Why Gowhar Geelani Could Not Travel — And the Question of Kashmir
Image used for representational purposes.
Image used for representational purposes.(Photo: Arnica Kala / The Quint)

Why Gowhar Geelani Could Not Travel — And the Question of Kashmir

“Revati, my apologies for not turning up. Something terrible happened. You will come to know. I wasn't allowed to fly to Germany.” I woke up to this email — an explanation from the Kashmiri writer and journalist Gowhar Geelani, who I had invited to a poetry recitation. He had not turned up, despite him confirming that he would. How could he? While I was reciting lines from my favourite poet, T S Eliot, Gowhar was being told he would not be allowed to take his flight due later that night to the city of Bonn.

My mind went back to our wonderful exchange the previous day at a chance encounter at a café. I saw it in his eyes first. And then he found words that I would never have had.

He has practice perhaps, at pain. He is Kashmiri.

I was waiting for my meeting to begin, and the person in question was late. He was doing the same thing. So we decided to talk to each other to fill time, and that is how I met the writer and author of a book that’s just out in the market: ‘Kashmir – Rage and Reason.’

(Photo: Rupa Publications India)

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“I Don’t Want To Explain Pain”

He began our conversation with a line that summed up what I had seen in his eyes.

“I don’t want to explain pain,” he said. Actually, he said more. He used to appear on TV, talking endlessly about the history of pain that is Kashmir. But now he’d stopped. After 5 August, Gowhar didn’t see the point. His full sentence was this: “I don’t want to explain pain to them,” he said. “To the oppressors,” he added. By which he meant, the Indian state and its most visible and complicit arm – the media.

I didn’t know what to say. So I listened. We were at a lovely café in Delhi’s Khan market. It’s a regular hang out because it’s central and has good coffee, and even the BJP acolytes that vilify it as a space of the ‘left-liberal elite’, hang out here all the time. And it hasn’t mattered much, until now.

But we were talking about Kashmir, post 5 August. Suddenly, everyone’s tables seemed a little too close.

Every few minutes we’d look over our shoulders, furtively, apologetically, aware of how much things had changed.

“There is freedom of expression, Gowhar said, smiling slightly, “and freedom after expression. What happens after you express yourself,” he emphasized, rhetorically. Now there was nothing to smile about. He said that from the midnight of 4 August, the lights went out; there was no electricity and no TV. Kashmir was rife with rumours – ‘perhaps there is going to be a strike on Pakistan, perhaps Article 370 will be read down…’

Even after the deed was done the next morning, it was still dark in Kashmir. The lights were still out, and while the fate of 12.5 million people had been decided and announced to the rest of the country, Kashmiris, confined to their homes under a sudden lockdown, only heard rumours.

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“Worst Thing Is Not Letting Us Know What’s Happening”: A Kashmiri Laments

“The worst thing is not allowing us to know what is happening,” Gowhar said, as the conversation drifted back to two years ago. It was the period just after the killing of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. His being taken down by security forces gave an already belligerent people something to coalesce around, fed up as they were with what they described as a ‘history of deceit and lies’ by successive governments.

The atmosphere in the Kashmir Valley was tense, and that tension and violence ricocheted across the rest of India.

Gowhar was in the hills of Uttarakhand – on holiday. An unspectacular, ordinary event for most of us, and an annual getaway from the oppressive heat of much of north India in the summer. Gowhar was in a cab when his phone rang. But the cab was passing through a saffron maze of kawariyas – barefooted bhakts, that over time and some patronage from the state, had begun to flex their Hindu muscles in all sorts of menacing ways, as they made their annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Haridwar. The driver shot Gowhar a glace through his rear-view mirror. That was enough for him to know what to do when his phone rang. He picked it up and said into the receiver, “Hello, Gaurav speaking,” instead of his Muslim name Gowhar.

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“Don’t Quote Me By Name”

I did a quick recap in my head of other rooms, other conversations with other Kashmiris, since 370. A Kashmiri who said that he’s had acute chest pain in this last week, had gone to the hospital. There he saw “dead babies” – were they “normal deaths,” and what is “normal” in Kashmir when doctors who say they’ve run out of medical supplies are being arrested for saying it? This man said he came to Delhi to see a cardiologist when his doctor in Kashmir said he didn’t have the means to help him any further. The cardiologist in Delhi told him that what he had experienced was a panic attack.

Another conversation was with a Kashmiri who told me that he worked in the IT sector. But how could he work now, with no internet?

