Work of Mourning in Kashmir

Ather Zia
29 June 2012

7 am. The newspaper guy’s voice sounded wistful; “Dasgir’s Saeb’s shrine at Khanyar is burning”. My father grimaced painfully. My mother heard the news, unusually contained for a person who offered most of her prayers there. She did not utter a word. Her steaming cup of Chai turned cold while she turned the dial on her radio; trying to get every possible version of the incident. The fire had been raging since 6:30 am. The official version stated it had started after the morning prayers, due to a short circuit.
I slid into the rest of the day with unease. As the news snaked around the valley, the swathe of historic downtown became restive. People came into the streets, protesting and flocking towards the burning shrine. The civil lines area in Srinagar with its government offices, judiciary, businesses, schools and tony addresses was seemingly functional. As the morning progressed an undeclared curfew descended on the city. Fresh rolls of concertina wires suggestively glinted besides its rusty brethren, further choking the crossways and alleys. Section 144 was visibly in effect as the armed forces in riot gear questioned passersby.
In the late afternoon, I walked towards Khanyar with some friends, since traffic was not allowed into the area. We went past men, women, and children. They could easily be mistaken as going to a festival at the shrine, except their faces were lined with apprehension and sorrow and their footsteps had a different kind of urgency. Near the shrine area, the crowd was intense. Wailing and angry shouts rose over Quranic chants. A couple of fire trucks stood nearby with civilians mounted on top. The shrine which had earlier been a resplendent sight of green and gold now looked stark. The fire had eaten through the wooden edifice leaving the brick and concrete razed with soot, mud, and grime. Male volunteers, their faces were covered by sooty rags, plowed through ashes, embers and smoke; hauling burning pillars, papier-mâché facades and carpets. Ambulances with piercing sirens moved swiftly through the crowd, whisking away the injured volunteers and from what I heard, also the wounded from the stone pelting incidents which ringed the area.
Women stood in rows; they lamented, raised slogans and chanted Quranic verses. They mourned the loss, and were also focused on raising the morale of singed, tired and visibly angry men. I stood with the crowd, watching what had been lost and what “in that moment” was being recuperated. A young man with sooty face raised a fatigued hand barring my colleague from taking pictures. Most of the crowd discouraged any documentation. Despite the communal grieving, it seemed that this collective moment of mourning was intensely private. No outside eye except that of a common person’ or a devotee’ was welcome. “No outsiders, no journalists, no videographers or photographers are allowed”, said a young woman who was leading the crowd; her face crinkled with grief, and hunger, for she had not eaten since morning. Another woman wailed “ Khodaya wech assi kashiren seth kya kya chu gachan, az rov dastgeer sabun ti”. This seemingly routine phrase encapsulated the woman’s personal and communal mourning of not only the lost shrine but also the history of her homeland. The burning shrine ceased to be an insulated event; it collapsed into the smoking heap of the many misfortunes that have befallen Kashmir and are deeply connected to each other.
The slogans emanating from the crowd reinforced the layered memorialization which has withstood many forms of political violence – “La illah-ha illal-la; ya Pir Dastageer; Ham Kyan Chahte – Azadi”. These chants were repetitive, ebbing and flowing - depending upon the kind of urgency the volunteers were facing inside the smoking shrine.
In the moment of this collective mourning, many dirges were sung. On the mention of dirges, I am reminded of the recent interlocutor’s report which refers to “azadi” as a dirge. Dileep Padgoankar says in a response, “in absence of clarity about what the word (azadi) stands for, how else if one is to describe it other than a lament?” In the moment around the smoking shrine of Dastageer Sahab, Padgaonkar’s concern about clarity might be assuaged and the significance of a lament/dirge could become manifest. If you were to witness the fiercely focused crowd in Khanyar clawing the ashes to recuperate their history and mourning their loss; if you were there, in that widening puddle of soot and smoke, the essential work of lament would become clear. A lament is not vain exercise; the work of mourning is greater than presenting a functional clarity - it is focused on giving birth to a memory. Memory is bigger than clarity. Around the ashes of the burnt shrine of Dastageer Sahab’s, Kashmiris threaded yet another bead into the tragic garland of their memory. The memorialization occurring at that moment underlined a political will which is rooted in spirituality, mired in wounds, death and grime, and which has relentlessly been combating political violence through work of mourning and memory.

First published in Greater Kashmir http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/gk-magazine/work-of-mourning/124144.html

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About AtherZia

Ather Zia is a political anthropologist working on militarization, gender and Kashmir. Currently she is a faculty at the Anthropology and Gender studies program at the University of Northern Colorado Greeley. She is also a poet, writes short fiction and is the founder-editor of Kashmir Lit at www.kashmirlit.org.

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