Chicago, Illinois

Dear Reader,

(…) As I write [this communication was dated July 2010 S.H.], it is now more than a month since Tufail Ahmad Matoo died. And so many have died since. God only knows how many are yet to die and who can count how many have died or suffered in the ruinous valley [Kashmir], the quiet horror of refugee camps. It was impossible not to attempt to commit to memory the names of the young dead these last few weeks when translating Bashir Athar’s line from his poem ‘Where do I go’ (included among those given in  translation here):

I had forgotten the graves, so many, so quick to grow,
I had forgotten, there will never be enough graves

What can poems make of a time such as ours?
I do not know.

Athar continues,    Speak to me of the grave…it will not give me sleep.

Neither the poems I have translated here nor the larger audio-visual project of which they are a part are intended as aesthetic opportunity in calamity. But the poems, I feel, are not entirely unrelated to our time. They are not unrelated in something like the way a frame is ‘not unrelated’ to a picture, though it is not what the picture is about. Or, perhaps, they are ‘not unrelated’ in the way environments are not unrelated to houses and those who build them to live in. Some poems are rooms in houses built for certain climates; others  help to create a climate in which it is possible for us to go on building.  “We have been, these many generations, on fire”, Moti Lal Saqi writes. So many fires, and this, our unholy normality, is only one among many kinds of burning.

It is not in bad taste, I think, to celebrate poetry at a time when one is, to borrow a phrase from W. B. Yeats, painfully conscious of “polite, meaningless words.” For I think with Abdul Rahman Rahi that it is in the work of poetry that we are sensitized and offered a chance to go beyond our contentment or despair with degenerate speech and thought, what Rahi called our “empty shuttles threading wind.” I think what Amin Kamil says is true: “In a ruined city, a trembling heart is treasure,” and that often the heart is shown in a word that trembles, a word that is true.

Even as we bring out our dead, we can and must show others what yet lives with us, what else is endangered.

The range of these pieces is important to me. For these eight pieces are offered here as an invitation to a  project entitled ‘Make Humans Again: Voices of Kashmir’. This project will contain more contemporary poems by more authors and, I sincerely hope, a ‘parallel text’ in the form of art works by the prodigiously talented Malik Sajad. This project is an attempt to introduce something of an echo chamber in which to begin fathoming Kashmir’s many, very different voices, an ecology of sense—a fragile ecology, to adopt a biologist’s word—still largely unknown to too many. For a little too long Kashmir has been restricted to what can fill without disrupting  the honeymooner’s itinerary.

I have called the project ‘Make Humans Again,’ and spoken of what is made. I do not follow here the Greek roots of the word ‘poetry’ in speaking of something to be ‘made’, nor only intend the Sanskrit conceit of the genius of poets making the world once again.  Rather I follow Dina Nath Nadim who said “I’ve got to make humans of Hindus and Muslims again.

I do not know what it is to be human. It is fitting to recall what Nadim was later to sing to the tune of a folk melody (Yaa Shaah-i-Hamdaan): “Are even we human? Who says we are?”, a piece where the only movement in a bleak landscape is the onset of winter, the persistence of Law, of hunger and those who still outrun it all. The piece ends– “Do you give a damn?I don’t give a damn.”
I’d like to think of Nadim letting the matter of being human resound as an indefinite imperative, resisting the smug comforts of knowing or the despair of unknowing. So many times, and in so many ways, being human has been a question. (Kamil writes, “These must then be wraiths,/ These were Man, you say, we’ve yet to raise.”) We are not alone in being creatures that environ ourselves partly through our own efforts, but we are perhaps unique in taking for our materials such things as words. One thing made, unmade and made again in the curious intimacy of sound and sense that is poetry is our nature: as we are and as we yet might be. This is potentially the work and the redress of poetry.

