Letter to an Unknown Artist Jane Rankin-Reid

  • Aditya Sinha
  • Publish Date: Jan 19 2016 12:59PM
  • |
  • Updated Date: Feb 12 2016 6:54PM
Letter to an Unknown Artist Jane Rankin-Reid

<p>The freedom to question a foreign democracy&rsquo;s responses to its political and social challenges is essentially a test of the integrity of its equality. Discomforting yes but collateral empathy can never be controlled; the ache of concern for Kashmir&rsquo;s unrelenting struggle for peace and compassionate justice is widely felt.<br /> <br /> Ten years ago, a Kashmiri teenager&rsquo;s childhood memories gave me a glimpse of the fallout from the valley&rsquo;s decades of conflict. At the age of 6, he&rsquo;d watched security forces burn his village to the ground, his family killed and his young mother maddened with grief. Caught by insurgents, the boy was made to work as a child soldier. He tried several times to escape before reaching safety in Delhi. His oral account of his early life needed translating from his native Kashmiri language into English to be published in the Delhi newspaper I worked for.<br /> <br /> A young Kashmiri journalist intern came to the rescue and together we crafted the young teenager&rsquo;s incredible story into publishable form. His life touched us both deeply; the boy, now 15 or so years of age was pale and vulnerable, his spirit fragile yet his courage seemed phenomenal to us. Tears fell as he told his story. It was impossible not to long to help him retrieve something of the lost innocence of his childhood.&nbsp; When he&rsquo;d finished talking, he stood up with a shy smile then turned to leave with a friendly wave. He looked buoyed with relief now that his pain had been held up to the light at last.<br /> <br /> In several visits for research interviews and through my ongoing working life with Kashmiri colleagues, the valley&rsquo;s stories have pursued me, no matter where I&rsquo;m based in the world. In the years since my last visit, Kashmir&rsquo;s situation has hardly improved. It&rsquo;s a sweet irony that in &ldquo;The Country Without A Post Office&rdquo;, my colleagues in the valley have been so tenacious about staying connected, as have I. Kashmiri author Agha Shahid Ali&rsquo;s lovely &ldquo;Stationary&rdquo; poem speaks to all for whom the act of writing letters to separated friends, family and loved ones, is such a precious literary form.<br /> <br /> Practicing journalism under the scrutiny of the security industry is often formidably discouraging. Kashmiri journalists have been forced to innovate to survive the complexities of reporting all sides of the story under such unyielding circumstances. Space for long form journalism, or narrative essays gives Kashmir&rsquo;s non-fiction writers the safety to describe the truth in respectfully textured contexts.<br /> <br /> It is a way of writing that welcomes the necessary questioning of democracies under threat. Kashmiri nonfiction writers&rsquo; urgent artistry is broadening global awareness of the complex anomalies of the region&rsquo;s geopolitical situation, from the ground. The fierce literary economy in authors Basharat Peer and Mirza Waheed&rsquo;s essaying reportage, or Majid Maqbool&rsquo;s examination of a torture victim&rsquo;s wounds for signs of healing where there are none, or Ananya Vajpayi&rsquo;s reflective excavations of the valley&rsquo;s political and cultural histories, are all pitched in a creative unison of outrage. Could this be the beginnings of a new genre?<br /> <br /> Technology hastens the spread of Kashmir&rsquo;s stories, many told by people who never expected to be heard in India, let alone in a global forum. In spite of frequent power cuts and internet shut downs, social media plays a major role for communicating within Kashmir and to the outside world particularly for young people, fostering trust where there has long been so little. In the absence of television and print media during the 2014 floods, lives were saved as newly acquainted strangers shared essential information about on-the-ground conditions via social media. From the depths of Srinagar&rsquo;s sodden catastrophe, until the besieged authorities finally bumbled into gear, thousands of ordinary Kashmir&rsquo;s citizens used Facebook to coordinate rescue mission for neighbours, friends, family, foreigners and total strangers, all with tenacity, compassion and courage.<br /> <br /> Is it really so audacious for me to try to add my voice to the chorus of concern about conditions in Kashmir from the distance of my Tasmanian home? Kashmir&rsquo;s situation touches many Indian and foreign writers deeply, the beauty of its fragile wildness evokes a sense of freedom where there is none, while the urgent roar of Azadi is historically intoxicating for all who believe in democracy. Academics Richard Shapiro&rsquo;s Governing Kashmir and similarly Justin Podur&rsquo;s list of Eleven things India must change in Kashmir, test the resolve of the Indian Constitution for consistency of rights and fairness. This Letter to An Unknown Artist is partly stimulated by the important questions all these writers ask.