Kashmiri Pandits: A Community in Exile Finds its Voice Through Poetry
In their poetry, the Kashmiri Pandit poets engage with the multitude of experiences which emanate from their exodus and their subsequent life as migrants.
June 12, 2019
Having been in exile for more than two decades now, many Kashmiri Hindus, generally known as Pandits, are taking to poetry and other forms of art to express their profound angst in life as migrants and a gradual loss of their communitarian identity. In their new found voices, they can be seen yearning for their lost home or paradise while also lamenting the sufferings that the complex experience of exodus has brought for their lives. In their poetry, the Kashmiri Pandit poets engage with the multitude of experiences which emanate from their exodus and their subsequent life as migrants.
The age old traditions of Kashmiriyat had long characterised the socio-cultural milieu of Kashmir as it had been an abode of people of varied religious and ethnic affiliations whose shared ways of living evolved a unique pluralist identity. In its essence, Kashmiriyat is characterised by the universal values of pluralism and tolerance. In this milieu, it was difficult to differentiate between people on the basis of their religious affiliations. Scholars have often alluded to the “sufi/mystic tradition in Kashmiri poetry” as a case in point of “exemplary tolerance between different sects professing various religions’’. The personality of Lala Arifa, or, Lal Ded, or, Lalleshwari, as she is commonly known among Kashmiris, is central to the memory of Kashmiriyat as it was through her poetry that the idea received its real essence. Outlining her universal mystical vision, Lala observes:
Shiva abides in all that is, everywhere
Then do not distinguish between a Hindu and Mussalman.
If thou art wise, know thyself
That is true knowledge of the Lord.
I gave up falsehood, deceit, untruth,
I saw the one in all fellow beings, and
Preached the same doctrine to the mind.
What then is the inhibition in eating
The food offered by a fellow human being?
Lal Ded’s tradition was carried forward by a tradition of mystics or sages through successive centuries. These sages or mystics or sufis are revered by all Kashmiris, regardless of their religious affiliations. Sheikhul Aalam or Sheikh Nooruddin or Nund Reshi (b. 1378) is regarded as Lal Ded’s spiritual heir. His personality, revered by both Pandits and Muslims in equal measure, is another figure essential to the memory and meaning of Kashmiriyat. He took the universal ideas of Lal Ded to the realm of perfection. Following the spiritual footsteps of Lal Ded, Sheikh Nooruddin expresses his spiritual yearnings:
That Lalla of Padamanpore,
Who had drunk the fill of divine nectar.
She was undoubtedly an avatar of ours,
O God! Grant me the same spiritual power.
However, the rise of militancy in the late 1980s and early 1990s changed the scenario dramatically; the timeless bondage of love and trust between the two communities suddenly received a jolt. The Pandits were suddenly overcome with apprehensions of fear and persecution while the Muslims began to harbour suspicion. As Sumantra Bose observes in Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace,“Most of Kashmir’s Pandit minority became the first collateral casualties of the independence war, and the movement’s leaders cannot avoid a measure of moral if not actual culpability for their fate. The Pandit flight also exposed a critical flaw embedded in the “independent Kashmir” concept—its complete inability to accommodate the multiple political allegiances regarding sovereignty and citizenship that exist even in the Kashmir Valley (the stronghold of pro-independence sentiment) and even more extensively in IJK as a whole. The Pandits, whose history, culture, ethnicity, and language are the same as the Valley’s Muslims, suffered because as a community ultimately loyal to India they could not identify with the “patriotic” anti-India uprising sweeping their home region” (p. 124).
Renowned Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid’s poem “Farewell”, which he refers to as a “plaintive love letter” from a Kashmiri Muslim to a Kashmiri Pandit, evocatively describes this tragic aspect:
At a certain point I lost track of you.
You needed me. You needed to perfect me:
In your absence you polished me into the Enemy.
Your history gets in the way of my memory.
I am everything you lost. Your perfect enemy.
Your memory gets in the way of my memory…
Lalita Pandit, another Kashmiri-American academician and poet, reveals this aspect in her poem “Anantnag” in these lines:
What of that? Now you are
A stranger, an enemy.
Children stare with (38-39)
suspicion. They have learnt
to hate; they are afraid.
