Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Uneasy Task Of Being An Indian English Poet In Kashmir

Mohammad Zahid is a poet from Kashmir. That sets some expectations based on essentialist clichés. Can he have an identity as a writer/poet apart from the one linked to his region, religion and political views? He should have such an identity, I believe - a flexible, ever-changing one. It is true that the place where one is born and grows up has a deep impact on his consciousness. But his artistic pursuits are not solely influenced by the place.
Zahid has wide ranging interests - he is an avid reader, cares for the recent trends in art and music, grabs any chance to appreciate world cinema and tries to see life from many angles. How can I say that? Because I happen to be his friend, and even though we belong to two states (Kashmir and Kerala) that are the extreme ends of India, we got chances to meet up, stay together, and even share a stage twice, for our poetry readings. That makes my task both easy and difficult. Easy, because I know the person I am talking about. Difficult, because such a belief is a hindrance when it comes to analyzing the literary works by that person - because such works go much beyond that person, even beyond what that person himself could put in perspective. Anyway, I don't consider myself a critic, or a decent reviewer even. My attempt here is to just have a look at his book of poems, based on my first impressions. 

Zahid's strength as a poet comes from his eagerness to reflect originally on things that many consider mundane, or take for granted. He doesn't miss the small details in things that take place around him. In some cases, he is capable of seeing these things with the curiosity of a newborn - trying to connect the images and to bring meaning out of them from unfettered thoughts. And the surprising fact is that such attempts from his part lead to poems that are highly philosophical, like 'Genesis', 'Questions', 'Addressee Not Found', 'Calling, A Ghazal', 'Canteen Kids', 'Love By The Side Of The Grave', 'Songs Of Silence', 'The Autumn Leaves', 'The Hunter And The Mosquito' and so on. These are the poems that appeal the most to me. 

However, some of the themes and poetic devices that Zahid grapples with may need a little more focus and deeper understanding. As Prof. G R Malik points out in his Preface to the book, Zahid puts his artistry to real test in the ghazals that he attempts. This may also invite unfair comparisons with writers like Agha Shahid Ali, who experimented with the form and succeeded to some extent. Malik observes that Zahid is "comparatively more at home with the ghazal's indigenous ambience." While I agree with that, I see some scope for improvement in the way English language has to be bent to suit this ambience. Salman Rushdie has done that with great ease in fiction, but I feel India is still waiting for someone to do that in poetry. I understand that it is a much tougher task in poetry. I felt Zahid may perhaps need to reconsider some of the forced rhymes, wordiness, too familiar expressions from literary classics and inversions in some of his ghazals like 'Night, A Ghazal', 'Winter, A Ghazal' and 'Game, A Ghazal'. This doesn't mean that his ghazals don't work for me. They do, for their original thoughts, unexpected twists, musicality, fresh refrains and unique phraseology. I just felt that if there is space for improvement, it could be with regard to the creative and exact use of English language that suits the form, without losing the essence of Indianness and the ghazal quality - tough task indeed, but a young poet should have enough time to work on that. 

Among the poems that speak of the agony Zahid experiences about the Kashmir situation, a handful come as quite impressive to me. 'The Pheromone Trail' calls for a close reading, and it is an attempt to say many things by not really saying it. The hints are well thought out and subtle, and the images can last forever in a discerning reader's mind. If that's a poem with which I go on a date, I would end up asking for its hand in marriage. There is a lot to appreciate in that as a work of art, for life. 'The Missing Men, Found' impressed me much before I read it in the book. I listened to him reading it during the 2012 Hyderabad Literature Festival, and was lucky to discuss it in detail afterwards. Though it's based on real events that touched the poet on a personal level, the poem is devoid of journalistic clichés. 'Happy? New year!!!' on the other hand, failed to impress me that much. 'The Stray Bullet' can leave a strong impact on many, I thought, but the use of language could have been a bit more refined there. 

I am not in a position to judge Zahid as an Indian English poet. All I can say is that I see in him a quality that creative writers are born with. Let me remember something in this context. In the 1987 issue of Mar Ivanios College Magazine (Trivandrum, India), an interviewer asked the maverick writer Aubrey Menen whether writers are born or made. Menen's reply was this: "All writers are made writers, but in fact they are born. Journalists can be made, but not creative writers". I believe Zahid is born a writer. He is so young, open minded and earnest. There is so much time left for him to perfect his craft. What matters, in the meantime, is the need to keep the spark alive, despite the horrifying life experiences that touch him deeply, and the unfair comparisons and expectations. We know that he is from Kashmir, there is nothing that can wipe away that fact. He will always be a Kashmiri, wherever he moves to. But let his poems bloom naturally, like the beautiful flowers in the garden he tends.

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