Poem by Rafiq Kathwari


I drove up the Himalayan foothills
to Baba’s shrine
with my friend Masood

in a tired white Gypsy
with dodgy brakes,
urged on by my 94-year-old

mother at Hebrew Home
The Bronx
who said her father,

a wealthy ring-shawl merchant
patronized by the Maharajah,
had married three times

hoping to produce an heir,
but his wives proved barren.
Perhaps it was him,

Mother said.
Yet, he rode his Tonga
to the foothills, then trekked

to the thatched-roof shrine
where he tied a thread
to carved wooden roses,

prayed for a son.
Faith in Sufi mysticism
defined Islam in Kashmir,

commanding awe & respect
never shock & suspicion.

Unlike so many bunkers
in the Kashmir Valley,
this one at the hem

of a Sufi shrine manned
by brown men in khakis
is an emblem for all bunkers.

Bold white capital letters
on a blue plastic sheet
shielding the bunker

from the North wind:

A Sufi saint Baba Reshi,
resting for five centuries
under alabaster, preached

Divinity lives
in the garden within &
in the wilderness without.

But an oxymoron
on a bunker at his shrine
is not coincidental.

A fascist credo
packed with sad irony,
exposing the statd policy

of world’s largest democracy—
a lie I’m tired of hearing—
to subvert teachings

of Sufi saints like Baba who
brought Sufism to Kashmir
or Kashmir to Sufism.

But now,
another wind
is blowing:

from Sevilla to Srinagar
ancient Sufi shrines, some
with papier mâché murals,

red crystal chandeliers
are being burnt, reportedly
by Salafists using petrodollars.

I walked around the barbed wire
to the bunker, a tote slung
over my shoulder, grinning

at a Khaki, an Uzi
slung over his shoulder.
Namaste, I said.

Where’ you from?  he asked.
Mumbai, I lied.  And you?
I asked, jovially.  Allahabad,

he said. Oh, where the Ganges
merges with the Yamuna.
He nodded, waved me through

without checking my tote, but
asked, Where friend from?
He’s local, a Kashmiri, I said,

& at once realized I’d tossed
Masood under the clichéd bus.
Oh, Fuck.

Khaki changed his tone,
Open bag, he barked.
Masood did as he was told

Who you?
Why you here?
Where you going?

Masood was concise, clear, cool,
inspiring Confidence.
Khaki backed off.

Lies & Truth,
Mumbai & Kashmir.
Respect & Suspect.

You dare not argue
with an Uzi, Masood later
said as we gazed through

a smudged pane
at Baba’s tomb adorned
with embroidered cloths.

Kashmiris adore their Sufi
saints to love’s horizon,
mark their births, deaths,

raise funds in their memory,
even want to name the airport
Sheikh Noor-ud-din Wali,

the patron Saint of Kashmir.
That’s as far as Kashmiris
are willing to go. For,

as we drove further up
on a treacherous potholed
road, shortcut to lunch,

Hotel Highlands Park
in Gulmarg, Meadow
of Flowers, boasting

world’s highest golf greens,
we saw grand trunks grieving
stump after stump after stump—

no sign of reforestation;
glacial streams sobbing,
choking on plastic bags,

soda cans, cigarette packs—
detritus of global neo-liberal

devastation absolute.
Respect None. Suspect All.
Kashmiris cannot bear

too much Divinity. They put
a burqa on it, or chop it
to a stump, or suffocate

it with plastic bags. In Kashmir,
human endeavor has failed.
But, wait. Tarry a while—

Didn’t Kashmiris put aside their
kangris for kalishnikovs
when the Berlin Wall fell,

nudging from its slumber
the world’s third largest army—
a generation later? What?

Kashmiris want to Tweet
their Arab Spring, their Intifada.
They want Facebook, Instagram

WhatsApp but social media
is often banned. No texting allowed.
The state is afraid, very afraid.

Cannot ring God using a land line,
for, to echo a Kashmiri-American poet,
God does not want you to call collect.

A blind faith in saints lives on
as it did in my mother’s father
who months after returning

home was blessed, not with
a son he had so wished
but a chubby daughter

with almond eyes
who, a generation later,
became my mother.

By Rafiq Kathwari / @brownpundit