A poetic rendezvous: In conversation with the Bard of Old City

Author (right) with Zareef Ahmed Zareef

As long as there has been war, there’ve been poets and writers, translating the debris and loss of the battlefield into a romantic inspiration. From the novels like Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, Ernst Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, or the surreal depiction of an on field trauma and suffering in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, war has been a cardinal theme that has inspired one of the best in the world of literature.

The struggle of the Kashmiri nation for ‘freedom’ saw an evolution; from an unbridled armed struggle of the early nineties, to a rocky wilderness over the last ten years. With this metamorphosis, however, our aspirations are now turning onto a very delicate strait of art and literature.

The last two decades have seen a rise in the number of writers who already have, or look forward to, a wide variety of approaches in their efforts to comprehend the war experience and let the world know about its intricacies, encompassing scholarships on a number of genres, including poetry, novels, short stories, dramas.

There’ve been publications of several works like Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator and The Book of Gold Leaves, Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night and the collections of poetry by Agha Shahid Ali. All of which have gained international accolades.

Apart from that, social networking and local journals are often seen ablaze with ‘resistance poetry’.

One of the persons known for his ‘resistance poetry’ in Kashmir is an elderly poet, Zareef Ahmad Zareef. The bard lives in an archaic part of Srinagar city called ‘Kalai’ which itself is a symbol of centuries old resistance to foreign rule.

Following is the gist of a two hour long conversation I had with Zareef Ahmad Zareef at his place.


Khawar Khan Achakzai

We’ve seen a rise in writers and especially resistance writers over a last few decades. As a teacher and a senior poet, does this emancipation and progression make you happy?

Zareef Ahmad Zareef

First of all, saying that there has been an emancipation of literature only over the last few decades is not correct. Kashmir has been a seat of literature since hundreds of years. It was known as ‘Gyan peeth’ or ‘Sharda Peeth’ and there was a Sanskrit university in current day Bijbehara.

Our history has seen us as Hindus, as Buddhists and now, by the grace of almighty, we’re Muslims.

Each phase had people of arts and crafts, which were praised all over the world. We have a written history of thousands of years which is mostly in Persian language and can be found in the works of Baba Khalil Mirjanpuri, Syed Muhammad Shah Saadat, Mullah Ahmad Kashmiri and Urdu writers like Muhammad Din Fouq wrote Tareekh-e-Kashmir, highlighting the crests and troughs of our past.

Similarly, the humanitarian crises that we’re facing right now is as old as our literature dating back to 1587, when the Mughals made Kashmir a province of the Greater India and Akbar robbed it of its treasures and resources. It was exactly at that time the first spark of ‘resistance’ was lighted in the hearts of Kashmiri youth, who were back then called Dilawar (brave-hearts).

They would fix a nail onto a long stick and would hurt the horses of the Mughal armed men and would pelt stones at them. The popular slogan, Hum Kya Chahte Azaadi, too, dates back to that era when it was cried aloud in Persian as Ma Azaadi Mekhahem.

I’ve written some couplets on it, a few years back:

Sadiyaw pethe kamm czal bal geam
Aslafan taam petrin peaam
Moglan dopp asi Farsi peath
Ma Azadi Mekhahem, Ma Azadi Mekhahem

Centuries have seen me robbed and tricked
Even my predecessors weren’t spared
But unto the Mughals we cried aloud in Farsi
We want Freedom, We want Freedom

While our Dilawars fought them tooth and nail, the women would chant the slogans:

Sonnas ropas korum dogul
Pogge mogul logum balae

He robbed me of gold and silver
the ominous Moghul took my curse

So, while the literary seat of Kashmir is thousands of years old, the resentment and resistance date back to fifteenth century.


Khawar Khan Achakzai

How important a role do you think can poetry play in reforms of society?

Zareef Ahmad Zareef

Everyone has a basic nature of doing good and everyone is truthful inherently. But, the consequences and the environment make one nonchalant and indifferent towards one’s own transgressions and the evils of the society. In this case, there need to be people, who speak about good and bad, who talk about oppression and cruelty, who go up to the masses and tell them, in a language that they understand and adore, about right and wrong.

We as humans have a strong proclivity of forgetting. We need people to remind us. That’s why there’ve been poets all around the world, writing about the evils prevalent in their societies. They’ve written about the equality of men and women, and against the oppression of the rulers.

Poets have awakened people, they must continue doing so.


Khawar Khan Achakzai

What about the role of literature in creation of nations and states?

Zareef Ahmad Zareef

Let me quote some verses before answering this:

Watan daaro watan chhui naad laayan
Chhe waril baage seanik posh puczlan
Watan daaro potter maajen chhe rawaan
Mazaras manz che kam mahraze saawaan

O’ countrymen, your country is calling you
our flowers are being trampled in the orchards
O’ countrymen, the mothers are losing their young sons
We’re making our grooms sleep in the graveyards

See, I’m calling unto my nation, unto its people in their language. In today’s time of communication and internet, I want my voice to reach them, so they introspect and look back at the past at what the chains of occupation had cost them over the last six hundred years.

