Letters from Rafiq and Maryam

  • Sameer Abraham Thomas
  • Publish Date: Apr 1 2016 2:38PM
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  • Updated Date: Apr 5 2016 10:16PM
Letters from Rafiq and Maryam

Rafiq Kathwari’s poetic memoir In Another Country evokes the political, the private and the literary modes of existence that often overlap 

Near the end of a conversation with Ravi Shankar at Shiv Nadar University, poet Rafiq Kathwari explained the title of his collection of poems In Another Country, for which he won the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award, the first non-Irish person to win the award. The title is not merely a geographical marker, he said, but a metaphor for his mother’s state of mind as she battled with mental illness. The idea that atypical psyches should afford a poetic insight akin to that of the South Asian diasporic writer is one that permeates Rafiq’s book (I use his first name as there is more than one Kathwari to consider).

Dedicated to Rafiq’s mother Maryam, In Another Country is redolent with the close identification between the two poets, Rafiq and Maryam. Some of the most memorable poems are a series of letters written by Maryam with Rafiq as her amanuensis to various international political figures, including President Eisenhower and Indira Gandhi. That these should appear in a book of poems with Rafiq’s name on the cover complicates any absolute notion of a single author-poet in favour of a creative heritage that connects mother and son, even when they occupy other countries, both of the world and of the mind. The titular poem, dedicated to Agha Shahid Ali, who was a close friend of Rafiq’s, perfectly expresses this sense of creative empathy and cooperation stretching across time, space and psychic realities. “At Jewel House in Srinagar, Mother reshapes my ghazal”, Rafiq writes in an impressive rendering of the ghazal form in English, complete with radif, qafia and takhallus. At the same time as Maryam transforms Rafiq’s poetry, Rafiq supplements his mother’s, such as in the case of his fictional (and decidedly tongue-in-cheek) reply from Indira Gandhi to Maryam’s actual letter. Of course, given this authorial exchange and interplay between history and fiction, distinguishing between the two becomes near impossible. Poetry thus becomes the site of a blurring of easy conceptual categories.

This blurring between what actually happened and what may be creative license brings to mind the literary genre of the memoir and the wrestling with memory that goes into it. In many ways, In Another Country can be considered a poetic memoir, exploring as it does Rafiq’s childhood memories, his relationship with his parents and siblings, his marriage and his writing. This is complicated, however, by the fact that poems like “Late Retort” and “A Resurrection” are in his mother’s voice and explore her memories. Perhaps then it would be more appropriate to read In Another Country as a family saga, stretching from the wedding ceremony of Rafiq’s parents in “My Parents’ Nuptials” to his nephew’s radicalization and death in “History’s Most Persecuted Minority is Insensitive to the Aspirations of the World’s Most Dispossessed Tribe”. In between, Rafiq chronicles his father’s second marriage and its effect on Maryam, Rafiq’s mixed feelings towards his older brother Farooq, disputes over property and much more besides vis-à-vis the clan Kathwari. While not all of these memories are relatable in themselves, his representation of the friction and anxieties that often define family dynamics must surely strike a chord with many.

In a book dedicated to his mother though, it is unsurprising that Rafiq should focus most on the complicated figure of his mother. In particular, he writes about her battle with schizophrenia with wit but also great tenderness, reminiscent of Jerry Pinto’s novel Em and the Big Hoom. Like Pinto, Rafiq paints a disturbing picture of the aftermath of his mother’s electroconvulsive therapy in “House Call” where the mother is no longer able to recognize her own child. Similarly, in poems like “Lost in Translation” and “Found in Translation”, Rafiq writes about modern psychiatry’s attempts to analyse and normalise Maryam in a manner that is scathingly satirical. Harry the shrink, as Rafiq’s psychiatrist is dismissively referred to, is a recurring character, shown to be a clownish figure in his interactions with Maryam, unable to respond appropriately to Maryam’s dreams and anxieties. “You’ve made this into child’s play”, she complains in “Lost in Translation”. Unlike Harry the shrink, Rafiq seems to subscribe to a pre-modern and early modern conception of madness as divine voice, as an impetus to and requisite for prophetic ability. Tellingly, the epigraph to the collection is from Emily Dickinson: “Much madness is divinest sense”. In her hallucinations, dreams and letters, Maryam Kathwari is capable of mixing sense with nonsense, spouting paranoia and political critique in the same breath. It is Harry’s inability to recognize this that makes him appear contemptible in Rafiq’s poems. Rafiq himself is explicitly political in poems like “Rant”, inspired by Allen Ginsburg’s “America”. In “Rant”, Rafiq’s political views manifest themselves in a tirade against American neo-imperialism, a theme that one finds in other poems as well. In doing so, Rafiq’s ire breaks through territorial boundaries, attacking Sheikh Abdullah in Kashmir at one moment, lamenting the fate of Palestine the next. The force of Rafiq’s critique is sometimes at the expense of subtlety. “After Seeing Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children, A Play for Gaza” abandons the compassion Churchill’s play has for the dilemma of Jewish victims turned Israeli oppressors even as it mimics its form. Consequently, when Rafiq writes, “Tell her the truth so she grows up to speak its name”, the effect is like that of a cudgel to the head – powerful, but blunt. One wishes that in such instances, he would bring in more of the sensitivity he shows in his poems about his mother. A case in point is “I Translate, from the Urdu, Mother’s Dream for Harry the Shrink”, where Rafiq recognizes that communication is often most difficult between parents and children, something he chooses to ignore in “After Seeing…” in favour of a stark, seemingly objective representation of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Rafiq is not, however, devoid of nuance. “Assignment” explores how the politics of identity function even within the supposedly divorced realm of literature, the ars poetica taught in creative writing workshops with only one Muslim in the room. Incidentally, many of the poems in the collection are the product of such creative writing workshops. Politics and literature are often intertwined in Rafiq’s poetry. “Reading Lolita in Kashmir” combines a childhood memory and Vladmir Nabokov’s controversial novel with a haunting description of the Kashmiri landscape, inhabited by “amputated tree trunks”, barbed wire and half-widows.  Literature also informs Rafiq’s style, with poems after Rumi, poems dedicated to Marie Howe and poems that rework a Nasruddin folk tale. Not just literature, there is much else that is grist to Rafiq’s poetic mill. A Persian proverb, a sign at the Consulate of India in New York and a sepia print of Bahadur Shah Zafar, all inspire poetry. Rafiq’s pen consumes all kinds of cultural artefacts and lived experiences and translates them into poetry, giving the collection an eclectic and inclusive feel. This is enhanced by his versatility of structure, playing with rhyme, metre and arrangement in a way that pushes the boundaries of poetic form. Some poems look more like prose and go on for pages while one of the most poignant poems is only a title and a sentence long. Even email conversations become poetry, in “Interweb”. If variety is the spice of life, Rafiq leaves your mouth watering.

In Another Country is testament to the fact that the political, the private and the literary are not distinct but overlapping modes of existence. One can write about neo-imperialism even while chronicling a family history in a form that challenges unbreakable rules of composition. It is also an exploration of identity, madness, love and creativity and asks if there is much difference between them all. Even if you don’t normally read poetry, Rafiq’s book is, at the least, an engaging, thought-provoking, sometimes touching and often amusing read.  



(Sameer Abraham Thomas is an MA student at Shiv Nadar University, New Delhi. He doesn’t often read poetry but writes some from time to time.)