New Internationalist

A feeling of helplessness

Issue 382

I am no stranger to killing and chaos in my surroundings, for I have lived most of my life witnessing, dodging and reporting such events. As a journalist in Kashmir, I have filled columns of newspapers counting the dead in dozens, collecting the pain and suffering in lifeless words, and watching as the ‘paradise on earth’ – that old designation of Kashmir – was burned to a wasteland of sadness.

As a poet, I tried to sing the pain of my countrymen and women, the wails of mothers whose children were snatched from their beds, the government employees kidnapped by militants for being ‘informers’ – a phenomenon common now in Iraq.

I stopped writing poems, since these seemed to me an inadequate response; the words had become strange to the ears of the people. I had become irrelevant.

Five years ago, I came to London for study. Being here made me sad. My time here was shadowed by a strong sense of guilt that I am free while my people remain captive. They cannot move an inch without permission of the soldier standing over their home. Even marriage parties, which were traditionally conducted by night, are now held in the daylight, for no-one can move at night without being shot at.

If I had brought my unhappiness to London, this is scarcely surprising: my life had been punctuated by bomb blasts, cries of loss by mothers who had lost their sons, of children whose fathers had been tortured to death. Everything was unpredictable and unstable; how could I be expected to attain stability? By the time I went to college in Kashmir, everyone was talking about holding a gun to fight for freedom. In no time, I saw friends, teachers, neighbours, relatives exalting freedom and the gun. The first blast I witnessed occurred in 1998, and I was standing just yards away from where an old man died.

After six months in London, I returned to Kashmir. I felt I had been thrown out of life; I felt like an evictee from my own country. I came back to London, married and settled here. But all the time I was hiding from myself. I could no longer write. For a time, I even stopped reading about Kashmir and its killing fields. I denied everything that had formed me – my life, my background, my feelings, even my friends. For a long time, my family thought I had gone missing. My mother had become resigned to the possibility that I had been just one more name added to the missing in Kashmir.

The economic demand for Kashmiri poets in London being limited, a year ago I got a job with London Underground, and believed I was renegotiating life on ‘normal’ terms. I could not resume writing anyway – my thoughts eluded me in the blood-clotted lanes of memory.

However, as time passed, I came to feel safe. Everybody in Kashmir knew I was not as ‘comfortable’ as I would have been in my own culture, but my parents acknowledged that I was at least secure, however painful the separation. It is my usual practice to call my home and friends in Kashmir after every ‘encounter’ or bomb blast that kills people. Just four weeks ago, there was a blast a few minutes’ walk from my home which wiped out six members of the same family.

On 7/7, the world turned upside down again. My brother tried desperately to contact me as news of the blast poured in. Scores of friends from Kashmir left messages or sent texts, and my old Kashmir days came back to haunt me, as I realized I am in the firing line once more. Fate has created another war zone similar to that I was desperately trying to flee. As the first news came through, I was working at Holland Park tube station. When people started to evacuate the station, confused and bewildered, I was back in the Kashmir of my yesterday… The running footsteps, the closed shops, the deserted bus stands. I called my wife and tried to contact my father who is with me at the moment, and was even then on the Underground.

Despite my familiarity with bombs, the events in London shocked me, as they have every Londoner; not because they exhibit the endless capacity of human beings to turn to savagery, but because the bubble of security I had created around me, living thousands of miles from Kashmir, had burst. I realized I was once again vulnerable and uncertain; working underground only makes the vulnerability and uncertainty more certain.

As the dead are identified, I have the same old feeling of helplessness and a return of the constant grieving mode in which I had lived in Kashmir. Now I am a Kashmiri Londoner, the grief is doubled. My soul feels suffocated in the dingy tunnels of the Underground where blood is spilt. It is scarcely new to me. I have seen hundreds of deaths. I have participated in scores of funerals, of friends, teachers, relatives, strangers. In my own hometown I witnessed 40 deaths one day. As we marched peacefully, we were showered with Indian army bullets from every direction.

As I look at the names of the London victims, a name leaps out. John Tulloch, a professor, is one of the injured whose bandaged face was all over the papers. He was my teacher during my journalism course at the University of Westminster when I first came to London.

My father, a retired professor, has been staying with us for a few months. He visited King’s Cross every day to visit the British Library, where he found many books and manuscripts which are clearly not available in Kashmir. When he came, he was surprised by the relaxed life of London compared to Kashmir, where he had lived surrounded by strife and destruction. His visits to the library have stopped. Kashmir is suddenly my closest neighbour in London.

Now I am a Kashmiri Londoner, the grief is doubled. My soul feels suffocated in the dingy tunnels of the Underground where blood is spilt

Murtaza Shibli

Murtaza Shibli is a Kashmiri poet who now works on the London Underground.

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