To read the work of the Kashmiri poet, Rahman Rahi, is to return to the question of what is one’s own. To read Rahi is to begin understanding solitude. But not solitude as isolation, detachment or loneliness but solitude as an ancient virtue, as freedom. To read Rahi is also to read the Kashmiri self and the problem of its sovereignty. One might ask what Rahi’s solitude has to do with the question of sovereignty, or even what exactly we mean by the Kashmiri self. But we have not as yet learned to read Rahi.
Rahi is a poet of silence, of longings and distances, of essential Kashmiri meanings (I use essential here in the sense the word ‘essence’ carries of a relation with the historical past). Rahi’s words speak of the difficulty of determining the Self. Rahi reveals the Kashmiri language as a sehra (desert), gulzar (garden) and a samsara (world). Sometimes I approach Rahi from his nearness and distance to Akhtar Mohiudeen. I visited Akhtar Mohiudeen in 1997. Mohiudeen had lost his son and son-in-law to the violence in the 1990s. Many children were freely running about his house. Freely. He said to me: “These are the children of my son and my daughter. As long as I am alive, I am going to take care of them. But that does not mean that I will give up. I will keep fighting for justice.” Soon the conversation turned to poetry and to Rahman Rahi. He said with great pain: “Rahi wrote: Zinda rozan bapath chhi maran lukh, che marakh na/ Loti paeth chekha pyaale kyuho uff ti karakh na (To live, people die:won’t you die/Will you drink this cup in silence, won’t you even cry?). But when people were ready to die, Rahi was nowhere to be found.” The tone, I remember, was not accusatory but sad. It is as if Mohiudeen demanded a word, an answer, a poem or a prayer from Rahi.
How must we begin to understand Rahi’s silence in the early 1990s? As we know, there are many silences we speak of when we speak of Rahi’s silence. And we are also speaking of silence. Let us turn to the poem quoted by Mohiudeen: Zinda rozan bapath chhi maran lukh, che marakh na/ Loti paeth chekha pyaale kyuho uff ti karakh na (To live, people die:won’t you die/Will you drink this cup in silence, won’t you even cry?). Rahi appears to protest the silence with which a Kashmiri drinks his cup of poison. But the cup of poison here is also the cup that ended the life of Socrates (Rahi, as we know, is also a translator of ancient Greek thought). To drink this cup of poison is to die for speaking the truth. On a different reading, the Kashmiri who drinks the cup of poison in silence is also dying for speaking the truth. This dying in life, the patience of the Kashmiri, is a dying for the truth. This dying in life is also a waiting for justice. Here I am tempted to recall Socrates’ advice to Athenians for which he is condemned to death: “Dear friend, you are an Athenian, citizen of the greatest city, more famous than any other for its knowledge and might, yet are you not ashamed for devoting all your care to increasing your wealth, reputation and honors while not caring for or even considering your reason, truth, and the constant improvement of your soul?” The silence which is a question for Rahi in the poem Zinda rozan bapath then is also a question for Akhtar Mohiudeen. But Rahi’s silence is the silence of a speaking, a speaking of the truth. But that leaves the reader of Rahi with a difficult question: Can the speaking of truth be a speaking of justice?
Rahi published a collection of poems in 1997 called Siyah Rude Jaren Manz. A difficult to translate title, Rahi himself offered the following English translation: Under the Dark Downpours. Yet the English “dark” fails to capture the anxiety of the Persian “Siyah.” The title is difficult to translate into English because it brings together Siyah (the self, the night of the self), rud (rain, the event, the gift) and manz (history) together in a way which is difficult to express in English. The manz which I translate here as history is “between” in Kashmiri. To be in the Between is what it means to exist. Who is in this region of the Between? What is the phenomenon which is the Siyah Rude Jare (the ropes of black rain)? The Between is the journey and Rahi explicitly invokes the metaphor of the journey in the Preface to Siyah Rude Jaren Manz. To exist is to be in the middle (yet another meaning of manz) of the Between. The poet is in the Between a stranger, homeless in language. But fundamental decisions about belonging take place in the Between. Rahi finds himself in the Between, a certain region of darkness, a darkness which is also a bridge (a rope-bridge of the rain between the earth and the sky). “Rud-e-Jari” (ropes of rain) in a sense is a gift from the sky, an event in the Between. Yet the melancholy of the Siyah turns the event of the Siyah Rude Jaren Manz also into a mourning. There is a sense of foreboding in the Siyah.
I would like here to speak of the Preface to Siyah Rude Jaren Manz. But before we do so I would like to speak of Rahi’s language as unfolding something essential which we encounter in Rahi and his poetry. Humility. The way Rahi uses the Kashmiri language in this Preface is a moral lesson. Rahi begins the Preface to Siyah Rude Jaren Manz with an intimation that he had to wait for a very long time before he could publish this collection of poems and that much of his poetry still remains unpublished. Rahi published Siyah Rude Jaren Manz in 1997. His previous major collection of poems was published in 1958. That Kashmir’s leading poet had to wait for almost four decades to publish a new collection of poems is a truth we must have the courage to understand. Turning Kashmiri melodies into anthems of national longing is no substitute to the freedom of a poet. We must think seriously about why Kashmir’s leading writers like Rahman Rahi and Akhtar Mohiudeen struggled to publish their work even as we encounter a deluge of publications in Kashmiri.
