The story of Madhosh Balhami, a poet who lost the work of his lifetime in a gunfight in March 2018, is a journey of a Kashmiri, and Kashmir together.
A poet stands on a narrow lane and looks up at his half-built house with a longing, face caked with dust, soot and deep frown lines. He strolls down and says, “Adaab,” and his greeting drowns in the noise of the reconstruction of his home, brick by brick, and of his life.
Residing in the house still under construction, in Balhama village of Pulwama’s Pampore area, south Kashmir, Madhosh Balhami, alias Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, says, “I don’t write much these days, you know. Weeks pass by and I don’t pen down a single line.”
His home feels vacant and gloomy from the inside—new walls resurrected, their old muscle memory cast away. Mr. Balhami leaves the room, to return a moment later—a lit cigarette in one hand, and with the other, a blue diary clutched to his chest.
“It’s hardback reads, ‘Possibilities are infinite’,” I tell him. The 53-year-old hardly smiles.
Squatting down, he snuffs out the cigarette butt against the middle of his palm, before opening the diary—blank pages stare back. On 15 March 2018, three Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind militants ran inside Mr. Balhami’s home and took shelter. By the time the gunfight ended, all the three militants were dead and the poet’s house, carrying his work of a lifetime, papers that told tales of the last forty years of his journey, and of Kashmir, turned into ashes.
A knock on the door halts his narration—”Have some chai.”
Picking a biscuit for himself, Mr. Balhami says, “Okay, I’ll start from the beginning.” Recalling his childhood—he meekly confesses of not having one. His father, Ghulam Mustafa Bhat, a farmer by profession, died when Mr. Balhami was only 14-years-old. When his mother, Jana Bibi, who solely raised and loved him, died due to a sudden illness in 1987. The then 21-years-old was pushed into deep trauma.
Soon, his three elder brothers, eyeing him as a burden, left him to fend for his own. “Poetry often comes to you, disguised in the face of pain,” says Mr. Balhami. “When I was dying to lift off the heaviness of my brothers’ betrayal from my heart, I picked up a pen.”
Mr. Balhami wrote his first “real” poem after his mother’s death, his “jannat ki hoor” (angel of paradise):
Bi zolus dardi ki naaran
Mazaran waen dimai moji
Achav kin Khoon-i-dil haaran
Mazaran waen dimai moji
If his mother was here today, somehow, Mr. Balhami would ask her, “How do I begin to tell you, mouji, the things I had to see after you were gone?”
Writing on Kashmir
One summer day in 1990, Mr. Balhami, then 24-years-old, was at his home scrawling his usual lines about “love and loss”, when an army convoy that was passing through the village barged in.
“How many militants are hiding here,” a forces’ personnel asked him. He replied sincerely, “No one, sir.”
The next thing he knew, he was dragged under a tree and a thick tree branch was lashed against his skin repeatedly. In no time, he was painted in his own blood and nearly fell unconscious.
“Like every amateur poet, I had my stint at aashiq, mehboob, aankhon, zulfon…,” he laughs sheepishly. Scratching his receding hairline, he continues, “But that day changed everything.” From then on, Mr. Balhami picked the same pen, only this time, to ink his journey parallel to Kashmir’s.
\A’ejji raeczh yeli tim czhoor karni soun czaai mye kheyi kath
Bozum kanow cha’ekhar karaan hamsai mye kheyi kath
Kaem kor mye garas loo’uth az chum ni gawah kanh
Tami sath aalam ous myeani raai me kheyi kath
I’m reminded of the time Pablo Neruda, in trauma after his dear friend, the playwright Federico Lorca, was assassinated during the onset of the Spanish Civil War, sat down to write the poem, ‘I Explain a Few Things’. In the iconic poem that established his shift to resistance writing, he says,
“You will ask why his poetry
doesn’t speak to us of dreams, of the leaves,
of the great volcanoes of his native land?
Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood in the streets!”
Scribbling in Kashmiri and Urdu, Mr.Balhami went on to write extensive political poetry, which would later echo all across the Valley. He published two books from his poetry collection—Sadaye Abu Zar and Dard-e-Furqat. Today, only a few last copies of them lie scattered among his friends in the Valley.
Back in the day, he used to recite shayaris at the funerals of militants. He says that even a few militants approached him, asking to write for “Kashmir’s cause”. One of his verses, which resonated in funerals of militants and civilians killed in the parlance of conflict, was:
Muje dulha banake maa henna laho ki rachane do
Na roko meri raahon ko mujhe maqtal mai jaane do
However, before his status could rise among the people in Kashmir, authorities were quick to realize the trouble he was causing. In the 1990s, the Jammu and Kashmir police arrested him thrice under the Public Safety Act (PSA). He also ended up spending his years in numerous jails, including Srinagar Central Jail and in Jammu, in parts between 1993 and 2000, on the accusation of being militant and possessing weapons.
