Tuesday, November 08, 2011
“But is it wrong for a man to make a house, a place where he can return in the evening?” – The Journals of John Cheever
There never has been a home. He thought of it many times. In the cacophony of train compartments. At some airport lounge. On some night journey in a bus. He has not been able to sleep. He gets up in a fit, at some odd hour in the night, and then he cannot return. In the darkness of the night, he stares at the tiny red light on his mobile phone. Sometimes he feels warm breath on his neck. Or a nail digging into his arm. Or a leg plonked on his thigh. But he knows there is nothing.
The other day, he was in this departmental store, picking up some grocery. He felt strange putting garbage poly bags and disinfectant in his shopping trolley. He didn’t know why, but right afterwards, he also picked up biscuits and chewing gum. He didn’t need them. But he picked them any way. There were too many things that didn’t make sense. He didn’t think of them. But there never has been a home. He thought of it many times.
Sometimes he felt life had bypassed him. Sometimes he was not sure of that. Sometimes he felt he was still seeking love. Sometimes he was not sure of that. Earlier, he would mingle around, during the day – talk about food, about someone’s marriage gone kaput, about a film that was being raved about. The nights were different. In the night, he turned into someone else – someone he had no clue about. The nights had always been like this, more or less. The nights were always tough. But now, even days were turning him into someone he had no clue about.
He would wake up in the morning, go to the balcony, look at the cars in the parking, and then turn back to the room. He would read the newspapers without even registering a word. He would drink tea. He would put last night’s socks into the washing machine. He would stare at his shoes. They stared back at him. Finally he would get up and put them inside the shoe rack. He would keep on checking time on the table clock as if he was not sure time was passing. He felt like getting out, and yet when he did, he would long to return back to the room. There was always the comfort of a whisky bottle lying half hidden behind the sofa. He could always hide behind what lay half hidden behind the sofa.
And, more than often, he returned. He would then get up in the night, and find himself resting against a lean pillow. He would have drifted off to sleep like that. His neck would be sore. He would taste loneliness in his mouth.
In the darkness of the night, he again imagined things. But he knew there was nothing. There never has been a home.
Saturday, September 03, 2011
Beyi sund dod chhui bemaane/ Yas akkis banih te sui zaane
(Another’s pain is without meaning/ Only the sufferer knows what it is like) – A Kashmiri saying
Ms. Mridu Rai sent her piece to Open first. But as per her own admission, my piece angered her so much that she didn’t care whether my magazine would publish it or not (“Just writing it is proving to be a soothing balm”, she wrote on Facebook). Nevertheless, even after she was soothed, and without waiting for Open’s response, Ms. Rai’s piece was published in Kafila by one of its administrators – a little boy whose idea of activism is getting a picture clicked in front of a photoshopped board that reads: Screw India.
It took me some time to pick up from Ms. Rai’s academic hubris the questions she has asked. She begins by questioning my right to express my views on a literary festival that was to be held in a land where I was born and where I would have spent my life had we not been driven out by religious extremists in 1990. Like other authors, and publishers, and artists, I was also a part of the advisory committee of the Harud festival. Of course, my interest was to make the festival a success. But how does it amount to conflict of interest, as Ms. Rai thinks it is? Suppose, as a member of the government’s National Advisory Council, Jean Dreze expresses his view on something counter-productive done by the rural development ministry or any other power on the NREGA, does that amount to conflict of interest? Just how?
The other problem Ms. Rai has is with my assertion that in the festival, I was going to talk about ‘everything.’ By ‘everything’, I was only referring to the range of issues whose one end simply doesn’t exist for Ms. Rai and many others like her. There are barbed wires, unmarked mass graves and red-eyed CRPF troopers in Kashmir. But there is also the mass untruth about the killings and the subsequent exodus of a small community called Kashmiri Pandits who became the Tutsis of Kashmir in 1989-90. Those who were killed amidst slogans of Assi gacchi panunuy Pakistan, batav rostuy batinen saan (We want our Pakistan, without Pandit men, but with their women) included poets, academics, teachers, doctors, old men and women, and infants (Please search #OtherGraves on twitter for details of some of these gruesome murders). Not a single person responsible for these killings has ever been convicted. Does Ms. Rai ever raise this issue in her numerous writings or in the seminars she attends? Forget the Kashmiri Pandits for a moment. Has she ever even put up a Facebook message on other killings of innocents in the valley, for instance, of the brutal murder of two young sisters in Sopore in February this year?