So he was in Delhi. And not nearly as forthright as Gowhar. His thin frame was tight, his hands fidgety. His face turned pale white as he went back and forth on everything.

“Yes, there is anger. But the Kashmiris have brought this upon themselves.”

“No there is no trouble with electricity and water and landlines are back…in my area. And that’s the government area.”

“Yes, the troops are saying provocative things to anger Kashmiris…but I can’t remember exactly what.”

Later he texted me to say, “Don’t quote me by name,” which I assured him I wouldn’t.

‘Their’ Side vs ‘Our’ Side

We are now in a country with no questions, I realised, as I thought about the information black hole that we are all in, this side of Kashmir and that. There: they say, on condition of anonymity, “Young boys are being picked up at random by security forces. About 3,000 people have been arrested. No, 5. No, 7,000 say some. Bureaucrats and politicians, former officials, party leaders and even party hopefuls, and anyone with an opinion or a question.”

That’s ‘Their Side’.

And on ‘Our Side’, in the ‘rest of India’, we are also peering into the dark.

“He’s an IB agent, an ISI agent, a mole with RAW, a government stooge. Don’t trust them, Kashmiris can’t be trusted. They lie and cheat and they’ve always been like that. They play all sides…yaar.” — are some of the usual comments from ‘Our Side’. That last line makes me laugh a lot. Because it’s not funny. Obviously, these remarks come from people who think that Kashmiris have ‘Real Choices’. To buy bread and risk being shot with a pellet gun, or to starve. To try and get medicines or let your diabetic sugars take you down.

Someone on ‘Their Side’ gave me a line that stayed with me as I thought about places and people and choices: “I’d rather live in Somalia than here.”

I returned to terra firma, away from the wild imaginings, to the café and the table I shared with Gowhar. The sun had set. The lights were turned on. He moved his hand from the book he was carrying. It was a book by the Jewish holocaust survivor and writer, Primo Levi – ‘If This Is A Man’. Gowhar said he was re-reading it. “Oh, he’s a great writer, I love his writing,” I said. And then realised that my sympathy had clouded my memory as it often did. I hadn’t read Levi. I was thinking of another holocaust survivor – Elie Wiesel and his book, ‘Night.’ I was mistakenly describing that to Gowhar, as it began to dawn on me that we were talking about different people but the same trauma. I felt fake. He nodded back politely. We both understood what each was trying to do.

(Photo: Facebook/gemwrites)

‘When Words Fail, Poetry Can Fill the Void’

A common friend walked into the café, carrying with her books she had just bought. She was Kashmiri too. She had in her bag, A G Noorani’s book – Article 370, and another by a Jewish writer/survivor.

Gowhar ended our conversation with poetry. When words fail to speak, poetry can fill the void with something.

Gowhar recited lines from the Urdu poet Ahmad Faraz. A poem called ‘Mahasara — The Siege’, written to describe Pakistani politics. Now marshalled to describe the unsaid and unsayable.

“My enemy has sent me a message

that his soldiers have encircled me.

On every parapet and minaret of the city wall

his troops are standing with bows in hand…

…All those with outspoken mouths

have become torn bodies.”

“O Dark Dark Dark. They All Go Into the Dark...”

“Come to this poetry recitation tomorrow Gowhar,” I had said to him. At least I had something to offer. It was meant to be an evening of poetry dedicated to the underdog. He agreed.

At the event, I had read lines from my favourite poem, where T S Eliot, writing in 1943, had said in a poem he titled ‘East Coker’:

“O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark...

Gowhar didn’t turn up. Instead he went straight to the airport where he was stopped from flying out, kept at the airport from 9 PM to 1 AM, and told when he asked repeatedly, why he wasn’t being allowed to fly: “It’s because of the current situation in Kashmir.” And also, that the officers at the airport were “following orders from higher-ups.”

He wrote about it because that’s all there was left to do. Here’s his piece.

Like him, I had a head-full of questions.

Was Gowhar being prevented from travelling out because he had ‘An Opinion’?

I opened the pages of his book. Gowhar quotes the Auschwitz survivor and neurologist Viktor Frankl, in the preface, who says, aptly, “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour.” Maybe that’s why we are in a country with no questions.

(Revati Laul is an independent journalist and filmmaker and the author of `The Anatomy of Hate,’ published by Westland/Context. She tweets @revatilaul. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are theauthor's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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