The Siege of Srinagar

  • Akhil Katyal
  • Publish Date: May 7 2016 10:25AM
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  • Updated Date: May 7 2016 9:13PM
The Siege of Srinagar


In his second novel Mirza Waheed recreates the lived experience of a besieged city


In Mirza Waheed’s The Book of Gold Leaves (2014), the city of Srinagar has two maps. One abounding in places of love, another with sites of terror. As Waheed’s narrative unfolds, one map is placed on the top of the other till they both fuse so irrevocably that you do not know which city you’re moving in, which lanes you’re navigating, and what – the sublime or the savage – you would expect to see at the next turn.


In Waheed’s story, the lanes of Downtown Srinagar become the place where Faiz, a papier-mâché artist, and Roohi, recently finished with her M.A. from a local university, fall in love with each other. The city transforms charismatically for the lovers, enabling their courtship. It is as if its urban geography – pliable, unresisting – is moulded by their mood. The window of Roohi’s top-floor room becomes the place of anticipation, of waiting for her lover to appear among the chinar trees opposite the house. The waters of the Jhelum reflect the little beginnings of the affection between the unassuming Shia boy and the spirited Sunni girl. The Shah-e-Hamadan shrine, which is the fulcrum on which Waheed’s entire narrative turns, becomes that most crucial thing which the lovers cannot do without – a place of refuge, an alcove where it seems only the two exist, a universe, that despite teeming with scores, appears as if it is only unto themselves.


Waheed wears his love for Srinagar on his sleeves. He knows the possibilities – of charm, of menace – that each of its lanes hold. His affecting love for the city is then slowly alchemized – by the rigour of his narrative – into a careful political cartography of the city. A cartography which knows how irreversibly the experience of a city can change under militarization, how its worlds can all be mangled, how fear can come to hang heavy over it. This is the early nineties – the decade which will see the Kashmir valley turn into a military citadel, which will see thousands of its young and old, men and women, die, disappear, exiled. It is the decade which will see Srinagar being stitched with concertina wire, its own Pandits leaving, scores of its own boys crossing the border into ‘that other Kashmir’ for arms training, an arrogant military power suspending all principles in the book for egregious territoriality, and a people waging a courageous resistance under the ever-present, demotic banner of ‘azadi’. Faiz and Roohi’s narrative of love is singed first at its seams, then engulfed to its very core, by these events, of which they are first observers, then willing-unwilling participants.


Waheed’s prose is attentive to a city cataclysmically changing. His images, his delicate diegesis, and all that he chooses to bring under the scope of his novel’s imagination, is to show how the physical spaces of this city run in tandem with the psychic duress of its people. The city is no more than the sum of its people’s everyday lives, their movements and their million interactions with each other; it is an accumulation of their very states of being. And when these begin to crumble, the city crumbles. The group conversations at a road-side shop which Roohi’s father once lived by, the long night walks till the Jhelum which Faiz often takes, the chatter of school-girls in a classroom in which Faiz’s sister Farhat participates, the familiar sight of the white-turbaned Pandit principal of Gandhi College taking a walk, even the rush at the neighborhood baker selling lavash, all find place in the heft of the narrative, all of this is the everyday of Srinagar that will be threatened with every passing page of the novel. Waheed’s images will change, the attributes of the familiar spaces will turn towards hazard, his characters’ movements will become more imperiled, all ‘beauty’ – the Irish Yeats is, after all, Waheed’s epigraph – will be rendered ‘terrible’. Even “our comings-and-goings,” wrote the Kashmiri poet Arjan Dev ‘Majboor’ in the mid-nineties, “are lost” (in Kaul; 2015: 19; tr. Kaul et. al.). Before you know it, the lanes, the lakes, the canals, that once promised love will now pose only intractabilities.


This traumatic urban experience is evident in the way the novel visits and revisits, the way it circles around the shrine of Shah-e-Hamadan. The six hundred year old shrine is the gravitational centre of the novel, the crucial topography of its plot. The little events – Faiz and Roohi’s meetings – that Waheed plots in its balconies, its ghat by the Jhelum, its basement and its prayer-halls, are never untied from the big events that are overwhelming Srinagar. As we read, this little habitat of love finds the outside world crashing muscularly into it, the shrine transforms from something that offers shelter to something that is also embattled. From a quiet retreat for Faiz and Roohi, to a site of death, of grieving, of stunned helplessness and of courageous protest. The first time Faiz and Roohi meet, it is at the shrine, whose references – in these early pages of the novel – are as yet suffused in a soft register crafted by Waheed, the surroundings are marked by an air of promise, by shy laughter, and late-evening lights still caress this sacred geography of the lovers.  --


“Smiles, words, brushes of the hair, circling of the foot...Roohi wants to touch his face. He wants to see the hair...Now they look at the river flowing below, now at each other...Lights begin to appear in the water. Shadows cast by the shrine, the trees and the tall houses with palanquin balconies on either side of the complex meet each other in the Jhelum, sometimes stirring, sometimes holding hands silently. Roohi watches it all. / Faiz speaks. ‘Same time next week?’ / ‘Same time next week.’ / ‘Can I shake your hand?’ / ‘Yes.’ She laughs” (36)