<br /> <br /> Finally, and perhaps most importantly, my Letter was written slowly, on a voyage of hindsight, my creative curiosity uncaged by the safety of distance. In writing about the embroiderer&rsquo;s flight of reverie, intimacy is the invention I&rsquo;ve tried to share. Imagining his fanciful escape on the wings of a silent prayer is my Salaam to all that is lost until peace is declared.<br /> <br /> &nbsp;<br /> <br /> Letter to an Unknown Artist<br /> <br /> &nbsp;Stationery<br /> <br /> The moon did not become the sun.<br /> It just fell on the desert<br /> in great sheets, reams<br /> of silver handmade by you.<br /> The night is your cottage industry now,<br /> the day is your brisk emporium.<br /> The world is full of paper.<br /> <br /> Write to me.&nbsp;&nbsp; &mdash; Agha Shahid Ali<br /> <br /> Sir, I&rsquo;ve been thinking about you every day for the last two weeks. Its autumn here, mid April and winter is on its way in Tasmania, just as spring awakens in Kashmir. Before the temperature drops below 3degrees centigrade in the evenings, I want to stop the drafts of cold air coming in through the dining room doors at my house. When I&rsquo;ve finished sewing your richly coloured embroidered fabric into floor length curtains, I&rsquo;m hoping there will be an air of exotic floral abandon added to the room. As I work, I&rsquo;ve begun corresponding with you, to share my unanswered questions and to deliver my admiration.<br /> <br /> It&rsquo;s odd to be planning to decorate my living environment while visiting another culture. This is not the kind of shopping I&rsquo;d usually do at home. The affordable curtain fabrics here just don&rsquo;t radiate the warmth of your patterned imaginings of paradise. So I persuaded myself to buy traditional embroidered curtain fabric in Srinagar, carry it to Delhi then post it to myself in Australia because designs like yours are so precious I felt I&rsquo;d always sense a loss without them somewhere in my life.<br /> <br /> Several years ago, in early October, I found myself in a cool badly lit Srinagar godown, empty but for dusty piles of unsold textiles scattered across the floor. Standing in the middle of the room, I watched as roll after roll of Kashmiri kashidakari woolen chain-stitched &ldquo;zalakdo&rdquo; embroidered cloth was unfurled at my feet. Mentally casting colours about in search of tonal affinities, testing my eye&rsquo;s visual patience with the aesthetics of the patterns in front of me.<br /> <br /> In Kashmir, picturing our family rooms, these visual recollections of home sent my eyes chasing colours that might connect our cultures through shared memories of nature&rsquo;s graceful temperate seasonal shades. I want to live with a glimpse of Kashmir in my life so far away in Tasmania.<br /> <br /> The owner of the warehouse seemed passionate about your embroidery style. He began speaking intensely, his daughter translating fluently as he spoke into the middle distance, never directly to me. He described the three years it took you to embroider the 30-meter fabric length, the techniques used and the sizes of the aari sewing hooks. Kneeling down, he mimed the rhythm of your sewing over a woollen floral form. I asked to see more of your work but he ignored me completely. I asked his daughter who the embroiderer was but when she translated my request, her father couldn&rsquo;t tell me your name or anything about you.<br /> <br /> The textile dealer was closing down his business. Tourism was no longer providing a reliable livelihood after close to three decades of insurgencies, uprisings, reprisals and curfews in Kashmir. Visitors were staying away. The small silver haired sharp faced man was evidently having a bad day. I heard later he&rsquo;d just been told that his beautiful daughter&rsquo;s hand for marriage had been rejected. It was devastating news. Shakeela was proving expensive.<br /> <br /> Her father wanted her married swiftly now that she&rsquo;d graduated university and reached the age of 27 years. Shakeela, even with her teaching certificate, would not be safe to live and work independently from her family. If she wanted to teach with her new degree, she&rsquo;d need to marry a man who lived near a school.&nbsp; The search had so far proved fruitless. Being unmarried at her age was a disgrace to him. He&rsquo;d let her successes during her university education distract him from his fatherly duties.