Muffled Song

  • Huzaifa Pandit
  • Publish Date: Aug 24 2017 8:29PM
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  • Updated Date: Aug 24 2017 8:29PM
Muffled Song

Ayaz Rasool Nazki’s poetry debut is at once radiant and middling

 

Mirza Ghalib once sarcastically suggested in a couplet that his poetry was meant only to placate a whim, and so must not be judged on its skill. Songs of Light, Ayaz Rasool Nazki’s debut venture into English poetry, appears to be inspired by Ghalib’s dictum. Nazki says he scarcely follows conventional wisdom and, therefore, hardly ever revises his poems. The spontaneity thus engendered is apparent in his work. That is its strength; its greatest failing, too. Some poems are charmingly fresh, others barely rise above cliché. 

The publisher, Writers Workshop Kolkata, is renowned for introducing the who’s who of modern English Indian poetry such as Agha Shahid Ali. In his foreword, Maharaj Krishan Santoshi envisions Nazki as caught up in a struggle between seeking to escape the dreary realities of an occupied land into its fabled natural beauty and an engagement with the dark times. He correctly identifies that in his successful poems, Nazki is able to blend the imagery of nature with a political statement. The foreword is followed by a preface by the poet, where Nazki dwells on the nature of poetry and the state of current poetics. The preface is notable for a couple of statements that merit debate.

First is the claim that poetry is an attempt to see the creative impulse as a manifestation of life-imparting divinity. Although this is hardly a new idea, it fails to produce a comprehensive explanation of poetics that don’t conform to the mystical and aesthetic tilt, that is, subaltern poetry like Dalit or queer or protest poetry. It is a restrictive quasi-mystic romantic notion of poetry as a vehicle of edification. 

The second, and more puzzling point, is this: “It is almost as if the political and military wounds inflicted upon it (Kashmir) have caused a permanent (creative) disability. There must be a world beyond and in spite of Kashmir but our blinded and blindfolded eyes cannot see it.” This admonishment appears targeted at the genre of resistance literature, especially protest poetry, which has emerged to the forefront of Kashmiri literary scene in the past few years. The political crisis that has engulfed Kashmir has catalysed a mushrooming of voices across genres that are connected by a common concern about articulating the experience of the Kashmiri traumatised by conflict. Silenced and unrepresented by the mainstream media, such poetry acts as a counter-archive of the conflict, serving the important function of empowering the silenced subject. Calling such empowerment disabling and blinded appears fallacious. The irony is Nazki’s best poems are those that deal with the Kashmir conflict. 

The poems presented in varying lengths and themes present a more democratic approach than the preface permits. The first poem, I Wonder, for example, is a reflection on a ceiling fan that doubles as an existential query about the nature of self in a world that prides itself on routine, mechanisation and monotony. Gazing at the ceiling fan, the poem marvels at its placid nature, its single minded obeisance to a switch that shifts it from stagnation to motion. The poem is an interesting comment on ennui that sets in far too often in Kashmir, prone to depressing periods of stagnation due to curfew or strikes. 

Will It So Happen continues in the same vein, marveling at the triviality of self. The imagery, however, is clichéd, referring to the same old romantic ideal of verdant bucolic harmony that has ceased to convey anything except a vague nostalgia. One Day, on the other hand, points out that nostalgia, if handled well, can yield interesting results. The short poem recycles an image that can hardly be found in the current poetic discourse in Kashmir – the hermitage. The poem inverts the paradigm of retirement with its associations of contentment and respite. Rather, the shaking fingers and aching bones suggest an emotional turmoil. The hermitage then is not as a site of liberation and agency, rather the frugality is a resignation to fate, a concession that time will take a brutal toll. The return to the hermitage suggests a tired, fallen world shorn of colour rather than a redemptive and restorative world. All Warriors Are Back similarly employs a pithy economy to produce a piquant lament on the “death cult” that has Kashmir firmly in its grasp. The normalisation of death and routine violence is conveyed adequately by the imagery of “transit” – waiting arms, night, morrow, and another. 

This claustrophobic routine is contrasted with an authentic freedom, often represented by the “bird”. It is as an important motif in Nazki’s poems, often employed to signify moods like freedom, transition, loneliness – Birds Were Told, On My Morning Walk Today, Lost Innocence, That Bird Will Come Back, Green And Cold The Morning Air, Selfish Birds. One bird-themed poem that stands out is The Bird Will Come Back. It echoes the Dogri poet Padma Sachdeva’s The Cart Driver. While Padma evokes the maternal instinct through the bird, Nazki evokes the paternal instinct. The poem creates a somber emotion through the use of reported speech.

 

That Bird will come back

I have been told.

 

This creates an effect of distantiation while lending it an air of an officious pronouncement. The distantiation also betrays an anxiety about the facticity of routine arrival. Reassurance is provided, therefore, by the introduction of an absent source. The contrast created by cold chicks in a warm nest is evocative of trouble within the paradise – coldness signifying death and warmth signifying domestic bliss. The impossibility and sheer scale of obstacles the Bird encounters justify the anxiety and create an acute sense of pathos and discomfort at the parent bird’s predicament.

