In Another Country: A Conversation with Rafiq Kathwari

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

In Another CountryAt an Australian cricket club in Manhattan so dimly lit that I lift the nearest tea light so I can see the menu, I feel oddly at home; it is likely the haze of cultural nostalgia in these surroundings. As a Pakistani I grew up with cricket though I’m not much of a cricket fan and have had little direct exposure to it apart from a single visit to Lord’s Cricket Ground in London where I chose to talk to the gardener about the oldest trees on the premises instead of taking the famous cricket tour with my family, but here in New York, in the company of the Kashmiri-American poet Rafiq Kathwari, in the midst of cricket paraphernalia, framed action shots and lived-in colonial furniture, I’m on an unexpected bridge to a familiar time and place. I’m struck by the complexity of this nostalgia as I talk about life in our other countries, countries of birth, countries awaiting a rebirth, with the author of “In Another Country:” a collection of poems.

We talk about the personal-political in poetry. Cricket as a post-raj cultural idiom becomes even more poignant when I’m reminded of the traumas of Kashmir tied to the partition of India and Pakistan and of the intense political friction between the two countries that manifests itself every time the two countries are engaged in a cricket match against each other. Kashmir doesn’t play. It is played. And the political game is the ghost of the “great game” that the British began and that the Indian and Pakistani governments continue to play.

In South Asia, we know Kashmir as the land of immense natural beauty, mystics and poets, and a culture of great aesthetic delicacy and depth. In the West, Kashmir is synonymous with wool; not many know or care about the place or its long history of conflict.

As a voice of Kashmir and of the Kashmiri diaspora, Rafiq Kathwari’s most phenomenal gesture in this book of narrative poems that probe into psycho-social, historical and political, is his “protagonist” of sorts— the most haunting, fierce and charming persona in the book: his mother.

Here is my conversation with the poet:

SZH: Your mother’s persona transforms from a very young bride (“henna petals on her toes”), to a confident young mother who writes letters to foreign heads of states (to Eisenhower: “Sadly, a Cease-Fire Line/divides my two older children/ in Indian-occupied Kashmir,/from their younger four siblings in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir,”) to one with edgy interactions with her mental health professional. Her persona captures Kashmir’s vulnerability, attempts at gaining selfhood and a tragic chaos and detachment with its own future. How did this persona influence the genesis of the book?

MotherRMK: The short answer is, it’s my attempt to recreate my mother, to reinvent her. The long answer inevitably will bring up Kashmir’s paternalistic culture, the Partition, the tearing apart of families, breaking hearts, splitting minds … the human cost of that catastrophic moment in 1947 when India divided herself.

From a child’s point of view, I never thought there was anything the matter with my mother. To the contrary, I thought she was extraordinary. All children look for a mother’s embrace, a kiss before she puts you to bed. My earliest recollection is of Mother giving my younger brother and I a vigorous bath in an oval tin tub under an oak tree reigning above our allotted house on a hilltop in Murree. The first poem (in my collection), ‘What Happened To A World,’ dwells on that scene. I was perhaps 4 or 5 years of age. It was only later, perhaps in my early teens in Srinagar where I first saw a doctor administering ECT to Mother (see poem ‘House Call’)–Electro-Convulsive Therapy aka Shock Treatment was the ‘wonder’ treatment in the 50’s and 60’s –that was my first shock (pun intended). Writing about it was and is a way to come to terms with it as well as sorting myself out, which I will be doing till the day I die, surely.

SZH: There is an agitated back and forth of time and place in the poems. Tell us about the relationship(s) between your poems set in three continents and as many generations, and how these reflect the theme of exile:

RMK: That’s how I chose to structure my collection with invaluable help from my editor John Walsh of Doire Press based in Galway, Ireland. That’s what made good sense. You find the best way to make your book readily acceptable to the contemporary reader who is pulled seemingly in a hundred million directions by Social Media: Put best 20 poems in the front, hopefully on a specific subject; another 20 good ones to bring up the rear. Then, slide slices of cheese in between, hopefully sans holes. Eureka!