&nbsp; Now he regretted it bitterly. He believed his neglect had brought nothing but dishonour to his family. Later when I heard the story, I wondered how Shakeela might have felt about her situation. Although we&rsquo;d been chatting amiably on the sidelines of her father&rsquo;s temperamental sales performance, she would not meet my eye.<br /> <br /> The textile dealer became irritable when I asked him to unroll a longer length of the cloth you&rsquo;d sewn. I did not press him and turned to look at another less interesting pattern nearby. Behind me, he suddenly kicked over the bolt of cloth to display several more vivid meters.&nbsp; Great trumpets of blooms sprang from the vinous chain stitched stems, deep reds and dusty rose shaded big fat petals, their outlines etched in vivid turquois and pastel teal blue. Silvery green highlights balancing the cool recklessness of the over-scaled pattern anchored by an endless unbroken brown stem wending its way upwards through the entire 30 meter length of the fabric. I made an instant decision. The cloth was like nothing I&rsquo;d ever seen before.<br /> <br /> Sir, when I first saw your embroidery, it made me smile. I was happy paying the dealer&rsquo;s asking price instead of bargaining as would usually be expected in most transactions here. This seemed to make him even more cantankerous. I left the warehouse feeling as if I&rsquo;d taken something from him that was not mine. Perhaps this was true.<br /> <br /> The next day the story of his distress was revealed. He&rsquo;d apologised to Wahid, my enigmatic curly haired middle aged Kashmiri textile broker friend who&rsquo;d taken me to meet him. &ldquo;He fed me apples&rdquo;, Wahid said tenderly. &ldquo;Peeling them himself and putting the pieces in my mouth as if I was a child. It was his way of saying he was sorry for being rude.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> In today&rsquo;s media quickened world, narrative sentiment is often compressed into clich&eacute;s for swift consumption. Collective memory rescales intimate geographies to become more palatable, easier than recognising the challenges of the present. Within our respective countries, Kashmir and Tasmania are admired for among other things, scenic landscapes and the seasonal pace of life that temperate small scale agricultural farming requires .Most of India and Australia&rsquo;s favourite cool climate fruits come from these states. Agriculture and tourism in Tasmania and Kashmir form large parts of our economies. Both states lie in a geographic zone at odds with the climate characterising their national homelands, part of my attraction to this region of India.<br /> <br /> Kashmir is mountainous, like Tasmania; picturesque vistas fringe a pristine wilderness of remote rugged landscapes. It gets very cold here in the winter, although the island&rsquo;s snowfall usually cannot compete with the massive drifts closing roads and isolating remote Kashmiri villages for weeks on end. And truthfully, after a long sleep history of conservative cultural and economic performance, Tasmania is currently experiencing a tremor of success, buoying the state&rsquo;s self esteem, even as employment and literacy rates remain among the lowest in the nation. A sustained diet of bread and circuses has blinded some and awakened others. Both states share sclerotic bureaucracies making unfathomed lurches at self-interested solutions, trying to arrest each populace&rsquo;s feelings of hopelessness, to date with less success than might be desired.<br /> <br /> Still, something of the mutual imagining of coldness continually allies me with this part of the world. Perhaps these feelings of kinship with Kashmir&rsquo;s temperate culture are also due to its contrast with the high temperatures of the rest of the Indian sub-continent. The island of Tasmania perches at the edge of the Australian mainland&rsquo;s warmer climate zone. And, just as in India where heat penetrates the legends of its society, the island&rsquo;s seasonal distinctions are largely omitted from the grand narrative temperature of the Australian continental story.<br /> <br /> Every December and January during Kashmir&rsquo;s coldest winter months, as my peaceful Tasmanian summer swells in its modest benevolence, I often talk online with a young Kashmiri colleague I met while working at an Indian magazine in New Delhi. Over the last decade, Habib has become a great friend. As his days get colder, we discuss daily winter life from the wealth of minutia from our cultures. Layers of woollen clothing, recipes for winter meals, hats, ear muffs, wind chill factors; who else can I share these intimate cold climate survival topics with amongst my friends living in the rest of India? Wool is not a word used often in their worlds. Last winter, Habib introduced me to leather socks and the traditional charcoal burning &ldquo;kangri&rdquo; warmers worn beneath the classic woven Kashmiri woollen &ldquo;pheren&rdquo; cloak. Unlike most of my Indian friendships, discussing winter is an amusement that nourishes my long distance affinity with him. Habib&rsquo;s morning is the middle of my afternoon; life is spelled out to one another in the different shades of our shared day.