You will find very different poems in this short selection, each of which makes very different demands of a translator. With some, such as Amin Kamil’s ghazal or Dina Natha Nadim’s sonnet, I have attempted to follow formal requirements in English. But I am no formalist, as little as am I wedded to free verse. In each case, I have tried to work within the constraints of the requirements of the poetry and my lack of talent. This can lead to experiments: thus Moti Lal Saqi’s ‘Request’ is offered here in extremely minimal free verse and Abdul Rahman Rahi’s magisterial lines and closely bound images are offered here in one of the versions I prepared for it, a version in which instead of rhyme, on the one hand, or an entirely free line on the other, I have opted for the strong oral properties of the four stress hemistich of Old English and its strongly alliterated line. In some pieces you will find lines breaking in and out of form, such as in Amin Malik’s ‘Bare Thoughts’; in this case, it is because I found that this managed to say something on behalf of the argument of the original piece which makes its music in a regulated form; in others, such as in Dina Natha Nadim’s ‘A Coat for the Rain’, the effect of teetering on form in English is due to the inventive evocation of form in the original, even as it swerves away from any particular music. The last is the most experimental, though it may not seem it. I include it here to invite reconsideration of what is old though still with us through the prism of new masters. In all pieces I have attempted to preserve something of the voice of the masters I translate. Thus Nadim in the sonnet alliterates with as much assonance in English (“I’ll see by glimmer light and glean fairies, by the glow of cooking stoves”) as he enjoyed in Kashmiri; and the music of Habba Khatun’s open, lyrical line is transposed in English through very carefully echoed vowels and consonants instead of strict rhyme.

It is, I think, important if we can offer ourselves on occasion some taste of what it is we mean when we go on, as we do, about being Kashmiri.

It is left for me to dedicate these translations (or adaptations) to my father, the better man and, it must be said, the better poet, and not the least of his generation to endure. I am indebted to my friend Abir Bazaz for making this (and so much else) possible, and to the editor for helping us find a home for them.

For all my comfort with English, I am not a poet. I have merely begun writing a book I should have liked to be able to pick up and read in a local bookstore in provincial Chicago when I think of Kashmir.

Thank you for your time,

Sonam Kachru


WATER (GHAZAL) — Amin Kazil

YOU ARE fraught with words—you’d better go sit in water:
For words swell with meaning, gleam more in water.

Look for the heart in a chest to roast on dry embers,
Look for blood in the liver to swallow with water.

Kashmir will stretch, a desert tomorrow—
The day after, Ladakh and Leh will float on water.

Anxious the wave that seeks refuge in hollows,
The god of waters is born with fire in water.

High-noon and the sun sinks soaked in self’s sweat,
In the end the moon will ignite, on fire in water.

For the time being ecstatic they’ll set towns on fire,
There are times some for laughs mix in poison with water.

The cow is lost and looks for eleven—who here shall tell her?
Five drowned on dry land, six are on fire in water.

This peddler, this Kamil, cries out with fire—
Still the fate-frosted sleep, deep in water.

WHERE DO I GO? —  Bashir Athal

You thought to see me content
To see you go; eager
To run my fingers
Through your earth, the things
You did not carry,
Eager to undo what once was
The time you buried
Behind you, build
The house of my dreams
On ruins, what memory
Can call its own  —
So it was;
And even so
I’ve made an end of myself.
All you left
I marked my own.
You thought
I had swallowed you
Whole —
Where did I go?

You cannot say.
I’d forgotten the graves
So many,
So quick to grow
I’d forgotten,
There will never be enough graves.
There will be fire, you’ll see,
And fire enough, pyre
To pyre, anywhere —
Where do I go?

Speak to me of the grave
In my time to come—

It will not give me sleep.

A REQUEST —  Moti Lal Saqi

With the flute,
To lie
By the Gunpowder
Strike up
A mood,
Attune us
To rain
To the wet earth
Win us
A smile
From blue
We are
These many generations
On fire.

The flute,
The relief I crave
Is not
At home
In all that is the case,
My body, kindling
To fire
More intimate

With the flute,
I pray—
This palette
Dulls to dusk’s
Do not
Time’s fool,
Do not
Strike up
A mood,
Attune us
To the burning
To new

LOVE SONG — Abdul Radi Rahi

I have threaded flowers for your wrists, my love,
Taste, why don’t you, my pomegranate flowers

We are sky above and earth, my love, my secret hostage beneath
You are the guest, and I, a feast—
Taste, why don’t you, my pomegranate flowers

Layla found the wick in the dark. Bless the girl,
She’s come apart. I could singe myself this close
Your too-quick beating flames

Taste, why don’t you, my pomegranate flowers

Summer walks on by and my wildflowers will fade. Love come quick,
Love steal in a hurry—
Listen, what more would have me sell?

I will fuse sound and pain enough
(Become what I sing…)

Now don’t you get mad, love, and don’t you take it so bad
Habba Khatun will yet stay
A wilderness longing.

Taste, why don’t you, my pomegranate flowers


A DESERT my love can offer the shade of your hair
The memory of you insists, knocking at the door
(If the heart is a door). It is hard to wantmore
Of time; to wish to be alone
We were none of us given to be

What more can a heart do (if the heart lives right
Next-door a too inquisitive mind) but doubt
And fasten close the pain? The softened, open mouth
Hate can never know—
In tears is a consecration of love.

