speculate about the Indian state remaining “forever in control.” Of course, both Indian and Kashmiri politicians and administrators see it as their job to “keep managing conflict”—that is after all one of the tasks of administrators everywhere. Further, I am sure that they will also argue that they are constantly “addressing the existing political realities in Kashmir,” the difference being that they might not share your sense of such “political realities.” No one in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, or even in Kashmir alone, seems to have the capacity to define a future that will be inclusive of all the political constituencies active today. And certainly no Indian politician or political party possesses that capacity to imagine a resolution of the Kashmir problem outside of the framework of the Indian constitution. 

In this anthology you have included a selection of translated poems in Kashmiri language that you have discovered over the years in Kashmir. As you write in the preface, "these are the voices that linger after political debates are exhausted and after the shots have been fired and bodies broken.” What is it about the poets working in the vernacular language and the truth they convey through their poetry that deserves to be read widely and not just remain confined to readers in Kashmir? Does their poetry, which is rarely translated into English and read beyond Kashmir, deserve a wider readership? 

Poets, especially in times of great conflict and struggle, often feature experiences and examine states of emotion and being that are sidelined by the makers of public policy. All of us are familiar with the language of political debate and analysis, but that vocabulary is by no means adequate to providing a sense of the intensity of emotions—grief, anger, faith, hope—that energize different political positions. In translating poems written in Kashmiri, I hope to provide a larger readership (including many Kashmiris who do not read the language with ease) a sense of the cultural and indeed political work done by poets in these years. That is one of the reasons why I have also included an essay in which I analyze two poems, one by a Kashmiri Muslim poet resident in Kashmir and another by a Kashmiri Pandit poet displaced from Kashmir, to understand how their pain is complementary, which is a lesson often forgotten in the deadly polarization that has marked Muslim-Pandit relations in these years. 

Throughout the volume, in placing the work of Kashmiri Pandit and Muslim poets side-by-side, I wish to suggest that one crucial element in any imagined future for Kashmir is for both communities to register each other’s suffering and fears, and to extend themselves, beyond just themselves, to repair sundered ties. Poets have always written for and in dialogue with each other; they show us how a rich cultural conversation is always the product of syncretic languages and shared lives. 

Let’s talk about the moving photo essay by the talented photojournalist Javed Dar which forms an interesting and an important part of this book, almost telling a parallel story of Kashmir as seen from his eyes over the past decades of conflict that he has intimately covered. How did you come to include his images which tell their own story of Kashmir, its mournful story of gardens and graves, more than any words could? Do you think Kashmir based photojournalists have more powerful stories to tell, which should be preserved in books, about the conflict they have not only been part of but also covered at great risk to their lives in Kashmir? 

A photojournalist like Javed Dar brings home to us images of everyday peace and prosperity as well as more disturbing images of public confrontations, protests, crackdowns, and suffering. Javed is a friend, and for years now his pictures have impressed upon me the powerful mix of intense emotion, frenzied activity, routine surveillance, and seeming calm that has defined life in Kashmir for a long time now. His juxtaposition of everyday and spectacular events enables a synoptic view of lives in Kashmir that is hard to replicate. His photographs often seem to be much more than a dutiful record of an event, and, viewed cumulatively, offer their own eloquent insights into the textures of Kashmiri life. Over the years, Javed’s pictures have allowed me to think more precisely about forms of individual and community suffering and resistance. He goes to places we do not travel to and records events on our behalf; he gives us eyes with which to see. 

In recent years there has been a sort of resurgence in English prose writing in Kashmir especially among the youth who want to tell their own stories of living and surviving the war in Kashmir. In their personal stories, which are creatively told, they are not apologetic about their politics either. How do you see this trend and what it does to the story of Kashmir? 

One of the paradoxes of prolonged conflict is that it can be productive of powerful cultural artifacts: literary writing, photography, art, autobiography, oral history and even long-form, reflective journalism. Kashmiris have always written in Urdu and in Kashmiri, and now there is a generation of writers educated in English, often living outside Kashmir, who feel responsible for telling stories of their lives and of the lives of others around them. As Agha Shahid Ali often said, a poet bears witness to his world, and that is no small task in politically polarized, even murderous, times. 

In our world, official stories are repeated ad nauseam by every form of government or corporate media, and most often these stories have more to do with administrative convenience than with people’s lives. One of the most important tasks of writers is to produce accounts of experiences and events that contest official myopia and lies. Now, as you say, there are a number of writers who are doing just that, and doing so convincingly. I also believe that academics have a special responsibility to pay critical attention to such cultural productivity, and thus to make it part of larger conversations across the globe. 

What is your reading of the recent government formation in Kashmir – the coming together of two unlikely partners BJP and PDP to rule Kashmir? How does it portend for Kashmir in the long run, and do you see any change towards, say, removal of AFSPA and demilitarization at least from the civilian areas in the coming years? There has also been talk of setting up of ‘composite townships’ from this government for the return of Kashmir Pandits which has been opposed by every section in the valley? 

Odd party alliances are a regular feature of electoral politics, and this arrangement is only the most recent of the occasionally surprising alliances that have been in political power in Jammu and Kashmir. Will they find in themselves the political will to demilitarize civilian areas? Again, you are a better judge of such a possibility. From a distance, demilitarization seems urgent and necessary, but also seems highly unlikely. 

You ask me to comment on “composite townships.” Once again, I would rather that you, and readers more generally, turn to the poets in this volume to see what they say about the broken lives of, and sundered relations between, Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims. Think along with them and let their poems remind us that our most profound ethical obligation as a divided community is to repair relationships precisely by not making the government the arbiter of how Kashmiris live and interact with each other. We have to repair trust, and the rebuilding of homes must be part of that larger process of restoring relationships of kindness and care. To do this each of us has to find a way of reaching out to those who are alienated from ourselves and to find a way—however small and seemingly inconsequential—to try and heal wounds that continue to fester. Kashmiris used to pride themselves on their composite cultural, spiritual, and moral legacy, and that is the past that has to be restored in order to bring into being an egalitarian, democratic future. 

Finally, when will this book be available in Srinagar bookshops? 

I am afraid this is a question best answered by booksellers in Kashmir. I do hope that they will make Of Gardens and Graves available soon. It can be bought directly from the publishers, Three Essays Press (http://www.threeessays.com/books/of-gardens-and-graves/) as well as from other online retailers.