Mouje, Mother and Motherland

A Kashmiri-American poet intertwines family, national and global histories to create a profoundly affecting book.

While recovering from a surgery at a hospital, the mother of Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali would often find the sirens of ambulances to be like the cries of elephants thrown off a cliff by the soldiers of Mihiragula, a sixth century Hun king who gained control over north India and Kashmir. Ali used this incredible imagery in his poem ‘Lenox Hill‘, included in his 2002 collection Rooms Are Never Finished:

‘The Hun so loved the cry, one falling elephant’s,
he wished to hear it again. At dawn, my mother
heard, in her hospital-dream of elephants,
sirens wail through Manhattan like elephants
forced off Pir Panjal’s rock cliffs in Kashmir.’

The poem is an elegy, jealously individual and yet universal. “For compared to my grief for you, what are those of Kashmir,” writes Ali

‘and what (I close the ledger) are the griefs of the universe
when I remember you—beyond all accounting—O my mother?’

The death of a mother also marks the end of Kashmiri-American poet Rafiq Kathwari’s second book of poems, My Mother’s Scribe (New Delhi: Yoda Press, 2021). (His previous collection, In Another Country, won the 2013 Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award and was published by Doire Press, Galway, in 2015.) In the last poem of the current collection, ‘Obit’, the poet-narrator recollects the death of his mother:

‘Mother passed away in her sleep at the Hebrew Home in the Bronx. I visited her last on 7 March 2020. The Hebrew Home locked down on the 10th due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Mother died alone on 31st March. She was 96.’

The poem then conflates the memory of the dead mother with the image of Bharat Mata, made popular by Abanindranath Tagore and Raja Ravi Varma, from the back of a matchbox: “So, here’s how Sabila saw my mother wrapped in a bright sari, superimposed on a map of India painted on a box of safety matches. It’s incendiary.”

Imagining a Kashmiri mother as Mother India is incendiary for more than one reason. Kathwari dedicates his book to: “the disappeared / the half-widows / the orphans / the deliberately blinded / and for my fellow Kashmiris in unmarked graves”, evoking the widespread human rights abuses, such as incarceration without trial, torture, and forced disappearances and murder, in Kashmir by India and Pakistan. The face of the resistance against such violations is also a Kashmiri mother, Parveena Ahanger, who started the Association of Parents and Disappeared Persons in 1994 after her elder son, Javaid, was allegedly picked up by Indian armed forces and never seen again.

Kathwari, however, unearths an even more radical potential to this image:

‘Dapaan, Hindutva has been weaponized to impose mythology upon history to create Greater India—Akhand Baharat, united and undivided Hindu Rashtra from Afghanistan to Myanmar. Dapaan, Kashmir strikes at the heart of this nirvana because of its Muslim majority.’

Beginning each paragraph with the Kashmiri word Dapaan, “a double-edged metaphorical sword used to mean or demean”, a weapon of conversation but also of rumours, Kathwari seems to offer a lesson in political science through his poetry: Jammu and Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state in India, had to be bifurcated and suppressed and silenced, as the Government of India did in 2019, because it struck at the heart of Hindutva.

Also read: Kashmir and the Saved Muslim Woman

The poet extends his study, combining his family history with the history of Kashmir, the Indian subcontinent, and eventually the world. He does this through a series of epistles, purportedly written by his mothers to global figures, with him as the scribe. Kathwari describes the process in the titular poem:

‘Parker fountain pen
Gold-plated nib
Waterman’s ink
Eggshell paper
My blue-black fingers
Pilot her fervent verses
To Prime Ministers of the World
A moth at a candle’s edge.’

The letters are addressed to former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Turkish ambassador in Karachi, former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and to Louis Mountbatten. While some reply, others don’t. There are some personal letters as well, addressed to the mother’s husband’s new wife as well as the husband. This sort of epistolary historiography locates Kathwari’s book in the global history of Kashmiri literature, especially Ali’s acclaimed 1997 collection The Country Without A Post Office.

Kathwari, who was a neighbour of Ali in Srinagar and also knew him in New York, acknowledges the influence. “Agha Shahid Ali… urged me to write about my mother’s mental challenges which both Shahid and I agreed is a compelling subject,” writes Kathwari in the “Gratitude” section of his book. “This collection is as much a homage to my mother as it is to the three near and dear departed souls: Shahid, Aslum and Tariq, the latter two my oldest and youngest brothers respectively.”

The letters that the mother of the poet writes or receives can only be transmitted in a Kashmir with post offices — not the dystopian one that novelist Mirza Waheed tweeted about after India shut down all communications in the region in 2019. While communication has been restored, freedom of speech and human rights is still a distant dream in Kashmir — Kathwari’s poetry is a powerful evocation of it.

Uttaran Das Gupta’s novel Ritual was published last year; he teaches at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat. Das Gupta writes a fortnightly column on poetry, ‘Verse Affairs’, for The Wire.