<br /> <br /> I am spiritually illiterate with no contemporary god of my own. Over time, Habib has taught me how to pray. Daily exchanges of salutatory blessings and respect offer spiritual sustenance in Muslim culture; between us it has shaped a soft cyber sofa of shared worship. With typical fast paced textual brevity amidst frustrating lapses in connectivity, we instant message prayers for a better world, families and friendships. The tyranny of distance conditioning our relationships with the main lands of our respective countries also strengthens the connection. For a young journalist, the frustration of being unable to propel the ghastly truth of Kashmir&rsquo;s current conditions onto the front pages of the Indian press is intense. Mainland Australian media is similarly disinterested in remote regions like Tasmania&rsquo;s unemployment problems, high dependency on public welfare, hospital waiting lists and failing educational standards. It&rsquo;s not hard to empathise with young Kashmiri writers feelings of isolation within their own country.<br /> <br /> Here though, the comparisons must end. While each state shares the ignoble fatalism of media neglect, for Kashmir, the omission is of global significance. Tasmania is after all a peaceful region, sheltered by Australia&rsquo;s robust first world democracy and economic prosperity.&nbsp; In contrast, since Partition in 1947, Kashmir has languished in an historic dispute between two armed nuclear nations, playing reluctant host to India&rsquo;s militarised anxieties and neighbouring Pakistan&rsquo;s state sponsored insurgencies. This puts the state at sharp odds with mainland India. There&rsquo;s been a massive population shift in Kashmir too, with the early 1990s exodus of over 150,000 Kashmiri Pandits fleeing the valley after attacks by militant fundamentalists.&nbsp; This in turn has badly impacted upon many areas of the Kashmiri judiciary as well as commerce and education, just as the Pandits&rsquo; departure after centuries of peaceful coexistence saw a virtual end to the valley&rsquo;s harmonious multi-religious communities.&nbsp; This loss has created psychological, economic and cultural imbalances, causing a tremendous change in Kashmir&rsquo;s historic stability.<br /> <br /> But Kashmir&rsquo;s long history of intercultural harmony barely registers in India&rsquo;s official story these days. Instead, cross border terrorism and armed militant separatists as well as civil uprisings and brutal military reprisals arguably justify India&rsquo;s continued suspension of the rule of law in the state. Author Richard Shapiro writes, &ldquo;If Kashmiris want to prove themselves as loyal citizens of India, they must agree not to exercise the rights that are in principle available to the citizens of India&hellip;&rdquo; Reimaging Kashmir in the twenty first century as a free state within the union is a political obligation long overdue in Indian politics; a peaceful solution for Kashmir would reaffirm India&rsquo;s regional leadership capacity in international affairs.&nbsp; Until then, &ldquo;Democracy, rule of law and civil liberties are to be sacrificed in Kashmir for the larger good of India. To belong to the nation you must accept subjugation to the military and the paramilitary legitimated by national security. To belong you must renounce what belonging bestows. Such belonging is already unbelonging, or the false belonging of the sale to the manor&hellip;&rdquo;<br /> <br /> Attempts to reverse Kashmir&rsquo;s &ldquo;unbelonging&rdquo; from mainland India can seem heavy handed. In the absence of Kashmir&rsquo;s Pandit Hindus steadying cultural influence, the official management of the annual Amarnath &ldquo;yatra&rdquo; of thousands of Hindu pilgrims travelling through Kashmir can tend to create the impression that &ldquo;India is trying to change the demographics of Kashmir&hellip;&rdquo; Canadian academic Justin Podur writes. While Kashmir is contained in one third of the mountainous geographic mass it shares with neighbouring Jammu state, due to its predominant Islamic religion, it is culturally as different from adjoining Indian states as Goa is from New Delhi. But in the myth making of modern India, Kashmir still plays an iconic role. In spite of the international appeal in the melodrama of India and Pakistan&rsquo;s real time relations, few Bollywood story lines are actually set in the valley, although it is often featured as an ideal honeymoon location. The most recent exception to this deficit is Haider, a Shakespearean drama reset in the 1990s period of uprisings in the valley. Directed by Vishal Bhardwai and co-written by Kashmiri author and journalist Basharat Peer; the film faced close to 50 cuts from the Indian Censorship Board, including a scene showing a truck load of dead bodies.