Rahi says in this Preface that he offers his poems chronologically to give his reader a sense of his journey. Rahi urges us to read his poetry historically: “…banan chu tami tale lagiy myani kuni fiqri ya ehsaasi safruk baas (…maybe the reader will get some sense of my journey in thought and feeling).” As Rahi puts it himself at the end of the Preface: Maaney parvar aasi kath mulnavnas/ Taari hargah na khasyekh mansavnas (If they find meaning in the thought, they will preserve it/ But if it has no worth for them, they will forget it). The feeling as much as thought. Feeling is a poor translation for ehsaas (which could also mean sense, intuition or perception). But feeling here is also a style of thought, a relation to the world. Ehsaas is what we could describe as the primordial: a structure of existence which cannot but be historical. The relation to Kashmir and Kashmiri remains for Rahi an ethical difficulty (in the Kashmiri sense of the word mushkil) and right at the beginning of Siyah Rude Jaren Manz he appears to retreat into this metaphor of a journey. Rahi writes in the Preface about why he ends the nazm section with the poem Naet Nabi (a poem about his spiritual journey): “…mye chhu biheth zi kathi vaatan vael hazraath paraznaavan ath manz mazkoore safruk akh laeeqi twajah manzil (I believe that those who care for the essential matter would recognize a proper destiny here for the said journey). We can attempt a synoptic reading of the passage, as suggested by Rahi, from the first poem Jalvae tae Zabur (The Song of Revelation) to the last poem of the nazm section Naet Nabi as a crossing. Perhaps it is where Rahi breaks from the chronology that we can begin to read the meanings of the event, the manz, in his own journey. The Manz is inescapable: it is the destiny of the word and the world. This emerges more clearly in Rahi’s readings of Kashmiri Sufi poetry scattered across different books and journals.
We might wonder why we are spending so much time on a Preface which appears to us as rather casual and straightforward. That returns me to the point that we have not as yet learned to read Rahi. I mean the text, the work and the ethic that is Rahi. Rahi’s world recedes into the future. And perhaps even approaches a national desire (I apologize for using a word as vulgar as the ‘national’ but at certain moments of a people’s history such words provide a temporary shelter). Yet Rahi is no cultural nationalist even though he often turns to a benign form of cultural nationalism when pushed to articulate a political position. The politics that hides in his poetry emerges as the question of singularities, of a Kashmiri nation without nationalism, of a politics without enemies. To read Rahi, we must not only understand his relationship to the history of Kashmiri thought but also his relationship to ancient Greek and classical Persian thought. Rahi not only searches for openings in the Kashmiri language but attempts to arrive at a future in it. He appropriates Persian, Urdu, Sanskrit and Hindi for his purposes as a poet. I write this note as a footnote to Rahi’s Preface out of a deep sense of love and respect for the poet who is forever concerned with the question of what is Kashmiri. The lesson we learn from Rahi is that without our attempts and failures to appropriate the Kashmiri language for ourselves (all such attempts end in failures but remain necessary), we cannot even begin to pose the question of the Kashmiri self and the problem of its sovereignty. This is I understand a provocative statement but its provocation is only intended to provoke to thought. Rahi would agree that what is own’s own cannot be appropriated but can perhaps be conserved.
Right at the beginning we discussed Akhtar Mohiudeen’s demand for a word, an answer, a poem or a prayer from Rahi. Rahi begins his collection of poems with a poem addressed to the Kashmiri language, Jalvae te Zabur (The Song of Revelation) and ends it with a poem, Naet Nabi, about his spiritual journey. Both poems explicity connect poetry and language to revelation. Rahi writes in Jalvae te Zabur that if we had not encountered language Moosa maryehe deedare varaai (Moses would have died without encountering God). Rahi offers us first of all a song of revelation and then a prayer. But between the covers of Siyah Rude Jaren Manz is a waiting. The Between of the manz is in the end a waiting.
Here we essentially attempted to begin to read the Preface to Siyah Rude Jaren Manz. Preface in Kashmiri means Gode Kath. The Kath (or the thinking) which comes before (gode) everything: the essential matter. Gode Kath could also be translated (and I risk this translation) as pre-Occupation, or preoccupation. What is, as Kashmiris, our pre-Occupation or preoccupation? What do we recognize in the invisible flag, the absent sign which the Alamdar (flag-bearer, or sign-bearer) of Kashmir holds out to the future as the Kashmiri past? What is the meaning of the Kashmiri journey which we find between the covers of Siyah Rude Jaren Manz?
Poetry and philosophy teach us that spirituality is a preparation for death. We are not far from the Greek structure of spirituality when we attempt to understand Rahi as a poet, teacher and thinker. Rahi’s poetry can also be approached as an encounter between Greek and Islamic structures of spirituality. In both ancient Greek and Islamic thought, learning how to die is a spiritual exercise. But learning how to read is also a spiritual exercise. Pierre Hadot, in Philosophy as a Way of Life, describes the idea of reading as a spiritual exercise in ancient Greek thought in a language of loss: “And yet we have forgotten how to read: how to pause, liberate ourselves from our worries, return into ourselves, and leave aside our search for subtlety and originality, in order to meditate calmly, ruminate and let the texts speak to us. This, too, is a spiritual exercise, and one of the most difficult.” Perhaps it is with this lesson about reading in mind that we can best approach the work of Rahman Rahi.
By Abir Bazaz in August 2009. He is a PhD Candidate in Asian Literatures, Cultures and Media at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, US, and also works there as a Graduate Instructor.