The ‘agitated back and forth in time and place’ imitates our lives: You are physically over here and here, you write about over there. The condition of exile or self-exile gives you a unique perspective. Exile makes you view your subject through a long beam of light. For instance, one of many examples, particularly since we are talking about the Partition, Rushdie wrote his ‘Booker of Bookers’ about India in London. Yet, given a million mutinies now in South Asia, I think it’s critical that you descend into the lion’s den as necessary in order to feel the heat, breathe the dust.

SZH: Mental illness can be a liberation from all kinds of personal and political oppression and can speak truth to power like nothing else; it is a Cassandra-like curse in having access to the truth that fails to convince but ultimately cuts right to the heart of the matter. I see this as the greatest strength of this collection of poems. Would you comment?

RMK: Exactly…a Cassandra-like curse: For many years even as adults my siblings and I never believed anything Mother would say…the whispers, the voices she said tormented her… we just followed Father’s example and ignored Mothers’ pleas, her shrill voice, her need for attention because Father believed we in fact would be confirming her delusions. In retrospect, I think he was wrong. Yet I think Father did what he could with what he had, the best he knew how.

If her family wouldn’t listen to her, perhaps the prime ministers of the world would. That’s when Mother started dictating her yearnings first to my older brother (another figure who looms large in my collection) when we were in Pakistan, and later when we returned to Kashmir, I became her scribe. Mother told all to the likes of President Eisenhower, to Prime Minster Indira Gandhi, even to long-deceased leaders like Kamal Ata Turk, and Mother received responses from the powerful, those who were living and official portraits of those who thought of themselves as indispensable but ended up in cemeteries.

SZH: This is a book about belongingness, about the tensions it abides in, and comes to terms with; the epistolary form you’ve employed (in many poems) is well suited to the idea of being in a perpetual conversation with “another country.” The idea of home, an awaiting paradise that also hearkens back to the lost home of Kashmir, is very movingly expressed in the exchange of letters between two wives—would you comment on those two poems.

ScreenHunter_1965 May. 23 10.50RMK: First of all, two wives living under the same roof with one man is alien to Western culture… unless you live in some areas of Utah I suppose… it is not unusual in the Mid East or South Asia even in liberal Muslim families like mine. Hey, wait a minute! It’s actually not so alien to Western culture. Remember, the first Mrs. Rochester locked up in the attic in ‘Jane Eyre,’ and who ‘hearkens back to the lost home’ of Jamaica, so brilliantly told by Jean Rhys in ‘The Wide Saragossa Sea’…never mind…Let’s not mar facts with fiction.

You asked about the exchange of letters between Mother and the new wife. It’s a fair exchange between two women who bonded with each other for over 25 years. My Father died in 1999 when we flew Mother to New York because it was the right thing to do.

Mother’s letter is largely as dictated by her in New York at my brother home where she lived for the first ten years before being lodged at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale, a gilded cage for the deranged overlooking the Hudson, and America beyond.

The new wife’s response is imagined and I’ve changed her name in a vain attempt to try protecting her dignity, but Srinagar is a provincial town and many folks know who is who.

SZH: Finally, tell us about the response to this book in Ireland and the Patrick Kavanagh Prize you were awarded in 2013.

RMK: Firstly, thanks a million to the good taste of the adjudicator, Brian Lynch, of the Patrick Kavanagh award who chose me from about 1200 applicants. It’s the first time in the 45-year history of the award that it was given to a non-Irish. It helped me get noticed, awards usually do, as you know yourself.

Since my collection was published in 2015, I’ve been invited to several gigs during the last several months in America, Ireland as well as South Asia. It’s a significant award. It has inspired me to try connecting Kashmir to Kavanagh to underscore the structures of occupation similar in comparative historical struggles against colonialism: What the Brits did in India, they had already done in Ireland, and what India is doing in Kashmir, the Zionists have already done in Palestine.

‘In Another Country’ was acclaimed as one of the best five poetry collections published in 2015 in Ireland. Am trying to knock hard on doors at various venues in the USA and the UK. Hope some doors will fly off their hinges. In fact, one just did because of you. Thank you.

SZH: I found these poems to be very intense in the way they question the dynamics of power, standing, as they do on the edge of powerlessness. They give the reader a unique way to look at motherhood, childhood, home, exile and exile from the mind, where all is spirit. Thank you Rafiq.