<br /> <br /> As a scenic location for cool climate film scenarios, Kashmir was once India&rsquo;s favourite location. Today Switzerland among other safer European zones act as the state&rsquo;s body double. Bollywood&rsquo;s reductive ideals of Kashmir&rsquo;s cool breezes ruffling ancient Chinar leaves above dancing newlyweds remain etched into India&rsquo;s narrative picturing of the valley. As cherished as Kashmir is in the great Indian romance scenario, the geopolitical disconnections between reality and the fantasies the valley&rsquo;s landscape evokes in national imagination, are astonishing.<br /> <br /> Unbelonging creates a kind of blindness. Outside Kashmir, Indians often seem to view the valley&rsquo;s traditional continuity as a sign of the region&rsquo;s cultural stability, rather than as a symptom of neglect. The valley&rsquo;s timeless agricultural rituals and beautiful temperate countryside have become trapped in ethnic generalisations paradoxically echoing colonial assumptions of pliant peasantry and contented grateful citizens. In midsummer, beside bunkers built outside roadside orchards filled with ripening apricots and cherries, Indian soldiers shift restlessly, shaking legs cramped from standing in place too long. &ldquo;India is bringing about all of the things that it fears: Pakistani influence, violence, radicalisation of youth, political Islam and hatred of India&hellip;&rdquo; Justin Podur writes with some frustration, echoed widely by local and international scholars, historians and human rights agencies, not to mention Kashmir&rsquo;s besieged citizens, particularly the young.&nbsp; &ldquo;When conflict seems intractable, it is because someone is benefiting from it&hellip; What if solutions to the &ldquo;Kashmiri conflict was reframed as a rights based as opposed to solutions based framework?&rdquo;<br /> <br /> There are soldiers everywhere in Srinagar. In 2010, a toxic summer of uprisings saw pitched battles between security forces and Kashmiri youth over two long weeks. More than 100 young protesters died. The frequent administration of curfews are &ldquo;like a collective strangulation&rdquo;, writes author Mirzah Waheed, reporting in the Guardian UK on shut downs in anticipation of public outcry over the government&rsquo;s decision to hang Muslim terror suspect Afzal Guru in February 2013. During curfews, print and broadcast media are restricted or blocked, Waheed writes, &ldquo;the very substance of life; food, milk, medicine&rdquo; is cut off. Travel is prohibited &ldquo;unless you have a bullet in your body and are still bleeding inside an ambulance.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> Ancient rifles glint menacingly in the morning sunshine from camouflaged street bunkers built of sand bags and concrete. Splashes of red pan juice decorate nearby pavements and disappointingly, at guarded entrances to mosques; a mark of disrespect Kashmiris find hard to accept. Check points, pat downs, body searches, bag inspections and the compulsory presentation of identification papers are the daily harassments ordinary Kashmiris face at the entry gates to schools, work places, mosques and public offices. Razor wire is the steadily uncoiling weapon of mass containment snaking throughout the state.&nbsp; Big arcs of raw metal toothed wire unrolled in sinister loops, just large enough for a small body to be ripped to shreds trying to escape through the vicious coils ahead of search lights. Everybody learned to keep secrets long ago. Mistrust is paramount. Today, CCTV cameras assist the surveillance duties of as many as 500,000 Indian troops and paramilitary security forces stationed in the region.<br /> <br /> In the disruptive paranoia the Indian military&rsquo;s presence inevitably fosters, questions about how ordinary people live in Kashmir are rarely asked.&nbsp; Poverty&rsquo;s enduring survival techniques are reclassified as charming cultural traditions, stubborn rituals braved in the face of formidable odds; a simplistic perception suspending Kashmir&rsquo;s contemporary culture in a sentimental flux. Little of wired urban India&rsquo;s rising or shining has benefited the valley. Internet connections are shut down at the first signs of trouble. It is a kind of isolation that leaves Kashmiri poets, writers, artists and cultural innovators languishing in a state imposed time warp. An elderly artist told me he no longer feels the freedom to make the kind of art he believes in these days. &ldquo;Now I just paint clouds. I lie on my rooftop and in my mind&rsquo;s eye I curate them into artworks for my own pleasure&rdquo;.