It was 1 pm on March 15, 2018, when Madhosh Balhami, who was sitting in his courtyard writing verses, heard sounds of firing. Minutes later, three armed militants rushed in, one of them injured. “Bhaagne ka ek raasta mere makaan se jaata hai (an escape route goes past my house),” says Balhami, 55, who took his family and rushed to his brother’s house close-by. The crossfire between the militants and security forces went on till 2 am. By then, around 1,000 pages of his verses, written over 30 years, had turned into ashes, and the house, built by his father in the ’60s, had been reduced to rubble — only a 10×11 ft room survived. “My life’s work had burned; when 80 kg of copper utensils had melted, how could paper survive?” he says, with a bitter laugh.
The camera pans, capturing the blue-grey veneer over the Valley, its concertina wires, placards of missing persons, empty lanes and full graves, before halting at the farmer-poet who lost his house and his poetry in the exchange of fire two years ago. In a just-released seven-episode video series on YouTube, Madhosh Balhami: Poet of Perseverance, by Delhi-based Mohammad Irfan Dar and Gowhar Farooq, Balhami talks about his struggles and why he can’t give up writing – “I would not have taken this route/But how to tame this fire, I did not know/I knew this path would have accused me of betrayal”. Interleaved with the narration are his Kashmiri verses, translated into English by Farooq. Balhami has been a sought-after poet in Kashmir over the last 30 years. Funerals there aren’t complete without his elegies.
However, it was only through news articles in 2018 that the filmmakers, who grew up in Srinagar, came to know about Balhami, the pen name for Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, who lives 12-14 km from Srinagar in Balhama village. They visited him in 2018 in the wake of the incident and recorded his story over three days. The Jamia Millia Islamia graduates were still deciding what the final format of the footage would be when, on August 5, Article 370 was scrapped and internet blackout was announced in the now-former state of Jammu and Kashmir. “That was the signal for the urgency of turning the footages into shorter pieces and making them accessible to the people in Kashmir. Since 2G connection (restored earlier this year) and VPN are agonisingly slow, the videos were taking a long time to buffer, so we scaled down their quality,” says Dar, 33, adding, “For a poet, it’s important that his words reach people. He has lost everything, we thought we needed to document whatever is left of his works.”
His unlettered father could only teach Balhami how to farm saffron but school introduced him to Mirza Ghalib, Muhammad Iqbal, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Shamas Faqir, and other poets. He began writing poetry after his parents’ demise: his father died in 1981, when Balhami was in college, and his mother, a few years later. “As grief hollowed out my heart, I turned to poetry,” he says.
The poet matured as circumstances around him changed, says Dar. “The love and loss poems turned to spring and summer, spirituality, religion, women’s role in Kashmir’s past, Kashmir and resistance, and the realisation of the importance of human lives and humanity,” he says. He also wrote in newspapers, played harmonium, rubab and sarangi at bhajans in the Bala Devi temple (which gives his village its name) and sung at weddings.
However, with militancy growing in the Valley in the ’90s, “har gali mein maatam sa chhaane laga, koi mehfil, mausiqui nahin rahi (the music had died, a pall of gloom hung over everything),” says Balhami, “Every other day, a militant would die. I was called, all over Kashmir, to recite elegies (composed from a bereaved mother’s perspective).” The first time was in Khanmoh, near Srinagar, at the militant Akhtar Abdul Rehman’s chaharum (fourth day since death).
In 1987, taken in by the promise of the Muslim United Front “formed by those fed up” with the National Conference, “to bring about tabdili (change)”, he signed up as an election agent in the Assembly polls that year, but, “unfortunately, it lost,” he says.
A series of arrests began. First because of his involvement in the election, and, later, owing to his funeral recitations, he was accused of being a militant sympathiser. He was picked up for interrogation in a crackdown in 1991, he claims, and subjected to “third-degree torture”. He was arrested again in 1998, for 14 months, and again in 2000. “There were two-three famous torture centres, whose bitterness and horrors I will never forget,” he says in the series, “One was called Butchery, inside the Badamibagh Cantonment area” where detainees were beaten “with a bamboo cane, until it broke into pieces.” He wrote a poem about another centre called Cargo: “Angels of death were dancing in those cells.”
He kept registering his protest through his words. “I thought I would write the history of Kashmir’s resistance in poetry,” says Balhami, who was “let out each time” after “a good beating.” One broke his qamar (hip), he says, making it difficult for him to sit for long, even now. “If you’re detained once, you’re a suspect forever,” he adds.
Kashmiri poets always acted as catalysts for action, says Farooq, 32, “Ghulam Ahmad Mahjoor, Dinanath Kaul Nadim, Abdul Ahad Azad wrote about people’s grievances during the 1940s’ agrarian agitation; the ’50s-’60s saw a surge in people’s pride in Kashmiri poetry of Zareef Ahmad Zareef, Rehman Rahi, Amin Kamil; and the ’80s-’90s saw a new wave of poets writing in English, like Agha Shahid Ali. Balhami was a young poet then. His work is deep, analytical. But he had neither cultural and social capital nor the internet to share his work.”
A resigned Balhami broods over the recent “splinters of loathing on both sides (Hindus and Muslims)”. “That should end,” he says, “My wish is to go back to our Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, which is Bharat. Earlier every shaqs (individual) was a Hindustani first, then a Hindu or Muslim. This silence will last for long, all is not well,” he adds. The scrapping of Article 370, Balhami says, brought about no good, “It was neither good nor bad. Narendra Modi just buried the rotting corpse. There’s a deadly silence in all of Kashmir. How can I say all is well?”
He ends with a verse he wrote a month ago, after more than a year of not composing any poetry. “Badla hai rajneeti ka andaaz meri jaan/ Mehfooz ab na jaan, na izzat, na aashiyan/ Kisko sunaayein apni bebasi ki dastan/ Rukta nahin iss desh mein hinsa ka toofan/ Jo log sikhate rahe Ghar Wapsi ka gyaan/ unki nazar mein deshdrohi hai Musalman/ Laaun kahan se dhoond kar Gandhi ka Hindustan? (The winds of politics have changed/ Life, dignity, home are not secure/ The storm of hatred doesn’t stop/ Those who talk about reconversions, see Muslims as anti-national/ from where do I get back Gandhi’s India?)”
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