Nadim’s Son Watan: Where We Dwell

  • Sonam Kachru
  • Publish Date: Dec 19 2016 1:01PM
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  • Updated Date: Dec 26 2016 6:33PM
Nadim’s Son Watan: Where We DwellFile Photo

Akhil Katyal speaks of Mirza Waheed’s second book, The Book of Gold Leaves, as containing two maps, each overlaid on the other. In one, the shadows of people touch in shades of buildings in the alleys. In the other, the shadows grow shorter before their time. The air between grows opaque. The birds are silent now. In summer, cartographers learn to plot the whispers of stone. Break one open to read and lay out the pieces of the word on a cloth. They will say nothing to you.

Poets have also made maps. As if to sing in Kashmiri was to first sound out the spaces of Kashmir. In the middle of the last century, Dīna Nāth Nādim made many maps. One was called Sōn Waṭan, Our Home, or perhaps better, Where We Dwell. For some, ‘home’ is where one can no longer return, always a conception of a place one has left. For others, the place wherein we choose to dwell is the key: not ancestry, not biology, but dwelling, prospectively. For some it is more subtle still. Where we dwell is to be measured by the edges of our ability to share in our memory for a language we share: where alone what is possible and not possible for us is can be assigned a place, and the colors, which do not dwell on the surfaces of objects, can be filled in. Nādim might have meant, Where we Dwell, or Kashmiri, as I give you to remember it.


I have spent many hours in the map over the last twelve years. I tried to translate it, but could not find myself at home in it in English. Open up the map:


Where we dwell is like a flower.


How shall we receive this? At least it looks to what grows, and not the soil. It lifts our eyes from earth, but not too high. We must still stoop, or sit a while, look around us. Perhaps he means for us to close our eyes to learn where we dwell. But do we not now want to step out of the gardens?


Recall the proverb, äsas gatshih phulai āsuni, adah gayih phulai vuchuni, Let the mouth first blossom, before setting out to see the blossoming flowers. The mouth must blossom if the eye is to be satisfied with flowers. One might take this as advice: take a picnic with you when visiting the gardens. One might take it as wisdom in the good life: the body is not eye alone, and enjoyment is not to be found in solitary contemplation, the feast being a communal form of happiness. One might take it with humor. We Kashmiris might use beauty as a digestive aid, but we are not about to let appetite wait on beauty. I would like to deliberately misread it. When reading poetry, substance before tired conceits: I could stomach the inert metaphors if I were better fed. I could find my way home if my maps were not colored-in with clichés. There is the positive lesson. Our environment is lived poetically—with understanding, guided on the grooves of metaphors, tacit or explicit. We see as we are given to hear. The question will be: shall we live in poor, or strong poetry? Or will reality break the place of the imagination in where we dwell?


But keep the map open and trace out the thought with more care. I follow along, with Mr. Trilokinath Raina’s translation, scribbled into the margins of the creased paper:



Our motherland—

A flower

The lusty prime of spring

A bower in Shalimar

Ardour of young innocence

Excitement of new clothes

Lovers uniting after a quarrel

A lotus in full bloom

Memory of one’s love.



Where we dwell is not to be plotted in space alone. You will want to find yourself with the help of the climate, which alone makes a place of a parcel of land. And a climate is a delicate thing, not to be brought into view by a single icon, say a flower. We shall want an inventory.


‘The lusty prime’ is a cliché. The words tāva hot are so much more concrete, gathered from the life around us. We will want to say, ‘the fire made from dried tinder’. Perhaps some will think of a specific kind of wood, washed up out of the water. Perhaps it will echo in your mind as such-and-so fire, and no other. In any event, we are asked to hear not of a return of what is absent, but the return of life, if you will, in what is there, but differently. The fire of Spring’s reclaimed youth is a memory of a peculiar kind of innocence, one which is renewed and not lost.


          Where we dwell is like a flower,

          The fire and light of Spring’s reclaimed youth,


And if this too, seems abstract, what of the joy in receiving and putting on new clothes? The map seems as if it is made of several signposts, several disconnected moments. But it is not. The map is made by waking, the lines opening and closing like eyes in a face blinking, or like the changing pace of a person walking. Their formal unit of measure is breath, and the effect like the changes motion affords perspective. Each line belongs to a single thought, unfolding, gathering and making a new time present: flower, Spring, fire and light, innocence, the joy in new clothes, and so on.


After winter, we come down, throw the doors open, and unwrap, caress, hide, and put on, new clothes. I don’t know how many would understand this now. This is why we shall ever need new maps. But there are those who do remember. And so our maps will overlap. In any event, what is crucial to see is that the single thought involves a body being put together. Fire and light, and now the smell and feel of cloth in the new season. Our body is being made whole.


Where we dwell is a threshold in time, our living body.