&nbsp; To me, his profound intellectual dilemma commits his entity as an artist, defiantly innovating so as to survive oppression, to the covert global canon of creative exile, a denial of artistic insight that humanity may never fully come to measure.<br /> <br /> Generations of conflict have left Kashmir&rsquo;s young people angry and confused. Doctors are working against time to address what they describe as a mental health epidemic; up to 90 percent of the population has been psychologically affected by the ongoing conflict. Kashmir&rsquo;s rising suicide rates confound what were once encouragingly low global statistics for Muslim societies. Self harm and substance abuse are now familiar issues in the valley. Post traumatic stress disorders (PTDS) are commonplace. In remote villages, incest, child marriages, sexual abuse and rape are rarely reported, let alone successfully prosecuted. Speaking at the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2011, award winning activist and author Justine Hardy asked how the mental health question can be left off the table in regions undergoing prolonged conflict.&ldquo;Kashmiris have become like Palestinians&rdquo;, she said. The moral imagination of several generations of Kashmiris has suffered badly.<br /> <br /> &ldquo;Two things can happen. Either you become psychotic, or you become fearless. Victimhood has its own pathology. Collectively victims lose their ability to take responsibility. If you are a victim, nothing is your fault any more. It&rsquo;s not even post traumatic stress disorder because (the trauma) is still ongoing.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> Armed soldiers and mangy dogs menaced patients and their families at the gates of Srinagar&rsquo;s Government Hospital of Psychiatry and Neurology when I first went to meet consultant psychiatrist Dr. Ashard Hussain in 2007. Poultry patrolled the halls outside his rooms. Beds were in severe shortage, as were computers and reliable telecommunications connections. Things had changed considerably when I returned five years later.<br /> <br /> &ldquo;The emotional consequences of the ongoing tensions on Kashmiri families have been devastating,&rdquo; Dr. Hussain told me. Social taboos against openly discussing mental health issues compound the problem. &ldquo;We had to break down denial about PTDS, depression, drug abuse and suicide, both within affected Kashmiri families, at the government Health Department, and amongst referring GPs and the wider culture of our Muslim society.&rdquo; Dr Hussain models his patients&rsquo; treatments on a combination of medical, biological and psychological factors. &ldquo;You need all the ingredients&rdquo;, he said in October 2012.<br /> <br /> Dr. Hussain&rsquo;s moving account of his own emotional experiences within his culture&rsquo;s customs chased the subject of my scribbled interview notes onto another page. Instead, I imagined a low sound of murmured relief from the anguished madness he&rsquo;d been describing; peace through the years of emotional and spiritual sanctuary found in the daily rituals of making the embroiderer&rsquo;s beautiful fabric. The doctor told me that in his therapeutic practice, ancient Sufi traditions are encouraged to play a leading role. &ldquo;I&rsquo;m trying to look backwards into our own culture to explore traditional ways of healing. We shouldn&rsquo;t over psychologise everything. We need to encourage families to deal with problems, rather than burying them or overly medicating them. A rational grip on life shouldn&rsquo;t ever be biologized. Psychology needs to be cultural in Kashmir.&rdquo; Sir, is there a connection between your outlandish pattern and the relentless external pressures you were under during the years of labour of its embroidering?<br /> <br /> Dr. Hussain notes a number of progressive Imams have begun to offer guidance. &ldquo;They are often very good people, as are Peers or &ldquo;faith healers&rdquo;. Our culture used to have traditional spaces for healing. One day, I saw a woman weeping and talking to herself at the shrine. She was &ldquo;unmasked&rdquo;, pouring her heart out. Only she and God knew her problems. When she came out, I could see her face was utterly transformed. She&rsquo;d found relief. The shrines used to offer reflective spaces for confiding in God and renewing one&rsquo;s sense of self after the ritual of prayer.&rdquo; The ancient intimacies of Sufi worship are irreplaceable he believes. &ldquo;The increase of exhibitionism in religious identity is a story of appearance versus internal spirituality.