a desolate mother,
sipping heart attacks in her nun chai,
trying in vain to accelerate the time
In 2010 Azeem wrote a poem about nun chai. In Kashmir people with high blood pressure are advised by doctors not to drink nun chai because of its high salt content. The mother in Azeem’s poem defied their orders because of her pain.
Over our cups of nun chai Azeem told me stories about his city. Some years ago, on a cold winter morning, Azeem was on his way to school when he came across a group of solemn looking people on the street. He said the body had already been taken away, but there was a woman with a bucket and a broom who was scrubbing the remaining blood from the pavement. But the blood had congealed. Azeem said it had stuck solidly to the ground and no matter how hard she scrubbed the blood stain didn’t move. On that cold winter morning her hands almost froze. “Even the pavements of our city are full of memories,” Azeem said. But there was something more. It wasn’t simply the fact memories were there in the pavement, but the persistence of memory hurt, like water freezing hands that try persistently to scrub them away.
Looking down towards Zero Bridge Azeem recalled the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali: a shadow chased by search lights is running to find its body. Azeem had read about the history of the Holocaust and it’s relationship to the built environment. It made him think more closely about his own home— about how history and memory take hold of the physical landscape. “Look at the Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower) at Lal Chowk,” he said, “it has been at the centre of so much in our recent history, our future is now tied to it – as a place now, as much as a symbol. But it’s not only big places like Zero Bridge or Ghanta Ghar, but small obscure places the newspapers never write about—like the sidewalk where that woman scrubbed the blood. Our future can’t be whole without the memories that haunt these places. Every street corner has a story.” How do we turn the search lights off, and help the shadow find its body?
“Something went wrong with modernity.” Azeem said, “It was here we started to systematize violence. This is the violence that surrounds us now. It’s what enabled the Holocaust and it continues for us in Kashmir today.”
The city of Srinagar, with its pavements and bedrooms and bridges, and street corners and shopfronts and bus stands, has become a boundless site where Milan Kundera’s epic words become real: The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. Azeem had another poem:
Inside a radio
tragedy and melody
embrace each other:
‘Moate chooro, karith khaeli’……
Azeem had taken the last words from a Kashmiri song, Moate chooro, karith khaeli, kam khaane tai, which translates into, what lively dwellings, o thieving angel of death, you render desolate!