After years of violence and bloodshed the people of Nepal are preparing for peace. As I was settling down to write this column one of them forwarded me a short poem. The first verse goes like this:
two signatures… that was all that was needed for nepalis to promise to stop killing each other… for nepalis to say it’s a new day from tomorrow let’s get it right this time let’s build nepal anew a new nepal a shangrila once more two signatures…
Reading Rupa Joshi’s work made me think of how artistic expression powerfully captures the pain and suffering, the profound dilemmas and contradictions, of societies caught in political and social turmoil. Her simple poem says more about the tragedy of Nepal than any academic account could have done. When historians attempt to capture the process of change they usually address only the macro picture – they profile leaders and analyze political formations but rarely look at ordinary people. Poets, playwrights and novelists fill the gaps that history leaves.
Rupa Joshi’s poem led me to think about the role of literature in the history of South Asia. I found many examples of writers whose most inspiring and influential work was sparked by historical change. Undivided Punjab (today there are two Punjabs, one in India and one in Pakistan) was known as the land of star-crossed lovers, a place of enchantment and high drama, tinged with tragedy. The 1947 partition of India changed all that, turning the region into a land of violence, brutality and hate. Stories of mass killing, arson and looting are legion. Thousands of women were raped but history had little to say about them until the Punjabi poet, Amrita Pritam, took up their case in verse. She addressed the deceased Punjabi poet, Waris Shah, who wrote the story of the doomed lovers Heer and Ranjha. ‘Rise up, O Waris Shah!’ she said. ‘How can you sleep in your grave? When one Heer died, you wrote a whole epic poem to her memory, now that thousands of Heers are being violated, why are you silent?’ This single poem by Amrita Pritam gave the invisible raped women of the Punjab a history that they had until then been denied.
Or take the work of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, perhaps Pakistan’s best-known poet. After visiting Bangladesh for the first time since its independence from Pakistan, Faiz wrote a poem that has since then been put to music by many singers. ‘So many meetings between us, and we remain strangers still / How many seasons of rain will it take to wash away these bloodstains?’
The first people whose voices are muzzled in moments of political turbulence are intellectuals and writers. Their works are dangerous because they can capture the essence at the heart of turmoil and conflict
My very rough translations don’t do justice to these authors whose original works are both poetic and moving – heavy with meaning and emotion. Interestingly, while poetry or fiction may emerge from a particular experience, or be a writer’s response to the pain of that moment, art is not bound by history. People find inspiration in the words of poets and writers at different times and in different places; their words become like talismans invested with a range of meanings. Citizen groups, women’s rights activists, anti-poverty campaigners all use the lines penned by Faiz Ahmed Faiz or by Amrita Pritam to describe their own experience in a way that would otherwise be difficult to encompass.
Nor are such writings limited by geography. In translation they transcend borders and are embraced in other places at other times. Faiz’s writings resonate with those seeking social change in India and Bangladesh as well as in his native Pakistan.
For this reason, in moments of political turbulence, the first people whose voices are muzzled are intellectuals and writers. Their works are dangerous because they can capture the essence at the heart of turmoil and conflict. Take poetry: because it often uses few words, its meaning is concentrated. Those words have to speak for and ‘describe’ all the multiple contradictions and complexities that lie at the heart of any conflict. They have to be eloquent, expressive and evocative. Written history can rarely aspire to this. Art, literature and music have another advantage: they are subversive because they have the power to move people. In Andhra Pradesh, in southern India, a songwriter and poet called Gadr sings his way into and across a Maoist revolutionary movement. And his success in mobilizing people – men, women, children, the old – is legendary. No wonder that the kings and rulers of yore, and indeed the political leaders and rulers of today, are so fearful of the power of the word!
For after all the killing and bloodshed, if all it takes is two signatures, you are forced to ask: was it really worth it?