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> Before Partition, Kashmir was among the most persuasively literate societies in Indo-Islamic India, a civilisation rather than a geographic time bomb. Culturally, its Persian influences especially in poetry and the visual arts were well preserved. Today, the frustration of unbelonging from the Indian state creates passive airlocks of delicately rationalised insight. In the middle of the Dal Lake at twilight, Faisal, a boatman points to the mountain range to the west. &ldquo;Pakistan, no good&rdquo;, he says. Two village nephews disappeared a decade ago, he thought, to join the insurgents. &ldquo;Stupid boys&rdquo;, he said of their futile destiny across the border in hiding with jihadists.<br /> <br /> I am &ldquo;unpad&rdquo;, Naseer a middle aged grandfather said of his inability to read or write. &ldquo;It means we are without letters&rdquo;. But while neither Faisal nor Naseer can read, they share a lifetime of speaking languages polished by the physical sensations of Islamic poetry&rsquo;s reflective embellishment, the emotive vocal intricacies of Sufi qawwals and the daily calls of the muezzin. Decorative worshipful words have adumbrated through their bodies since childhood.&nbsp; Words of worship melting on their tongues like gorgeous soft sweets, language expressed in a private state of grace and spiritual comfort. Inside a carved 19th century houseboat on the Dal Lake, murmuring quietly in their native Kashmiri, Faisal and Naseer were curious, quickly unwrapping the roll of fabric to see what had been chosen. &ldquo;Ah&rdquo;, they both breathed softly. &ldquo;Paradise&rdquo;. Allah is their favourite artist.<br /> <br /> Sir, this would be my last sight of your fabric spread out on the uneven floor of a boat on a lake in the land where it was made. Faisal and Naseer knelt beside the cloth admiring it quietly. Back in Tasmania, at the same time of day when light begins to shimmer like blackened silver on the water outside,fondling the textures of the embroidery unpacked and revealed for the third time, I&rsquo;m struck anew by the deceptively romantic simplicity of the imagery of flowers, leaves and vines.<br /> <br /> Sir, what made you forego traditional embroidery styles, the more saleable imagery of fruit and flowers for this wonderful design? &ldquo;He used to come to my garden during the summer&rdquo;, Wahid, the friend who first took me to see your work, said proudly of your visit to his compound planted with masses of English flowers.&nbsp; Big buxom red and orange dahlias, anemones, daisies and cornflowers. &ldquo;He loved to sit and draw in the afternoon&rdquo;.<br /> <br /> Discussing the economic status of master embroiderers in Kashmir with textile dealers is virtually impossible. They say the craft form is dying out.&nbsp; Their sales patter is absurdly pitched beyond a convincing register of sincerity for the vanishing art form going cheap. Crewel embroidery, once prized by the British, is now relatively inexpensive in comparison with the more elaborately embroidered shawls and decorative styles Indian customers prefer. Perhaps this is why no one is especially interested. Questions of whether embroiderers are paid well for their work to secure the traditional industry&rsquo;s future are met with silence. Unfailingly polite, Wahid became a little unhinged when I asked if there&rsquo;s room to increase prices so wages could also grow for highly skilled embroiderers.&nbsp; &ldquo;Do you want them to cut their margins even further?&rdquo;A note of injured theatricality entered his voice. Who am I indeed to question the careful economy of the traditional supply chain just because I empathise with the craftsman&rsquo;s work? But Sir, the cheap quality of the rough cotton you&rsquo;ve worked on suggests your skills are perhaps no longer valued as they used to be.<br /> <br /> When I found your bolt of embroidered floral patterns I knew it was the right choice, even though its pattern was out of key with the rest of conventionally pretty designs on offer. Today this design has entered my mind&rsquo;s eye in search for an archetype to describe your character&rsquo;s creativity, in a place where artistic deviance is discouraged, if not strictly forbidden. Not knowing about how an artist survives creatively in such circumstances is a feeling of blindness.