Then Ms. Rai goes on and refuses to acknowledge even my hangnail Kashmiri identity as someone who has been in exile for 21 years now. She wants to know what I mean when I say I am “a writer who is from Kashmir.” Well, Ms. Rai, no beating around the bush. I am a Kashmiri Pandit. That makes me a ‘writer’ who is from Kashmir, and not a ‘writer’ who is from Delhi. And that coupled with the fact that I have extensively reported from Kashmir gives my voice the unique legitimacy irrespective of whether you recognise it or not.
Yes, I know that the police clamped down on some of those who expressed their dissent through cyberspace (I will return to it towards the end). But it is also true that the reporter, who broke the story of unmarked mass graves, and many other important stories, continues to live in Kashmir. Those Kashmiris who had accepted the invitation to be a part of this festival also live there: Rahman Rahi, Naseem Shafaie, Shahid Budgami, Shujaat Bukhari, Zareef Ahmed Zareef, Anjum Zamrud Habib, and many many others like the journalist Iftikhar Gilani, whose jail diary “Tihar ke Shab-o-roz” won him the Sahitya Akademi Award (He was to speak at the Kashmir University session but will now attend the forthcoming Jaipur literary festival).
I stand by my usage of the word ‘sabotage’ in my previous piece because I know that some of these writers were called and dissuaded from attending (not necessarily by those who signed that letter against Harud). And they couldn’t say No because they were silenced in the name of the ‘cause.’
Ms. Rai and others had problems with the so-called apolitical nature of the festival. Had Anjum (who was charged under POTA and has written a book, Prisoner No. 100) attended the festival, what would have she spoken about? Houseboats and carpets? The festival, by the way, was to begin with a session titled: Conflicts and Contradictions (Tehelka’s Shoma Chaudhury, writer Omair Ahmad and myself). And, suppose, for argument sake, even if the festival were to be apolitical, who is Ms. Rai or others to decide what the Kashmiris who live in Kashmir want? If a young Kashmiri wants to meet Chetan Bhagat or get a book signed by Shobha De, who is Ms. Rai to decide otherwise?
The problem with the likes of Ms. Rai is that they suffer from what a friend the other day termed as “Nelsonian vision”. Factor this: Ms. Rai calls the holy Amarnath Yatra a “militarily enabled jingoistic exercise”. What does that mean? That the yatra cannot happen without the military taking over it? (Not true at all since the pilgrims have been welcomed by the locals even at the peak of the 2008 Amarnath agitation). And why is the pilgrimage to one of the holy abodes of Lord Shiva a ‘jingoistic exercise?’ Because Hindu pilgrims from all over the world come there, singing paeans to the almighty, chanting Har Har Mahadev. What should they exult in to win Ms. Rai’s favour? Yahan kya chalega, Nizam-e-Mustafa?
Further, Ms. Rai urges us to use our ‘influence’ to “prevail on publishing houses” to print the story of many Kashmiris. How much influence has Ms. Rai used herself for making their stories heard – in publishing, or at least in seminars and conferences that she attends, from Delhi to Dublin?
The truth is that Kashmir has, to quote another friend, turned from war economy to intellectual economy. And it is in the interest of the likes of Ms. Rai that this cheering from distance should go on. A young Kashmiri, Junaid Azim Mattu makes it clear to Ms. Rai in a response to a different matter:
“Looking at conflicts and occupations through lenses of liberal academic thought and theory makes us oblivious to certain core realities. When mobs driven by emotions do so, it’s understandable. When grieving families driven by grief do so, it’s justified but when the ideologues of chronic and default anti-statism in New Delhi, Calcutta and elsewhere cheer thirteen year old kids to face automatic weapons with stones – it’s blatant hypocrisy”.
On Ms. Rai’s Facebook post, someone called ‘Rumuz E Bekhudi’ responded by writing: Rahul Pandita shouldn’t be alive. “You mean he should die of shame?” Ms. Rai quips.