People have to realise their duties. Writers and journalists have to take the onus and responsibility of the nation on their young shoulders. We’ve to write about our state of affairs, such that the whole world rise up to our plight. We don’t have to be biased with hatred or vengeance. We’ve to write the truth and highlight our own mistakes and pitfalls, too.

The thing is, no oppression is everlasting. It’s not very far when the oppression stifles its own self to death. The nations are created by poets and intellectuals and rendered by politicians. Pakistan was the creation of the mind of Allama Iqbal.

It’s the responsibility of the enlightened to buck the leader when he becomes tired. It reminds me of the couplets of poet Mehjoor addressed to Sheikh Abdullah:

Maare matti waare watti laag soun paan
Yeli khassi azadi hyund raww
godde peyi chani dabbi partew
adde gazci roshan baki jahan
Maare Matti waare watti laag soun paan 

Mehjoor advices Sheikh Abdullah in these couplets to choose the correct path for himself and his people and tells him that whenever the light of freedom shall shine upon them, he’ll be the first one to benefit from its rays, since he was their leader. In his other verses, Mehjoor calls the attention of the leader as well as the masses:

Waloha baghwano nawbaharuk shaan paida kar
phollen gul, gath karan bulbul, tyuthui samaan peada kar

Come O’ dear gardener, help create the beauty of spring
the flowers shall blossom and nightingales dance, help create such apparatus

Ironically, Sheikh Abdullah never listened to him and sold himself and his people. He lost the faith in his conviction. Had he stood up for truth, that he called to in 1931 and had he not sold what he had earned all those years, we would not have been in the turmoil.


Khawar Khan Achakzai

There’re poets nowadays who call Kashmir as ‘Mashouq’ (Beloved). Do you think, its right thing to extrapolate the struggle of people in a romantic way?

Zareef Ahmad Zareef

Well, the beloved of my pen is Mouj Kasheer (Mother Kashmir) and the hero of my pen is Sitam Zadde Koshur (the victimised Kashmiri).


Khawar Khan Achakzai

Kashmiri writers attract a lot of attention and appreciation for their style of portraying the sufferings of people. What’s the reason?

Zareef Ahmad Zareef

The education gave them skills and oppression gave them tongue. They don’t write mere stories and fiction, their works have a part of them in it. They write what they have seen, the ordeal that their near ones went through, their works are full of pain and suffering. It is the truth and honesty in them that draws appreciation of the world.


Khawar Khan Achakzai

Can you compare anyone from our literary constellation with the likes of Mahmud Darvesh?

Zareef Ahmad Zareef

We don’t need to. Every nation has its own history, culture and a different context to its struggle. Every writer is relevant to its people in a very intimate way.


Khawar Khan Achakzai

Where do you see yourself as a writer?

Zareef Ahmad Zareef

I’m contented with whatever I’ve written. I’ve always tried to speak the truth and I shall continue doing so. My salvation lies in the fact when young people like you see some hope in my work.

Dopum yemi reachh chhus, sui czoori czaamut
dyutum yemi chhokh sui mea khabri aamut
Wenyuktaam keet czal czimbe czaayi karihem
ti zanith chhuss be az haq mangni draamut

One who claimed to be the guardian, turned out to be a thief
One who traumatised me has come to ask my well being
Till now I was played upon with tricks and frauds all-over
Having known that, I have come out to ask for my rights


Khawar Khan Achakzai

What do you advice young writers?

Zareef Ahmad Zareef

Read about your history so that you can justify whatever you write. Seek the advice of senior scholars. Document your work. Write in ways which will minutely picturize the current scenario for future generations.

However, they need to do it carefully. There’ll always be people who’ll try to put you in trouble, so try to be safe, because then only you’ll be able to record the current events. Caution is important when you plead a cause. Emotions are important but getting too emotional is suicidal.

I would advise them to write in Kashmiri, but they might do it in whatever way they like. And they should never neglect their studies. Our future needs doctors, engineers, lawyers. They should look at the Palestinian youth. They’re travelling all around the world for knowledge. Education is very important.

Also, there’s a dire need for translating our history from Persian into English, otherwise it’ll die with those who can read Persian here in Kashmir. I would request a group of conscientious youth to take up this movement of translating all those works. We’ve to let our future know about our past.


Khawar Khan Achakzai

Do you think that there has been a rise in anti-Kashmir writings and opinions as well? What could be the reason for it?

Zareef Ahmad Zareef

When we were young, there were only seven newspapers. There were no sectarian rifts and Muslims would identify themselves either as Hanafi, Ahle-Hadith or Shia and would live peacefully. There was no inter-regional divide.

After nineties, there has been a mammoth surge in number of published newspapers, such that close to sixty five newspapers are published at this time. The opinions against the idea of ‘right to self determination’ and in favour of the sectarian rifts are deeper and wider now.

There is rise of sects and their leaders encourage hatred and division. People are segregated as gamuk, gujur, downtownuk, etc. All this is a conspiracy which we’ve to be aloof of.

You must remember, the movements are not only suppressed by guns and bullets, but the worse form of suppression is confusing and sabotaging the conviction and ideology of the youth. One needs to be awake.


Writer is an author and a social rights activist. He is a doctor of medicine and practices in Kashmir valley.


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