<br /> <br /> Pakistan born author Nadeem Aslam&rsquo;s &ldquo;The Blind Man&rsquo;s Garden&rdquo;, is a richly imagined expression of the pain of sightlessness in Islamic culture. His writing establishes uniquely visualised emotional responses to blindness, shining fresh light into my quest to understand what drives Muslim artisanal imagery to take its most vivid forms. Reflecting the spiritual modesty of individual creativity in ancient craft-making, artisans quietly incorporate something of nature&rsquo;s beautiful imperfections. Sometimes natural beauty must be enhanced to be seen at all. In Aslam&rsquo;s story, Rohan, the father begins to lose his sight when an Afghani warlord damages his eyes with a shattered ruby carved with Koranic verses. His daughter-in-law Naheed is found in the garden with a brush painting marigold petals and leaves in vivid colours.<br /> <br /> &ldquo;Next year when this plant blooms again, Father will be completely blind&hellip;So I want to make sure he can see it today.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> An imagined garden of tall foliage and endless blossoms decorates the length of your fabric. I wonder how something as fluid as a curtain is transformed into a floating wall of linear fronds and blooms. There&rsquo;s nothing insubstantial about this cloth though. When I unroll another meter I imagine you, bent over, a swatch of it upraised in your hand like a gigantic nipple, your careful stitches plucking at the rough woven cotton&rsquo;s warp and weft as you poke your aari embroidery hook in and out of the cloth, intricately labouring in the garden of your senses.<br /> <br /> You worked for several years on the lovely petals and stem patterns on the fabric I&rsquo;m now sewing into the curtains for my dining room.&nbsp; Every time I slice into the green woolen chain-stitched leaves, the thought of you making this vast intricate effort shaves something off the pleasure of the abundance of the pattern, spread across the stone floor of my home in a wonderful undulating tide of imagery. As a senior craftsman, you&rsquo;d be expected to sew nearly eight inches a day if the weather was not too cold and your fingers weren&rsquo;t too painful from arthritis. Every morning you&rsquo;d begin your ritual of quiet industry after rising at dawn to pray, drinking a cup of nun-chai (Kashmiri salt tea) with a few bites of round shaped choeut (bread).<br /> <br /> Gently slapping the dust from the night before off the low bench you worked on, unrolling the day&rsquo;s intended length in front of you, spreading your palette of coloured wools out, rotating your shoulders like an athlete before picking up your hook and inserting the day&rsquo;s first stitch, then glancing down checking the right colours were ready for the next frond or petal. The hallmark of your style was distinctive; deliberately reducing natural forms into dynamic decorative motifs using beautiful colours to reassemble the image into 30 meters of repeating pattern. Faded cherry red and clever lemon tinged pale blue hatching contrasts with grey green and fugitive brown stems reaching upwards past the laden press of heady blooms. For 30 long meters, this repeating pattern remains true to its effortless symmetry. Sewing steady even stitches, you sat ram rod straight with a pair of cheap reading glasses balanced on your nose, for years on end.<br /> <br /> Everybody used to talk about your work. People brought you flowers for your designs. Lotus heads, faded roses, Chinar leaves and seed pods amass on the shelf behind you in a dusty tracery of summer&rsquo;s forgotten beauty. There you sat, sewing continually until the light faded, with breaks for prayers and meals and days off for holidays. So here sir is my question; how did you remain so calmly steadfast when at the perimeter of your day, Kashmir&rsquo;s conflict was always present? What stopped you from slowly beginning to loathe your task, from steadily going mad at the thought of the blank, unsewn meters in front of you? Did you invite the pattern you were creating to enter your soul? Then with fingers sewing instinctively, your design etched out of sensory remembered wisdom, you could retreat into prayers where you could picture an invisible resistance, a realm that gave you the freedom to live as if the unequable squalor you were forced to inhabit did not exist. You were never alone; under oppressive regimes, artists must live &ldquo;as if&rdquo; they are in a free society, until that day comes.<br /> <br /> In your mind&rsquo;s eye, immersed in the subjective texture of your work, in the shade of your day, for years on end, you sewed yourself into this quiet universe of possibilities, an alternate realm of reflective pleasure found in the reverie of calming prayer, your tired body freed to drift upon clouds cast into a display of heaven imagined. You lived, as if creative freedom can be attained through your gracious act of ironic unbelonging.<br /> <br /> &nbsp;<br /> <br /> &nbsp;(Jane Rankin-Reid is a writer, journalist and editor based in Tasmania. Her extended essay; The Idea of Australia in India is forthcoming with the Australia India Institute&rsquo;s Fearless Nardia publication series)</p>