Ms. Rai, I will die when I have to, and God willing, it will not be of shame. But I will tell you a story of ‘cyberspace dissent’ that perhaps only you may not feel ashamed of: Last year, on Independence Day, Mumbai’s Free Press Journal carried Vox pop of young Kashmiris on what they felt about India. A bright Kashmiri girl, a Srinagar-based budding artist, spoke about the concerns of ordinary Kashmiris, and then also went about praising chief minister Omar Abdullah. After that, all hell broke loose. Through a Facebook group called “Bekaar Jamaath” (Idle group), and on e-mail and phone, she was threatened and abused by fellow Kashmiris. She was so scared and intimidated that I believe the article had to be removed from the cyber space. Did you, Ms. Rai, know of it? Perhaps not. Had you known of it, would you raise your voice? Not at all, because it doesn’t fit in your vision of ‘freedom of speech’.
And the question of freedom of speech brings me to a question that I want to ask Ms. Rai: Suppose for a moment that Salman Rushdie was indeed invited to the festival, and that he had accepted it. What would her stand be? And those of others who signed that letter?
But, as of now, I believe, Ms. Rai is tired. On Kafila, she has asked the 14 original signatories of that letter to return her ‘soul’ and ‘individual agency’. “They were only on loan, you know!” she writes.
What does that make Ms. Rai? An intellectual mercenary?
Previous Post: The Autumn of Hypocrisy
Previous Post: The Autumn of Hypocrisy
Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Tonight, they will raise a toast. Tonight, they will pat one another’s backs, and, in the confines of their apartments in New Delhi and elsewhere, may even take out victory marches. Someone might even hurl an imaginary stone, declaring that finally, the Internet Intifada has been successful. Congratulatory messages will flood Facebook and Twitter. After all, a sinister design has been defeated. The Harud (Autumn) Literary Festival, scheduled to be held in Kashmir Valley in the last week of September, has been cancelled. It was a State conspiracy, as they would like everyone to believe.
The truth is that the festival has been sabotaged. A letter circulated on the internet condemned the literary festival, claiming that it would portray a false sense of normalcy in the state. The group circulating the letter also had issues with the organisers’ terming the fest an ‘apolitical’ event.
As a writer who is from Kashmir, and who was invited to be part of this festival, I didn’t care how this festival was being described. I was going to be there to talk about everything I felt strongly about: the killings of the past few summers, the unmarked mass graves, the unfortunate spectacle of an old man being made to frog-jump in front of his son by a CRPF trooper, the untruth about the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, the hypocrisy of the mainstream media when it came to reporting on Kashmir. I also felt the festival would enable young Kashmiris to interact with prominent writers and artists, and also serve as a platform for them to learn about literature and the process of writing. But saying even this much is apparently taboo. How dare someone teach anything to Kashmiris? After all, young Kashmiris now read Edward Said and Dostoevsky.
As a journalist, every visit to an army officer’s house, draped as it was like a mini Kashmir Arts Emporium, would leave me seething with anger. Here I was, a Kashmiri in exile, who hadn’t even been able to salvage his ancestral shawls and carpets when forced to leave home one cold January night in 1990. And, no, it was not because of Governor Jagmohan.
I feel the same anger now at those who have turned Kashmir into their personal fiefdom, into a monopoly nobody else can touch. All those who opposed the fest—and this includes some of my friends—will get other platforms to present their work. But for many Kashmiris, that opportunity is lost. As a writer friend who was to attend the festival said: “The call for boycott means that those who can express their opinions without being under threat are the only ones who will get a chance to speak. The rest, especially those in Kashmir who have never been part of the conversation before, will find themselves forced to take sides even before the literary festival has begun, silenced in the name of ‘the cause’.”