“I don’t know anything about guns,” he says. “I used to tell them, all I have is a pen. Though, the jail was a good time. There is no better place for a poet than a jail. I used to isolate myself in my cell—it was just me, my pen and paper,” he grins. In jail, he says that the authorities left him alone as they couldn’t understand the verses he wrote in Kashmiri. In those seven years, Mr. Balhami wrote most of his life’s work—now burnt down.
Poetry and Politics
Mahraz be’dith gov te nikah naam mallan czhott
Mahrin ti yeli yeni wal’ie bronh prayi ti mye kheyi kath
“A beautiful maiden is trapped between two cowards. She is unwillingly married to one of them, and the other one wants to marry her too but isn’t powerful enough to take her.
On the day of the wedding, even after the mullah tore away the marriage papers, the adamant groom forcefully marries her—but he doesn’t take care of her now.
However, the maiden has made mistakes too. Before the marriage, she bore illegitimate children to another man. Now, whatever she wishes for is unheard.”
“Here, the maiden is Kashmir,” Mr. Balhami says. “Her mistake is that she herself doesn’t know what she wants. She cheats by casting votes, running behind jobs and subsidies.” Adding to this idea, he says that the people of Kashmir demand freedom from India, but want jobs and their desires to be fulfilled as well. “For azadi, one has to starve at times.”
Over the years, his understanding of the Kashmir conflict has also changed, as his poetry evolved. “But, I always believe that no country could ever achieve freedom merely through militancy,” he says. In 1993, when armed militancy was at its peak in the Valley, he had written:
Bandook diwan yus yaar czhe chui
Su chu zaar gindaan chaenis jaanas
“It lies in leadership,” he says, “Till now, the movement has failed to produce strong leaders. Besides, these days, the leaders are not as fearless as they were in the 90s.” Quoting Mahatma Gandhi’s Civil Disobedience Movement against the Britishers, he says that unless there is proper planning and its execution, “the state will keep killing people and we will never achieve our azadi.”
Sir diye, gar diye, noor-e-basar diye logon ne
Kaargar ho na saki ab tak meri koi bhi tadbeer
Konsa nuqs hai mere masoomiyat mai ae maula
Meri faryaad, mere aahoon baqa hai be-taseer
As for poetry in Kashmir, a lot has changed too. Back in the era of the 1990s, Mr. Balhami observes, most traditional shayaris were mere pleas of patriotism that urged and called out for the youth to take up “shahadat” (martyrdom). “It’s not the same today,” he says. “Today, young people write on the lines of posing direct questions to the Centre. This is merely a different form of patriotism.”
Dilli walo tumhari sang dilli pe sadaf
Mai toh cheekhun ga, rowun ga, chillaonga
Islamabad teri bedilli ke bhi
Marsiye likh likh ke logun ko sunaoga
Softening the tongue
In one of his poems, After the August Wedding in Lahore, Pakistan, Kashmir’s firebrand poet Agha Shahid Ali asks:
“Stranger, who will inherit the last night
of the past? Of what shall I not sing, and sing?”
“Resistance poetry is a cry of pain. When any part of the body is injured, the eyes moisten,” Mr. Balhami says, as he plucks out another cigarette from his packet of Four Square. He lights it and continues, “Likewise, a poet is an eye of the society. But here in Kashmir, no poet has the freedom to cry out loud. He [/she] is gagged.”
He further adds, anger is just on the surface, “Those who have made it big in Kashmir’s poetic scenario, the ones who are featured in newspapers and on radio, don’t really write resistance poetry. They write lines that are sweet to the ears of state, and even get awarded for the work.”
The economy around it is another issue, he believes, “They (poets) write for a handsome pay by a television or radio show. Why would anyone write for free?” Commenting on the number of “real resistance poets”, he says, “You can count them on your fingers.”
Then again, who wants to take the risk, he asks. “The younger generation feels, ‘Why write on things that won’t get you anything but trouble?’ I can’t blame them. After so many torture ordeals and spending time in jail, I too have softened my tongue.”
Mr. Balhami is still left with enough poems that can fill his third book but is too afraid to publish it. “I have said things in that collection that I’m sure will get me killed,” he sidelines it, laughing. “Besides that, nobody is ready to publish it due to its intense political content.”