Hollow eyed ghosts
walk the streets. (45-49)
Lalita Pandit also writes about the breakdown of the tragic events of the early 1990s in her poem “Azaadi:1989-1995”:
You thought Azaadi
Could be courted, wooed and wed
Without shedding blood
You thought it could be made
To become a wife who does not stray:
Never demands a price, a gift, a sacrifice. (73-78)
Ever since their migration from the land of their birth, now almost a quarter of a century ago, Kashmiri Pandits have felt a gradual erosion of their identity coupled with profound sense of rootlessness. The thought and intellectual activities have seen a cataclysmic transformation. The Kashmiri Pandits encountered terrible conditions in their forcibly initiated new life as ‘migrants’ in their own country. It was a time where history seemed to turn its tables on them. Just as the prominent Kashmiri Pandit poet Subhash Kak writes in his poem “Snow in Srinagar” about the assault on the Pandit identity by the forces of oppression:
Who knew then that decades later a terror will come to Srinagar
and I will be unable to see my home where I was born
where we had played cowries on many new snows.
The terrorists want us to bury our past
forget the deeds of our ancestors. (33-37)
The Pandits were forced to live a life of misery in the migrant camps in Jammu and other places in wretched conditions in an unfamiliar climate. These pathetic conditions of living in the migrant camps, coupled with the loss of home resulted in the Pandits, especially their elders, being overcome by trauma, depression and dementia. Prominent Kashmiri Pandit poet K L Chowdhary writes in his poem “Summer in Exile”:
The limbs refuse to carry,
blank goes the mind,
limp and prostrate the body,
the lungs tired,
the heart tardy. (10-14)
These were the new experiences which the Pandits confronted and engaged with a profundity which now finds expression in their literary endeavours. As they come to terms with their new existence of being cultural and spatial migrants, a new current dominates their literary expressions, one which is spurred by a multitude of tragic experiences that they confront. Different Pandit migrant poets create images and symbols out of these experiences. Their identity, uncertain of its future, is driven by a fast fading memory. In his poem “Dear Departed Ancestor”, Subhash Kak writes:
For while the taps run dry
Here in exile,
Vitasta* is only a memory (8-10)
All this remembrance or memory has to hold itself in a struggle for hope, and one of the ways of charting out this struggle is the realm of poetry. And precisely, this is what the different migrant Pandit poets are aiming to achieve in their poetry. The past, which articulates one’s identity, becomes almost indispensable to do away with. It has an all-pervasive presence in the lives of these people. It formulates the present of the people snatched of their homeland and identity. It is their past which is enabling the Pandits to sustain the continuity with their roots of belonging while also defining their future as they come to terms with repression and dislocation. Memory becomes a central territory in which the present takes refuge as Subhash Kak writes in his poem “The Records of our Lives”:
And if memories don't matter, then how do we define
ourselves? How is our responsibility
measured? If our memories are forced
by those around us, how much of credit
is theirs? Where is our freedom? (28-32)
It is difficult for the Pandits to delineate their past from their present. For instance, in his poem “Exile”, Subhash Kak writes:
Memories get hazy
even recounting doesn’t help (1-2)
K L Chowdhary also yearns for this past in his poem “Keys”:
Even after a decade in exile
I hang, from my girdle, this bunch of keys,
keys that I carried with me
when I was forced to flee,
keys to my home,
keys to my relics, my diary, my library,
keys that opened the sanctum
where my gods reside… (1-8)
While coming to terms in exile in different parts of the world, the Pandits could still feel the tragic happenings which continued unabated back home in the valley of their birth. As K L Chowdhary writes in his poem “The Curse”:
That mighty river of life,
now a foul gutter,
her bosom laid bare
and unable to hide the secrets
of broken bones and crooked skeletons
of her once daughters and sons. (9-15)
The idea of loss becomes the new metaphorical ingredient of this type of poetry. Out of its specific set of circumstances, it tries to develop a new aesthetic out of the elements of a lost joy and the moments of suffering. In this context, Amitav Ghosh observes in his essay “Times of Joy Recalled in Wretchedness”: “If the twin terrors of insurgency and repression could be said to have engendered any single literary leitmotif, it is surely the narrative of the loss of Paradise…The reason why there is no greater sorrow than the recalling of times of joy is that this is a grief beyond consolation.” The joy of past and loss of present find their expression in these lines of the poem “Exile” by Subhash Kak:
The best paradise
Is the paradise we are exiled from.
Besides these poets, there are many other migrant Pandit poets, who write in other languages like Kashmiri, Hindi and Urdu, expressing the deep angst of living in exodus, away from the land of their birth. Poetry, like this, throws up new and interesting perspectives with which we try to redefine literature. Poems like these engage with historical experiences which spur them and hence are no way detached from their immediate realms of reality.
First published in Newsclick.
Donate to the Indian Writers' Forum, a public trust that belongs to all of us.