The process of boycotting this festival has also exposed some severe fault lines in the Kashmir narrative. Somewhere, a careless journalist reported that Salman Rushdie had been invited to attend the festival. This prompted someone to create a ‘Boycott Harud festival’ page on Facebook. Some of the comments here are chilling and one major factor why the organisers decided to call off the festival. One of the members of the organising team, Minhal Hasan, wrote a post on the page denying that Rushdie had ever been invited. She added: ‘We seek support for the spirit of the festival which is plural, inclusive and aims to be a platform for free speech and expression.’ One Adil Lateef responded to her post, writing: ‘Just come here, we will behead you.’ Another wrote: ‘Whoever defends a blasphemer is a blasphemer and should be stoned to death.’
When two of my writer friends took a stand against the festival, I was flooded with calls from journalists of both the national and foreign press for a counter quote. In one of my earlier statements to a news agency, I mentioned how this summer had been peaceful in Kashmir and how I hoped that the fest would bring further intimations of peace. In an hour, the agency reporter called me back. He wanted me to elaborate on ‘peace’. That is when it struck me: I had stepped on a land mine. I immediately made my stance clear. I said: “The festival will not make CRPF soldiers disappear from the streets. The fundamental issues about Kashmir will remain the same. But the festival should be held since I personally know so many Kashmiris who are keen to tell their stories. We need to hear them out.”
We need to hear the young MBA graduate who connected with me on Facebook, and then again, by sheer coincidence, in a protest outside Kashmir University last summer. We need to hear journalist Suhail Bukhari, who was forced to take refuge in Delhi after he was booked for waging ‘war against the nation’ because he had simply chosen to report the truth. We need to hear political activist Anjum Zamrud Habib, who was wrongly declared a convict and sent to prison. Anjum was supposed to attend the festival, but backed out once the battlelines were drawn, forcing everyone to take stands.
Some of those opposed to the festival had also called some invitees in order to dissuade them from attending it. They issued veiled threats as well. “We will be launching smear campaigns against those who decide to attend this festival,” one of the invitees was told. For me as well, I am told, they had devised a strategy. They had plans of dubbing me a ‘right-wing fascist’ who is also a member of the Kashmiri Pandit group Roots in Kashmir (RIK). I laughed when I heard this. The fact is that because of my position on Kashmir, I am hated by every RIK member, except one, a young man called Aditya Raj Kaul who remains a friend despite our ideological differences. I am sure even my friend Yasin Malik, against whom the RIK had initiated many campaigns, will be amused. Will the general-secretary of the party for whom one of those opposed to the festival used to make revolutionary posters in his student days call me right-wing? Well, best of luck, mates.
This reminds me of a musical a group of students had wanted to organise at Kashmir University some time ago and were forced to call off. The future of Kashmir will also depend on who emerges a winner in such battles: those who opposed this musical or who were for it. Unfortunately, those who opposed Harud have ended up strengthening radical voices in Kashmir.
To my Kashmiri friends I say this: we need to fight our own battles. The Twitter messiahs will come and go. They have no stake in our story. For them, we are just case studies. For another article. Or a film. Or white paper. It is time we owned our stories. The story of Fancy Jan, who received a bullet in her heart. The groom whose henna-dyed little finger went lifeless. The old poet in whose forehead they drilled a nail in place of his tilak. Or the young Kashmiri who travelled from Delhi to Jammu in June 1997, and, at the Punjab-Jammu border, saw a photo of his brother’s bullet-ridden body splashed on the front page of Daily Excelsior.
I will tell that last story. Harud or no Harud.
Rahul Pandita is a Kashmiri writer. A staffer with Open, he was a member of the advisory committee for the Harud literary festival
Friday, August 26, 2011
Thursday, June 16, 2011
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With direct access to the top Maoist leadership, Rahul Pandita provides an authoritative account of how a handful of men and women, who believed in the idea of revolution, entered Bastar in Central India in 1980 and created a powerful movement that New Delhi now terms as India’s biggest internal security threat. It traces the circumstances due to which the Maoist movement entrenched itself in about 10 states of India, carrying out deadly attacks against the Indian establishment in the name of the poor and the marginalised. It offers rare insight into the lives of Maoist guerillas and also of the Adivasi tribals living in the Red zone.
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Sunday, May 01, 2011
Long time ago I used to know this woman who was much older than me. We met at a bar one cold winter night where we sat at different tables, both of us alone, and both of us nursing the same brand of whisky. The waiter who served us both knew me well since I was a regular. At one point, and I think I was on my third drink, my glass and that of the woman emptied about the same time and we asked for a refill. She noticed that I was also having the same whisky, and I looked at her, and a smile passed between us. We got talking.
