The poetry of exile

Riyaz Wani | Updated on January 12, 2018

Homegrown: A broken-down Kashmiri Pandit house in Srinagar. A lot of Kashmiri Pandit poets, like Brijnath Betab, express their desire to return home in their verses Photo: Nissar Ahmad

Homeward-bound A house in Vessu Kashmiri Pandit Colony on National Highway 1. The works of many Kashmiri Pandit poets express a desire to return home Photo: Tawqeer Hussain   -  tawqeer hussain

Kashmiri Pandit poets see their verses as a way of ensuring their memories are not lost to future generations

In the ’80s, the poet Brijnath Betab was one of the most familiar Kashmiri Pandit names in Kashmir. Not because he was an actor or a politician, professions that offer greater public visibility. But because he was a newsreader on Radio Kashmir.

“Saad sath bajaye. Brijnath Betab boznavi Khabre (It is 7.30 pm. Brijnath Betab will read you news),” people in the Valley still remember the daily baritone announcement.

Betab left his village in South Kashmir in 1989 during the first wave of migration following the rise of separatist militancy. He has been living in Jammu for the past 26 years but dreams every day of returning to his home. This desire permeates his poetry. In one poem he implores Mother Kashmir to look after the house he left behind. The poem describes in detail the address, location and the features of the house.

“First there are paddy fields, followed by rivulet, and across that a gate built of willow twigs/ Then there is a line of cypress trees from the gate to the door./ Proceed quietly towards it like a butterfly./ This is the house I am leaving in your care, Mother Kashmir”.

Prem Nath Shad is another major Kashmiri Pandit poet whose work captures the longing for home. Shad, a retired headmaster, hailed from the village Yachgam in Budgam district. His lyric poem ‘And I Left’ evokes the profound sadness of the moment he left his home.

“ I let go of my home and possessions and left/ I gave up bonds of a lifetime and left/ Adorned my cow with a wreath of marigolds/ I fed her a handful of dry fodder and left/ Tethered my seven-day-old calf to a rope/ Kissed it, hardened my heart and left”

Shad was the last to leave his village, hoping the situation would improve. “I sent my son and daughter first. But my wife and I didn’t want to go. We stayed put at our home,” Shad said. “But then the situation got worse. And we decided to leave, after all”.

When the time to depart came, the entire village gathered at Shad’s house. “The neighbours wanted me to stay but couldn’t guarantee my security in the face of the swirling turmoil,” Shad said. “I left. But before boarding the waiting truck, I sneaked a furtive glance at my house. I knew I will never return”.

Shad and Betab’s works have struggled to steer clear of the politics surrounding the community’s exodus. The effort has been to evacuate the tragedy of its contentious politics and tell the larger story of loss and longing informed by a specific cultural and historical experience.

“I have resisted the urge to view Pandit suffering in isolation from the Muslim suffering or, for that matter, even Sikh and Christian suffering,” Shad said. “I am truthful to my artistic expression and to the articulation of a specific human condition. Politics compromises art.”

Sunita Rainapandita is one of the few female voices whose poetry evokes the idyllic imagery of a once peaceful Kashmir. Rainapandita’s family left Kashmir before the eruption of militancy in 1986, when there were communal riots in parts of South Kashmir. She was still a student at the time. But Dayalgam, her village, has never left her memory, even though she can now speak Jammu’s Dogri with equal ease.

In her imagination, the village has hardly changed, locked permanently in the image she has of it from her childhood. It has become an immutable piece of physical and mental landscape. Going down memory lane, she “walks the same mud paths, enters the same house built of deodar wood and red bricks, hears the same noises coming from the orchards and the paddies”.

“I recall when I watched snow fall from the windows. When spring spread the greenery in our courtyard and our walnut tree thickened with new foliage,” said Rainapandita. “And all the flavours and the scents.” She writes:

“Ahead of me was a large crowd

Murmuring about a blaze in the village

I didn’t find my home there, what shall I tell

I can’t stop looking for it ever since”

Rainapandita has never been to her village since. But some years ago, she did fleetingly visit the village of her husband Ashoke Pandit in North Kashmir’s Handwara. It was a family visit. But the moment her husband entered, now elderly Saja Mousi recognised him. Both hugged and cried inconsolably. “Mousi knew Ashokeji from his childhood. When they met, we couldn’t restrain our emotions,” says Rainapandita. “Everybody wept”.

Soon, other villagers huddled around them, lavishing love and attention on the family. “We went to my husband’s home, stood at the entrance for sometime and then left. Villagers walked some distance with us to see us off,” says Rainapandita.

Though every migrant Pandit has his individual experience of the exodus, the major poets have channelled it into creative expression, giving voice to a part of the humanitarian fallout. And this poetry doesn’t divide but reaches across the deepening gulf between Pandits and Muslims, much like good poetry from the Valley does.

Rehman Rahi, a Jnanpith award winner and arguably the greatest living Kashmiri poet, describes the shared Kashmir tragedy in one of his famous couplets.

“Quite possible that these forces might even snatch my memory/ Here nobody now protects Sri Mandir, nor even safeguards the Chrar shrine”

But where Pandit poetry differs from the poetry of the Valley is in articulating a deeper anxiety about identity. Though both the communities have suffered the terrible consequences of the lingering political conflict, their pain and loss have a markedly different frame of reference. Betab agrees. The home he left behind in the Valley looms large in his poetic imagination. “I may not be writing always about my home but a running nostalgia for it suffuses whatever I write,” he says. Like Rainapandita, Betab too has never returned to his village since 1989. He did try once, ten months after the exodus.

“I was covering the curfew relaxation in Anantnag for Doordarshan. My home was just seven kilometres away. So I asked the director to permit me to visit my home. I was on my way in my official vehicle, when we saw a mob with kerosene bottles in hand just outside my village. We turned around quickly and sped away as the mob chased us, furious that a Doordarshan vehicle had ventured into the village,” Betab said. “I never went back again. The mob which chased us later torched four nearby Tourism Department huts”.

Betab’s home too has been burnt now. “There is nobody in the village to go to now,” he says

But this doesn’t stop him from always dreaming about his home. “In my dreams, I never see Jammu or Delhi. It is always Kashmir and my home there,” he says. His home is now a metaphor for the Pandit exile. Its location and the features which Betab describes in detail in his poem almost personifies the depth of loss.

“My house has a golden entrance, and nearby a walnut tree looms large.

On the first step is my wooden sandal and the cow is tethered close by,

This is the house I am leaving in your care, Mother Kashmir”.

Riyaz Wani is a Srinagar-based journalist

Published on January 06, 2017

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