And how do we dwell? Not with nostalgia. At least, here memory brings no pain, and memory is not alone the way in which we are oriented in time. The lotus in the map is actually not in full bloom: it is the clasped lotus opening in bloom. Where we dwell is like that, and also how we dwell, in the progressive tense. But this should not be confused with a single temporal direction. Memory gathers up, and looks ahead. We dwell oriented in two directions. The fullness, the life-opening function of memory, is a form of growth for Nādim, and not reduction. Our home in life is lived in time in two directions, expectation, and retroactively, in gathering, when one sees aright the moments of opening in what we gather close to us in embrace. The lines in the map unfold to give us space, the shade of reconcilement and the close satisfactions of our encounters in love, the choicest part of any flower, the shade in which we dwell. All this echoes in the Kashmiri which Mr. Raina translates as “lovers in close embrace.”


If Spring is a climate in which past and future blossom in the present, where we dwell is a lesson in the differences different modes of embodiment can make, the kind a language in a particular place evolves to teach us. You might look to the map, and find your way back with such an opening, here re-read for subtle differences:


Where we dwell is like a flower,

The lusty prime of spring

A bower in Shalimar


Mr. Raina chooses to overlook the word gosh in the line “a bower in Shalimar.” Now you might think this word meant light, or brightness, alone. If so, you would be taking the word to be gāsh. It is the genius of Nādim to make a map that begins with the familiar, and demands of us not merely a second look, but the duty to hear better: Shalamaruk gosh hyu. The flower is a cliché. The flower is intrinsically good because beautiful, and fragile, and something both natural and cultivated. But here it is a creature of dwelling, of earth that rises up, that grows out of the earth, even as the line goes on, to embed the flower not in soil, but time, and a qualitative texture to being in time (and the youth of spring): the flower’s new context is further specified through an image that situates us still farther from the sense of home as earth. To hear this, you have to hear gōsh, not gāsh.


Read this map with a dictionary, a map of a particular kind. Gāsh does mean brilliance, luster of light, but gōsh something more. Look up the word in A Dictionary of the Kashmiri Language: gōsh, defined in Sanskrit by Pandit Mukund Ram Shastri as prakāśa-śālitā, something distinguished for its light, or endowed with light (almost as if the light is rendered praiseworthy, or praised by it). It is light that does not alone illuminate, but which is brought into focus as the condition for the visible. Grierson adds further detail:


brilliancy, brightness, clear visibility (e.g. of a distant peak); brightness, clearness (of the sky); brightness (e.g. of a garden beautiful with flowers or of a clean well-kept house).


That is its own poem. Where we dwell can only be found in the history of our words, the history of the small distinctions and the kind of attention that dwells not only with the visible, but with the quality of visibility, with the conditions that bring things into view and which can in turn be evaluated (even as our climate).


To walk with this map, which began as a cliché in English, one has to take a deep breath:


Where we dwell is like a flower,

            The fire and light of Spring’s reclaimed youth, the palpably swept-bright-

clean look of air above the bowers


The life a poem such as this maps is found in such details of attention, lovingly gathered. It is what Lal Děd meant by thali thali rozun, which like thali thali wuchun, joins dwelling with care as its precondition.


Our life is the ground for the climate it maps, our days and moments of flowering and satisfaction. There is youth, and coming into maturity, there is recollection. Time the air and the quality of light above our moments. Time and embodiment make this a map of an anonymously rich life, in which many might share. You might simply have said that the first stanza is explicating the thought that our home, where we dwell, is our life. And the ‘our’ finds its concreteness in various ways of fleshing out domestic, situated felicities already to hand in the smallest details of our language. And that is something miraculous: how a form of life can come to collect around a word as dew.


Again and again I found that I alone could not dwell in this map. I would need the knowledge of my elders. Of several generations, and no single community, not in any single place. For words not found in dictionaries were everywhere, single words, complex memories, without which one could not hope to get around. How can we translate these? How can we find our way in another language. Nādim asks us to recollect that where we dwell is a moment,



When one suddenly remembers tears, or

The face of a child in unbounded play,

when the red flush of joy rises up, and floods the face,


I turn the page, and find


          the wet-green of joy

          the hot blood of first youth, the friends and loves when we were

young, our first love,

the fire-light in eyes,

the small square of cloth worn like a handkerchief with the little piece

of wire you use to measure the purity of gold, gold you buy

for your daughter,          nothing held closer…


To know the meaning of the word chāsh is not, after all, a matter of finding the right object. It is to remember what is too poorly called a culture.