On that lonely night we opened up to each other, and we talked about many things. I remember most of what we shared, but there is one thing that I remember the most. As we left we held each other in a light embrace. The woman flicked the ash off her cigarette.
Before she turned, she looked at me, and she said: “I am so tired of being an emotional anchor.”
It has been many years. I have lost touch with that woman. The bar where we met has been turned into a convenient store. And now I am tired. Not out of being an emotional anchor – that I cannot be, I suppose. I am tired of many things.
At one point in “Alice in Wonderland,” Mad Hatter tells Alice: “You used to be much muchier. You have lost your muchiness.”
I think I am tired of the absence of that muchiness in life.
Wednesday, April 06, 2011
Wednesday, February 02, 2011
A woman remembers her best friend, a man dubbed a Maoist and killed by the Republic of India. He happened to be her journalist husband
“For the first time in my life,” says Babita Pandey, “I had a wifely chat with Hem a night before he was to leave for Nagpur.” They discussed how they never took a holiday in their eight years of marriage, she says. “I told him that there were so many things that had been left unsaid in our relationship, and that we needed to plan our lives.” She remembers his putting aside the book he was reading and smiling at her. She remembers his words. “He said our life is a part of the larger events that shape this society, and that it cannot be separated from what’s happening in India or elsewhere in the world.”
Babita sits on a boulder at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and her eyes well up at the memory of Hemchandra Pandey, her husband: “My best friend,” as she calls him. It is sunny and she squints, perhaps as a ruse to hide her tears. Sometimes, she brushes imaginary dust off the dial of her Sonata wristwatch. Sometimes, she looks at her worn socks or her hang-nail fingers clutching her knees. A cup of warm tea sits by her side. It is two days since the Supreme Court issued a notice to the Centre and Andhra Pradesh government on a petition filed, among others, by Babita, seeking a judicial probe into the killings of Maoist leader Azad, 58, and journalist Hemchandra Pandey, 32. “We cannot allow the Republic killing its own children,” a court bench had observed.
The two were shot dead together last July by security forces in an alleged fake encounter. Azad had on him a letter written by Swami Agnivesh, the mediator appointed by the Centre for talks with Maoist insurgents. The police said that Hem was a Maoist as well and that both were killed in an armed engagement in Adilabad district of Andhra Pradesh, close to the Maharashtra border. Civil rights activists, however, allege that both of them were picked up from a hotel in Nagpur, flown in a helicopter to the jungles of Adilabad, and then executed in cold blood.
Azad was supposed to travel to Bastar from Nagpur to seek the opinion of a section of the Maoist leadership on talks with the Centre. The post-mortem reports of both Azad and Hem suggest that they were shot from very close range, even as an independent probe carried out by human rights groups tears apart the police version of events in Adilabad’s jungles. Activists allege that Hem was killed alongside Azad because the police did not want an eyewitness to survive. An agitated Swami Agnivesh, who has complained about what he terms the “Government’s deceit” (in luring Azad into a talks trap), had been demanding a judicial probe into the ‘encounter’.
Babita remembers the day very well—the day Hem left for Nagpur. It was 30 June, and Hem left for his office to check the last page of the Hindi magazine he used to help bring out. He returned in the afternoon, Babita says, and left soon after to catch his train to Nagpur. “I called him in the evening,” recalls Babita, “he picked up his phone and laughed gently. He said there was a fat man sitting on his seat. He said, ‘I’ll sit in a corner.’ I said, ‘No, you ask him to vacate that seat—after all, it’s reserved for you.’” That night, Babita didn’t call again, to her everlasting regret. The next morning, when she called, Hem’s mobile was not reachable. She tried again later in the day. This time, she found the phone switched off.
“I got really worried since Hem would make sure that he calls me from wherever he was,” Babita says. On 2 July, Hem was to return on a train that would have arrived in Delhi at 7.30 am. Babita cooked him a breakfast. He should have been home by nine. When he didn’t arrive, Babita went to the railway station to check whether the train was delayed. It was not. By late morning, news of Maoist leader Azad having been shot dead in an encounter was breaking across TV news channels. It was not all that was to break that day.
