How We First Imagine Kashmir

In the year 1992, when she was a 19 year old creative-writing student at Hamilton College, N.Y., Kamila Shamsie was talking with her favorite teacher, the poet Agha Shahid Ali, about where he had spent his last summer. ‘I was in Delhi, and in Srinagar,’ he had said. She casually asked if he had also gone anywhere other than India. Shahid repeated, ‘I was in Srinagar’.

Shamsie, now a well-known novelist, told me in a long conversation about her teacher and friend, that increasingly after the early 1990s events in Kashmir, Shahid had begun making that distinction in his head. ‘With more and more pain,’ he had said, he had started to make the difference. This was big precisely because it was a difference of imagination, the most difficult sort we wrest with. For Shahid, who had grown up in Srinagar, this recognition was huge and was to seep into almost everything he wrote since.

Kashmir, before it is anything else, is a question of imagination. How we speak about it casually, how we visualize it in our heads, how we constantly place it in relation to us. Any lasting resolution in Kashmir will first have to wade through and question the common-sense around it.

For generations of Indian school kids, Kashmir begins as something visual, something cartographic. I grew up and went to school in Lucknow. When I was about ten or eleven, we started studying maps in class. My classmates and I always thought that the Indian map was particularly shapely. It looked like a body, full with hands, legs, torso, and especially, the head that was Kashmir. In fact, the head was the crowning piece of our juvenile image, its favorite bit.

This was a very amateur version of pride, imagining our country as full-bodied, as intact. The head was key to this imagination, an integral part of it. That we were studying maps in the geography classroom was crucial. Within a discipline that was taught as if it was untouched by politics, as if it was only about real contours, about actual topographies. Wholesale maps of ‘physical India’ and ‘political India’ available in local shops in Lucknow had no LOC, no mark of a disputed region, no specific shading. This worked perfectly for our pet metaphor, for our childish game of anthropomorphizing our country.

Any real debate about Kashmir will have to question these most basic images we have grown up with, these most common terms in which we have always spoken of it. For these images and terms have a damaging afterlife in our print and primetime. There needs to be an urgent debate on Kashmir among the young in India and it cannot begin if we have already made up our minds, already pictured the whole thing.

Any real debate cannot start with the common line that Kashmir is an integral part of India. We have to, at the very least, let the question remain open. Now more than ever, we have to play around with those first bits of maps we learnt in our classrooms and offset them with an eye for history and for tracking popular opinions of Kashmiris. This will happen only if we revise the first metaphors we had custom-built for Kashmir, only if we take care of that childish stubbornness we had for totality. Once we do this, we would have really come on track for any lasting answer for Kashmir.

Akhil Katyal

The author is a writer based in Delhi.