The time between lines in my translation took years. Follow it if you can, as I struggled to make my way, finding


Hope as it nears fulfillment, and

Dawn in its unweened infancy

The joy of a peasant women in seeing for the first time the child she

has adopted,         the light of one’s life,

Of labor in the fields of rice,

The wild play of youth,

The quaint village,

          Rest found in the shade of tall Chinars,

Evening on Dal Lake,

The first, green almonds,


The map is still a map of an anonymous life, but it is no longer a life of an individual. It is the life of an entire people. A map, and of an entire people once imagined together. You close your eyes, and perhaps recall hearing of someone recall,


Looking out and seeing from a distance a relation return,

After long absence, and him, bearing presents,

                   The small apples, sweet, of September and October,


And you know that you are failing this poem when you translate it under a single name. For these are not my memories. But they are, still, someone’s. Shall we forget them? Sometimes, it is not the past, but the future to which you look, the generations to come. You look to your child, those who show you what it is to know


A mouthful of mother’s milk…


And on and on, the map unfurls, sounding out our vowels and life which we have let lie, buried in the language we speak only in whispers. But the graves of our language are shallow graves. Our words, like our life, are all about us, in the people with whom we dwell. In the things with which we dwell. In what we knew to find in what we make. Where we dwell,


          The pattern of woven wool, and the colors, the finest weaves,

The shawls, priceless, like water, made thread by single thread,

The gardens in cloth, that come into view only when the finest

needles are worked by calloused thimbled fingers 

that know how,


Where we dwell is what we knew how to make, what we touched, how we saw one another:


The shade-cool comfort in silk

The fringes of the finest weaves,

          portraits of youth in the wood of walnut.


To dwell is also to know how to let things come into view, of having things come into the clearing, of making our environment, and so finding ourselves.


But openness has limits, and maps come to an end. And what of the borders of where we dwell. The last 5 lines stand out from the rest. In Mr. Trilokinath Raina’s translation:


We are her sentinels.

With the voice of Laldyad ringing in our ears,

The fire of Habba Khotan glowing in our hearts,

And with new music we stand today—

With sweet songs that sing on the lips of the spring breeze!


This is the second suggestion of the borders of our home, of where we choose to dwell. The first was the language, the very stuff of the poem, of the map, of what we can say and hear another mean. This suggestion of borders is now indirect:


we are the watchmen, or guardians of where we dwell, our home

(asy chi waṭanuky rachdār).


The map addresses us. We are, after all, where and how we dwell. Our home is not faceless. If we dwell with borders, these are not easily mapped:


          We are the guardians of where we dwell,

          With Lal Děd’s voice (Lal Dědi hanz āwāz hyath),


I like Mr. Raina’s choice of “voice” for the resonant “āwāz” which will echo with the words for fire and music, in a play of sounds impossible to translate. For where we dwell is language lived poetically. Or so I hear Nādim. And our home a world of faces possessed by voices.


Our borders are the borders of our language, and not language alone, but of the example of the poets in our language. And our language has a history, a temporal horizon, watched over by those who have made it their own, in the present, made present again as language makes present more than the present. What is it like to make our temporal horizons palpably present? Nādim shows us, for his next line is that miracle of language, the possession of voice and style, utterly mysterious despite the best efforts of critics to put their finger on how sound can incarnate thought in styles:


We are the watchmen of where we dwell,

          With Lal Děd’s voice,

          With the heat and glow and music of fire inside,

The very fire which Habba Khātūn loved

and soothed and cradled in song,


Habba Khātun, Zoon (or “Moon”) as she is affectionately known, follows on Lal Děd, as we move on in the history of the language, and Nādim’s line grows in length, and complexity of diction and thought:


Habbakhātūni yus laluvmut lwoli andar suy sōz hyath


The first part of this line, habbakhātūni yus laluvmut lwoli, might just be an echo of Habba Khātun’s love songs, a line she might herself have sung. But the grammar of the thought is Nādim’s, poised in the grammar of memory, a counterpoint, a relative clause, gathering the past, and looking ahead, even as sōz, a polysemous word, becomes sāz in the next line: the new music to come.


And is that not an illustration of how the possession of the old becomes the new, propelling us to new music, even as the last line reincarnates Habba Khātun but in a new key? The music, old and new, fused in the fire of the guardians, becomes the climate, but now, a climate of music in language that is not alone where we dwell, but where we hope to dwell, with expectation of fulfillment (andāz), making meaning of time—again and again, with the first stirrings of ever returning spring.


Where we hope to dwell is a map of where we are, a threshold. Nādim tried to map our way to the only home we have. What of the maps that continue to be made? Who will decipher them for us? Who will tell us who ‘we’ now are and what we may yet be like?


What shall we now hope to gather? What leave behind? For whom? Now It is summer. The birds are silent. And as Nādim would have it, the mountains hunger. What will our cartographers teach us to know?


I know I shall continue to dwell, when I can, in Nādim’s words. But the mouth must blossom, before one seeks out the blossoming flowers.

 (An excerpt from Make Humans Again)

 (First published in the July issue of Ink)

(Sonam Kachru is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He also moonlights as a translator of Kashmiri poetry, and some of this work has been featured in Another Chicago Magazine, Spolia, Almost Island, and Aufgabe (Litmus Press). He has been threatening to publish a book of translations from Kashmiri, Make Humans Again, and is under contract to produce a representative translation of the utterances of Lal Déd)