Things hold together here. Even the shadows of the shrine, the trees and the tall houses seem to be holding hands, in soft insubstantiality. But as the narrative unfolds, this softness of register will harden, the enchantment of this site will be brutally desecrated, and the pulse of this place – Waheed knows it viscerally, it is where the novel was born – will change. Outside, the city is under siege. The streets are pockmarked with bunkers, barbed wire is growing like nettle, strange beast-like military vehicles are trapping hapless men, schools have been made into army camps, as are cinema halls, and the city is under curfew more often than it is not. And the soldiers, they are everywhere, uprooting the rightful claim of the people of Srinagar have on their own lanes. A school minibus has been caught in the cross-fire between the soldiers and the militants. The school-children and Faate, Faiz’s godmother, have been killed by the crazed firing from the bunker, from a man behind a machine-gun who knew he could have stopped. They are ‘civilian casualties’ and their murder is written off without redress. Faiz is stunned, unable to wrap his head around Faate dying in his arms. The memory burns into him. As he all but crumbles, laden with the psychic pressure of this traumatic event, Waheed’s prose projects his disintegration to the very descriptions of the city, and especially, of the shrine that had so far soothed Faiz, where he and Roohi can no longer meet because of the round-the-clock curfew. Waheed’s prose itself transforms to acknowledge this change underfoot in Faiz’s city – his sentences slow down, the softness gradually disappears, as does the possibility of touch between lovers, and Waheed’s mis-en-scene – the surroundings he plots for the readers - becomes starker, dimmer, more soundless. There is no more holding hands now, even between shadows -


“Where is Roohi? He wants to hold her and tell her everything. But they cannot meet...on the branches of the chinars, the crows maintain a stark vigil as dusk gathers its ancient mysteries over the shrine. It is all silent, except a lone muezzin, who moans from an invisible mosque somewhere...There are no chants rising today. A dim light emanates from the main hall of the shrine. The only other light in the compound is that of the two clay lamps burning at Goddess Kali’s feet in the mulberry-tree temple behind the shrine, just by the ghat. Two beams of gold ripple across the river but do not make it to the opposite bank” (88)


In his recent book Of Gardens and Graves (2015), the writer Suvir Kaul argues that literature written in the times of conflict has a particular capacity to “illuminate not only the political and ideological issues at stake, but also states of being precipitated by violence, loss, and resistance” (136). The world of the literary, he argues, becomes a sure guide “to the intensity of feelings that result from prolonged conflicts, and which over time, play a significant role in the perpetuation of the conflict” (ibid.). That creative texts give us a clue not only about what political positions are held, instead, less obviously and more crucially, they suggest how politics comes to be breathed, how it gets into the very air of the place. How political subjectivities, often painfully, are formed. Kaul here writes specifically about poetry in Kashmiri of the last twenty-five years – selections of which he, along with others, has translated beautifully into English – but his arguments can be fruitfully extended to the stirring fiction such as Waheed’s.


The aim of such fiction is not to restate the reified political positions in Kashmir as “news reportage, policy documents, or standard historiography” would do (ibid.). Instead, it guides us to understand how political positions come to be, how the slow, difficult embrace happens, how traumatic experiences come to mould one’s everyday life and shape worldviews, effect actions, even as such affect cannot always be contained into clear mandates. Let us put it this way – Waheed’s emphasis is not only on the slogan of ‘azadi’, it is also on how people come to adopt it, how and why it is birthed and then shared among thousands. His narrative highlights not so much the political community – which pervades an iconic scene at the end – but more so how such a community is formed, what experiences and iterations lead to it, how politicization of a people becomes inevitable and prized. Waheed is a political ontologist, as it were. The effect then is remarkable and disturbing, as it should be. You are not just made aware that Faiz becomes a militant – said ‘milton’ in colloquial Kashmiri, a language now infused with conflict vocabulary – as he crosses the border into Pakistan-controlled Kashmir for arms training, weeks after Faate died, and after his elder brother was injured and almost trapped by the army-vehicle. His decision is not mere information for the reader. Instead, you are lead slowly, rigorously, even brutally through his psychic processes, his falling into a vortex, emerging from which can only be brutal. The prose marks his disorientation, pays heed to it. “Faiz paints, cries when no one is around, and prays.” (88). His everyday life becomes something bewildering, something highly strung. “Again and again, he finds himself dipping into his indigo pot, even though he should be using crimson and pink for this flower…” (ibid.). “He cannot remember anything. He cannot sleep. And there is that hole in the golden heart, which he wishes would disappear now, which he wishes he could forget” (89). It only widens, it only tears through. Till, one day, he decides.


Waheed has written a remarkable novel about what one Downtown Srinagar writer Irfan Mehraj calls “love in the time of occupation” (2015). “In reading the The Book of Gold Leaves,” he writes, the Downtown wrought by Waheed, “comes breathtakingly close to my lived experience.” This is the Srinagar he knew, has known, born as he was “in a desperate time; the nineties of Kashmir…[when the] city...was gripped with a mad fury to be free” (ibid.). This is a particular feat, to bring to the desk of fiction, an experience of a besieged city that is shared by most of its residents, one that is lived viscerally by them on a daily basis, and still make them recognize in these pages, in its careful craft, a reflection of their own lives, losing none of its scope or intensity. Waheed’s is the kind of fiction that is a resilient, unwavering witness to the brutalities of his times. That he finds a story of courage and love to tell in these times – one which is both subsumed in and spills over the brutality – is a mark of a writer who will hope even when the worst is true, who will hope precisely because the worst is true.      


(Akhil Katyal is a writer and translator based in Delhi. His book of poems ‘Night Charge Extra’ is forthcoming with Writers Workshop, Kolkata. He teaches literature at Shiv Nadar University)