A friend of Babita caught a picture of Hem’s body in a newspaper, and alerted her brother to it. The horror took several staggering moments to sink in—he too had been shot. “He was wearing the same shirt I had taken out for him,” says Babita, “a cotton shirt, since I knew it gets very hot in Nagpur.” The shock began turning to numb acknowledgement only once she saw Pandey’s decomposed body. It was a sight all too painful, worsened by the labels some sections of the media started slapping him with. “He was just a left-leaning journalist who would spend most of his meagre income on books,” she says.
Both Hem and Babita are from Pithoragarh district in Uttarakhand that shares its boundary with Tibet and Nepal. In his college days in the late 1990s, Hem was an active member of the students wing of a left-wing party. Babita was still in school when they met. “He would come home with my brother. I liked his serious demeanour. He spoke very little and introduced me to the world of books,” says Babita. She remembers Hem lending her Premchand masterpieces like Godaan and Gaban and also Gorky’s Mother. “I was very young and understood very little, but I read them all,” says Babita. It was in 2002 that they got married—in July.
Even after marriage, Hem would prod his wife to read and write on women’s issues. “He often said that self-independence was the first step towards women’s liberation,” Babita says. The two moved to Almora, where Babita worked for a newspaper while Hem immersed himself in people’s movements such as peasant agitations and calls for prohibition.
Babita says her friends or relatives never understood their marriage. “They would say, ‘You people never go out, say, to watch a film or dine at a restaurant.’ Some of them thought we had hit a rough patch. But I always had the best possible time with him, though his lack of interest in domestic issues would sometimes bother me.”
The Pandeys moved to Delhi in 2006. Hem began working as a freelance journalist, and, according to Babita, wrote more than a hundred articles for various newspapers, mostly on agricultural issues. He was a true leftist, she says. “In my absence, he would clean the house, wash utensils and even cook food. He would not let me make tea in the morning, asking me instead to go through newspapers and tell him about reported events.”
All that is now long gone. After his death, Babita has been trying to get back to a regular life. “This is what Hem would have wanted,” she says. But it has been tough. A police party even raided their house in her absence and claimed to have found ‘incriminating evidence’ of Hem’s Maoist links. What they’d found was a stack of books no more subversive than the works of Lenin and Engels, she says, and some Maoist press releases. “There were no binoculars, or for that matter any fax machine there, as the police claimed. Only one computer was there that Hem would use to write. Books, yes, but is that a crime?” If the cops were suspicious, Babita wonders why Hem could not have been arrested instead of shot. “Even if he was a Maoist, the police had no right to kill him. You know, he had sympathies for the lower strata of the police force as well, and he would say that they were just trying to earn a living.”
After Hem’s name surfaced along with Azad’s, many friends advised Babita not to speak of Azad, since that would associate the name too closely with her husband’s. “But I cannot do that,” she says, “Azad and Hemchandra Pandey’s names are linked in the same chain now. Moreover, Azad’s death is equally tragic.”
Babita pauses every now and then, as if to give her best friend’s memories some space. He was young, she says, too young to have died like this. Thoughts ebb and flow in her mind—perhaps Hem would still be alive had she called the night he left. Or if she had accompanied him, as she had wanted (a plan spiked by lack of money). She misses the tea he’d make. She misses the articles he’d read aloud, and explain word by word. Like Arundhati Roy’s account of her visit to Maoist territory.
After Hem’s death, Babita has not returned to her East Delhi residence. But she plans to go there one of these days. She hopes the police have left untouched a pair of shoes she had bought for Hem from Delhi’s Karol Bagh market just days before he died. Or his shirts, the few he had. Or his books, the many. “I just want to keep them with me,” she whispers.
After the interview, as we walk towards the university gate, Babita has a question for me: “You own a house?” Then, another: “How much do you earn?” And then she suddenly goes silent. Perhaps she’s saying to herself what she couldn’t say to Hem in eight years of married life. Saying what was left unsaid.
Pic by: Raul Irani