Thursday, April 24, 2014

Rendezvous with Rafiq Kathwari

Recipient of the prestigious 45th Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award, photographer and art revivalist Rafiq Kathwari chats up with CityPlus about why he likes to hold his home Kashmir, in his heart. 

It is not easy to be a wanderer and trot the whole world as if it were a pastor land, especially when you have to leave home that is no less than heaven on earth yet torn with violence. Rafiq Kathwari, the contemporary English language poet, photographer and social entrepreneur moulds the wails of this bleeding land into poetry dividing his time between New York, Dublin, and Kashmir. Cityplus spoke to this first non-Irish poet who also received the prestigious 45th Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award last year.

On being a story teller

He states, “Kashmiris must tell their story themselves and we have begun to do that. Starting with A Country without a Post Office by Agha Shahid Ali, a seminal book of poems about India’s ruthless suppression of a popular movement seeking justice; Curfewed Nights by Basharat Peer who is the Editor of the New York Times India Ink, The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed, Of Occupation And Resistance, a noteworthy essay anthology by young Kashmiris.” 

He continues, “But Kashmir does not exist in a vacuum. One must view Kashmir in a global context. I wrote a poem inspired... actually triggered… to use the more appropriate word… by a headline in the New York Times: Israeli Troops Kill 90 Dogs in Arab Town. It’s not only about Hebron, but also about Kashmir. It’s a short poem.” 

Reinventing Kashmir through poetry

Many poems in his manuscript are either about his mother or are in her voice. “When she was young, my mother started hearing voices, a condition that became progressively worse. So, through my poems I am constantly trying to reinvent my mother. Her madness has become a divine gift. Her voice could say practically anything and get away with it. My mother is the Valley of Kashmir. Her mind is a metaphor for the Partition,” he explains.

On Agha Shahid Ali 

Agha Shahid Ali and Rafiq were neighbours in Srinagar. Reminiscing about the late poet Rafiq says, “Very few angels have as big a heart as he had. He encouraged me especially when I was struggling to break away from an imposing family business heritage. He guided me well when I started translating Allama Iqbal’s poems and Shahid’s comments were spot on, particularly because he himself had translated Faiz Ahmed Faiz.”
Narrating another piece from his memory of Shahid, Rafiq says, “One summer in Srinagar, Shahid and I worked on a photo essay together, ‘Kashmir Retextured’, which later won the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) Award for Outstanding Photo Essay in New Media. Shahid wrote all the captions for the essay. Later, we spent a week in Barcelona trying to get a dummy book printed for Thames and Hudson in London. They said get Rushdie to write an introduction, but Rushdie was in hiding at that time.”
Rafiq adds, “The dummy is screaming to come out of my closet in New York. Shahid’s imagery pops up in my poems. It’s part of my inner template. I was with him in Amherst, Massachusetts the night he was called back.”

Where is his nest? 

For Rafiq, home is where the heart is. He says, “It’s a biblical condition…Rootlessness. It’s not something unique, but it gives you a unique perspective to your own native place. In a self-imposed exile you are compelled as a writer to create an imaginary homeland. Joyce and Beckett wrote about Ireland living in Paris. Rushdie writes about India living both in New York and London. I have an American sensibility as well as a South Asian cultural heritage. Rushdie said we are all chutney, and if I may, the spicy ingredients parsed brilliantly by Edward Said, but in a larger sense we are all children of Lord Macaulay.” He is at home with Rumi as he is with Rimbaud and Rushdie. That’s his nest.

On translating Iqbal

Allama Iqbal was a poet philosopher, a 20th Century giant of South Asian poetry who wrote in Urdu and Farsi and English but Iqbal’s poetry is a tricky one to comprehend. How did Rafiq manage to translate his works then?
 “I tried to cut through Iqbal’s didactic philosophy which he couldn’t himself overcome. For instance, in Jugnoo, his long poem about the Firefly, when you slice through the marvels of Allah, the seven or eight similes Iqbal uses to describe the Jugnoo are what Ezra Pound, in another context, called the “exoticism of Oriental poetry”. I have tried to bring Iqbal to a 21st Century secular audience, mindful of Iqbal’s all important tone.”

What’s next?

Rafiq has been trying to translate poet Rahman Rahi’s writings in Kashmir for the last 50 years. But first I must apply for a grant. “Poetry makes nothing happen, and it isn’t easy to make nothing happen,” says Rafiq as he signs off.

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