These cups are too shallow for thought—
Do you think they’ll found
For us forms more truly shaped, less hallowed
Before I sell and no longer sound
Love’s wants, myself grow to shadow
Some other?
These must be wraiths
These where Man, you say,
We’ve yet to raise.
The wreath of words is not your own.
Bare thought is given to grey
Unto decrease.

The dog is collared in gold—
O how your bark quickens my heart.
In the ruined city
A trembling heart is treasure.

A COAT FOR RAIN — Dina Nath Nadim

I WALKED into that room.
I took the raincoat off, set it hanging

On a nail; I spun around
Cold, to consider at length and well

Myself, it seemed, hanging there
On a nail—

These are the same
Shoulders, these are my arms

Disjected, I have known this
Incoherence of buttons

Clinging—Unreasonable, unyielding thread!—
This way and that to all too familiar holes

—Thus, duly inspected, I
Took to the door, I checked myself

Out, out from this rack
Of cloth, this institution, this store.

Then there were two
Strangers, yes they were both

Strangers, the two of them something
Odd, and surpassing eager—

“Is there anything his he left behind
Anything to survive, something used

Something old, something he wore
To cover his head, something scribbled

Or green, something fresh, a poem
He did not live to publish? He had on a coat

At the end,
For rain.”

“Yes he did,
There is a room above
Where it hung
on a nail.
We none of us could
Bring ourselves
To look
Till the day we tried it on
Till it fit
And we let it lie after, left it well enough
It’s been a few days since
We let
The rag-picker have it
For who
Knows how much.
What’s it to you?”

“It is wanted, naturally,
By the museum of letters—
Won’t you say who has it
Or if there is a mark
To certify it?”

“And how will you get your hands on it?
Will you fish for it
On the mountain
Of rags? Listen,
There is something,
Stitched into the lining,
A label its very own:

SONNET — Dina Nath Nadim

Such are days I can believe the moon to be
Unleavened bread, but for scars I see unseam
A neck so collared in every dissolute color; I’ll believe,
Instead, the moon is cut from threadbare Pampur tweed.
The moon is bread, if through a spent halo in decline
She yet shines, something too finely used or unseemly old,
Something a man may slip in with money owed
The peasant girls—this moon is counterfeit coin.
The moon is unleavened bread and the mountains
Hunger. The Clouds again put out kitchen fires.
But in woods I’ll see by glimmer light and glean faeries
By the glow of their cooking stoves and on distant peaks I’m sure
There’s a little rice that’s trying to grow. I’ll let my hunger know,
I’ll heave my eyes to the heavens.

SHADOWS — Abdul Rahman Rahi

The point is to taste    an indefinite moment
Past the ebb and the trials    0f stars, past subsiding
Time you insist eternal.
A city road is heeled    right through thickest trees
As doubts worm    through my waning faith’s
Finest mantle.

I did open my eyes—
And I exposed my dreams    to an evil eye.
Desolate now, the green
Swell of breasts,    scorched wilderness of fire.
Look about you,    this carnival crackles
Tally your thought    and the lone crow in the void.
I wished to make stars,    once upon a time
Now it’ll be sweat again    to give myself a name.
For the sake of belief,     belligerent scrub to grow
Above snow, for consciousness,    seething snake.
These gods are not    but the shadows I cast
All monsters mirror    the self’s most obscure
Movements.This gibbering crowds    our corridors
I’ll comb trees    to clothe the saints.
What hand will steer us     now, what shore?
The spindrift boat turns    alone in the dark.
You who dance,        disrobe—-circumscribe him.
Madman, I eat    fire.


I remain indebted to the labors of those who have translated these works before me. I should like to state here that I am especially indebted to Muneebur Rahman’s fine translation of Kamil’s ghazal which appeared as ‘In Water’ in Language for a New Century—Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (W. Norton and Company, New York). I am indebted especially to his choice of ‘fraught’ in line one, and ‘fate-frosted’ in line sixteen, unable to do any better. As most of the poems do not contain any allusions, I think it worthwhile to mention at least one instance of it. In ‘Water’, the line ‘the cow is lost and looks for eleven’ is best read as an echo of Lal Ded’s line ‘ada kyaazi raavihey kaahan gav’ (Why should the eleven have lost the cow?). Eleven, on one philosophical account, is the number of capacities constituting the lived-body, some of them sensory, some cognitive, and some motor. The cow thus figured is one’s self.  Sonam Kachru