 

he has to cross

the sky on fire

leaping flames

kiss his feather

singe his plume

 

The use of enjambment adds to the sense of urgency and anxiety that is evoked well by strenuous actions: plough on, digging up the air. The agrarian imagery that culminates in the produce of “fire everywhere” is a stark reminder of the politics of the valley. The plough on the red flag – Jammu and Kashmir’s state flag – that once suggested hope of nascent freedom and revolution in the valley (cold chicks in a warm nest) has reaped a bitter harvest. The bird of freedom now encounters fire in both literal (bullets fired, fire due to blasts and encounters) and metaphoric sense (grief, destruction and anger). The poem, therefore, serves as a powerful political allegory. 

This attention to detail is missing in other poems. Consider Green And Cold The Morning Air. The very first line – green and cold the morning air – sounds archaic as the poetic idiom has moved on to a more familiar and recognisable conversational mode. The enjambment that works well earlier only serves to confuse here. The lack of punctuation is a common feature of all poems which only accentuates the absence of editorial restraint. The poem is just the catalogue of an experience of a wintery morning that reflects no sustained engagement. The dour landscape is meant to evoke existential despair yet the poem’s colour symbolism is awry. Green is often suggestive of verdant luxuriousness rather than a dourness that is more adequately expressed by grey. Lake Is Dumb is intended to transfer emotive exhaustion to the landscape through personification. Though “dumb” does evoke abruptness and finality through the double plosives –d and b – yet it is more often a colloquial expression for idiocy. Had the adjective been turned into an adverb by the addition of struck (struck dumb), it would have conveyed a richer effect. The tourists in their furry caps and long coats too have been lent no action, and are left hanging midair, unsure of their standing in the poem. The preceding line, “birds have taken to wing”, is intended to suggest the haste of gloom, yet taking wing also conveys an entirely opposite meaning: to become joyful. The poem is completely impervious to this meaning and, therefore, sinks under the weight of its own contradictions. 

The case of I Know is similar. It is an attempt at myth-making through the transfer of the tradition of “cultural syncretism”, which rarely finds its way into the poetics of new-age poets, mainly because the conflict that determines them has subsumed every such nuance. However, the poem doesn’t work as it fails to transfer the rich imports of the Kashmiri polysystem to English. Consider for example: 

 

It was a dream

like real

in the foot of Mahadev.

 

The first two lines are meant to evoke a mystic experience the preface talks of. Yet “dream like real” is a weak representation of a mystical trance the poem ostensibly seeks to evoke. “Like real” fails the test of conversation and hangs uneasily between the dream and its location, adding little to the meaning. “In the foot of Mahadev” similarly gets its preposition wrong – “in” instead of “at”. The lack of punctuation is galling as it is impossible to gather whether the narrator stands alone “in the foot of Mahadev”, imagining the foot as a structure that permits immersion rather than the commonly imagined flat surface, or whether the reverie occurs to the narrator at the foot of Mahadev, the subsequent lines constituting the dream. The feminine divine who is the poem’s fulcrum is invested with little agency beyond the ritualistic moon-faced bride and “pure”. Since the feminine is created entirely out of male gaze, it is no surprise that the preservation of her purity requires masculine intervention, and her agency must be overruled. In the poem, the only action attributed to her is the performance of puja in a hut offered by the masculine narrator, rather than sleeping in the open as originally desired by her. The poem provides little clue as to how this attempt at female mythologising must be interpreted. Such portrayal smacks of generalisation rather than lived experience. 

The binary presented in the poems Uptown Kashmir and Downtown Kashmir also exemplifies the lazy approach to social commentary. The binary is too simplistic, rooted as it’s in what Franz Fanon called “the fallacy of nostalgia” – the retrospective creation of a space as idyllic to contrast with the present dystopian state of affairs. The poems remind of the old Bollywood binary of hero versus villain – downtown is the place with shallow pockets and golden heart, the villainous uptown is greedy and materialistic. So, while downtown residents had “low ceilings”, “they had/heart/they had/narrow lanes/they had open minds”, uptown has “wide roads for closed minds/huge mansions/for small men”. Notwithstanding the extreme generalisation, the poems betray a lack of awareness of the migratory pressures that necessitated the creation of uptown. Such binaries create imaginary boundaries where there are none, and offer a reductive view of the complex phenomenon of urbanisation. The portrayal of uptown as the home of closed minds can’t be predicated upon lived experience; such generalisation is merely a pessimistic reading of space-making, coloured by nostalgia. 

A section of the book is titled “Echoing Shams Faqir”. It comprises loose transcreations of six poems by the mystic Shams Faqir. It is to Nazki’s credit that he has attempted to render these Kashmiri classics into English, but the result sounds alien to the modern ear, not the least because the transcreations rely on strange inversions.

 

Trapped I was in a daze

In reality was I wise

 

Still, this represents the first serious attempt, as far as I am aware, to convey the rich legacy that lies dormant in the poems of past masters such as Tabrez. Hopefully, someone will take up the challenge further. 

In conclusion, it may be suggested that the book is a useful digression from the idiom of protest. It sets out largely to interconnect the rich mystic tradition of Kashmir to the modern political idiom. While it doesn’t succeed at every level, there are sufficient successful specimens to testify that such a fusion will only serve to diversify Kashmiri political spectrum. 

Huzaifa Pandit is a doctoral student at Kashmir University. His poems, essays, translations and papers have appeared in Indian Literature, PaperCuts, CLRI, Punch and Muse India