However, he admits to never self-censor his unpublished writing on paper. “I tone it down when I read it to the people,” he says. “I will never stop reciting poetry, but now I will also never recite things that will get me into trouble.” Mr. Balhami, not-so-young now, is afraid of death threats. “I’m an old man now, the fiery youth is doused.”
For instance, he had once written:
Kisne ye inko jihad ka hunar sikha liya
Ujaad kar kisi ka ghar jannat mai ghar apna bana liya
Only to change his lines, out of fear, to:
Bada shareer tha umar bhar mujhe sata liya
Khuda ne mere ghar se mera inteqam le liya
Meri hi manzil ke wo musafiran-e-khaas the
Shaheed hogaye mujhe bhi hausla naya diya
Moreover, though he is glad that it happened to him, along with his home, his desires and materialistic needs also vanished, “Still, my burnt poetry haunts me,” he says. “The loss has shattered my will to write again.”
The people of Kashmir too, he believes, have lost the art of gathering around and listening to shayari or adab. “Listening to poetry needs a certain state of mind. From the 90s to now, Kashmiri has changed, and the culture has declined,” Mr. Balhami says. “Here, people witness killings, funerals every day. Where will they find the heart to listen to poetry?”
Though, he considers himself lucky that he started reading poetry at a young age. A student of Urdu and Political Science, he went on a reading frenzy during his Pre-University days at Sri Pratap College, Srinagar. Kashmir’s centuries-old history of political struggle, that he read during those days, motivates him till now to write political poetry.
When asked about his favorites from the world of poets, he smiles as crinkles appear around his eyes, then firmly says “Everyone’s.” Diving deeper, he says, “Sufi poets have always inspired me. In fact, I feel the roots of Kashmiri poetry lie in Sufism.” He continues with a disappointed face, “Though, today’s generation will never truly understand what Sufism stands for until qayamat (judgement day).”
He adds that he considers Mirza Ghalib as the greatest poet, and as for political poetry, he admires Allama Iqbal, the legendary Pakistani poet who had once quoted, “Nations are born in the hands of poets, they prosper and die in the hands of politicians.”
A movement, a revolution indeed was when Neruda, one of the biggest resistance poets of our times, called to poets from around the world amidst the Spanish Civil War and published, The Poets of the World Defend the Spanish People— it went on to become such a phenomenon that the war itself was called The Poets’ War.
A movement was when in pre-independent India, the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) was formed in July 1936 in Kolkata to weave together powerful words, aiming to resist the British colonial rule. A movement was when the Urdu and Hindi poets of PWA, through their words, abetted a whole sense of nationalism among the people.
A movement was when a single phrase from a poem by Hasrat Mohani, Montagu Reforms—“Inquilab Zindabad” became the chant of a centuries-old struggle for a country’s freedom and autonomy.
“What movement?” Mr. Balhami asks.
“People in Kashmir, especially leaders, think that writing isn’t important or impactful for a movement,” he says. “In contrast, if you look at India’s freedom struggle against Britain, all the leaders knew the power of a pen.”
With time, the channel of resistance has also shifted across the world. From pamphlets to social media hashtags, the world has come a long way. “It is out of my hands if young people don’t write,” he says.
Amid the fog, there is a slight flicker of the slam poetry and open mic scene sparking in Srinagar, with young poets like Syed Saddam Ali “Murad”, Rumuz and Zeeshan Ali emerging.
However, apart from the veteran pioneers of poetry in Kashmir, Ghulam Ahmad “Mahjoor” and Zarif Ahmad “Zarif”, today, Mr. Balhami believes, the ones who really resist through their poetry are little known—they come from small villages and humble backgrounds—like himself.
“Where is the freedom to express in Kashmir?” asks Mr. Balhami. Within the last year, when he has mostly stayed quiet, he says that three First Information Reports (FIRs) were registered against him.
“With such things happening, what movement are you talking about?”
Currently, Mr. Balhami is working on a collection where he would solely focus on his own standpoint of the conflict. He wishes and longs for a group of writers as influential as the PWA to be formed in Kashmir. “But how can a small and powerless man like me start something so big?”
If it was not for Kashmir, in a parallel world, Mr. Balhami would still have been a poet—just of a different kind. “Maybe when I die, my words will live on,” he says. “Because what I write is not for me, but for my people. These verses are witness to events of history itself.”
Rashmitha Muniandi a features writer at The Kashmir Walla
The Cover Story appeared in our 22-28 July 2019 print edition with the headline — Kashmir: From Verses to Ashes