For Kashmiris like Madhosh Balhami, there's no escape from conflict, as counter-insurgency ops bring violence to their doors
For people like Kashmiri poet Madhosh Balhami, who recently lost all his works whose house was destroyed in the recent gunbattle between militants and security forces in Jammu and Kashmir, it is a painful struggle to build them again one that goes on for years
On Thursday afternoon, Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, known in the literary circles of Kashmir as Madhosh Balhami, thought of penning a poem on dowry. Sitting on the porch near the main door of his house in Balhama village, 18 kilometers south of Srinagar, he was weaving his words into verses when two militants came running, brandishing AK-47 rifles and firing gunshots in the air.
Moments ago, at least three militants had fired at the security officer of a BJP leader, allegedly in a bid to snatch their weapons. While the attack was repulsed, the militants fled towards a higher ground behind Balhami's home where they purportedly sensed an ambush and retreated towards the village where they ran into the poet lost in his thoughts.
"We know you will never forgive us," Balhami, a Shia Muslim, recalls one of the militants telling him, “But, for the sake of Imam Hussain (MABH), please forgive us,” the young, bearded militant holding the assault rifle in his right hand, told him.
“We know we will be killed soon and your house will be destroyed. Please leave, and if you can forgive us,” another begged.
Balhami, a gaunt man with short, unkempt beard that belies his age, placed his hand on his heart, and replied, “I will not keep any ill-will against you.”
The family abandoned the house, leaving all their belongings behind. Balhami, his daughter, wife, and two sons, soon found refuge two hundred metres away in a neighbour’s house. The forces cordoned off the locality and started firing towards four houses where the militants had taken refuge. Few hours after the gunfight started, Balhami's double storied house caught fire. Windows started blowing out flames as forces fired thousands of rounds at the house.
As a steady trickle of solemn residents from far off places started thronging the site of the gun flight, Balhami, 52, sat in a dark room at his neighbour’s with his father and friends. Outside, women and children made a beeline to experience the destruction first hand.
"I watched from here one after another room catching fire and flames coming out of them,” Balhamai told Firstpost.
"As if every flame was burning the ink on the verses I had scribbled over these years. My 30 years of love for poetry and labour was reduced to ashes in minutes. But a poet remembers the flames. They are part of his folklore," he added.
Balhami refused to visit his house initially, saying he had no regrets, except that his work of thirty years was consumed by the flames.
"There were rare manuscripts, books of poetry, a story of life, which had taken years to write, was destroyed in the fire. I don’t care for anything else. Everything can be rebuilt including the house but my years of work is gone," he says.
On Friday afternoon, I insisted Balhami to accompany me to his house, thinking it might open him a little and he might speak freely about the tragedy. We passed through a narrow lane and entered the main courtyard of the house where a group of visitors greeted the poet with sad faces. Mourners cleared the path as he moved towards the charred remains of his house. He walked ahead, pointing towards the porch where he was lost in thoughts when the militants arrived.
Balhami enters the charred remains of a room that has a putrid smell of gunpowder. I asked him if he could remember a line to describe what has happened to his now destroyed house. He recited in a powerful and painful voice:
Mye wann’te’ kyah khata korum, haq panun mangum agar
Wechaa’n Wechaa’n khand’er banouthan, yi swarg hyu shehar
(Tell me what crime I commit if I demanded my rights
In a flash of moment this paradise-like city was reduced to rubble)
Throughout his life, Balhami, 52, despite attaining fame in the literary circles in the Valley, refrained from becoming a part of those circles. In the three-decades long turmoil, he refused the state's patronage, unlike most of his peers, and opted to live like a destitute than becoming co-opted. He preferred poverty over personal comforts but never lost hope. When the insurgency was at its peak and the killings were an everyday affair, he wrote:
Asi kyah karun, aes kyah kaaran, ze ze darjan dohhoi maran
(What we have to do, what we are doing
On a daily basis, we receive two dozen body bags)
Aes ma paanas paanai faraa’n, dost tschenan dushman huraan
(Are we robbing self, losing friends and multiplying foes)
B'e zan dap’ha chune jaan, mein cha kharaan panun paan
(Dare I say it is not right, but don’t I love myself?)
With a renewed face of insurgency hitting Kashmir valley and killing of militants becoming a daily affair, the preferred mode for the government forces, instead of waiting for militants to run out of their ammunition and neutralising them inside buildings where they are holed up, has been to throw gunpowder and blast the buildings.
During the gunfight, nothing survives the assault. In Balhami's case, even history is reduced to ashes. There is no data available on how many houses have been razed to ground, but it is a painful struggle for those who lose their homes, to build them again, a struggle that takes years of hardships.
History, Balhami says, is a witness and people often fail to take lessons from it. He is struggling to think up of ways and means to make people understand the pain. “When your home is gone in incidents like these and you return to the charred remnants of a window here and a door there, it feels as if a part of you has been charred by the fire as well," he says.
As he walked into a roofless room of with half-burnt window frames, Balhami whispered:
Yi kya tufaan aao sanies shahras, ye kaeem khaen’der banov yeth lal zaras
(What tempest has hit our city, who turned this land of tulips into ruins)
He looked through the frame, into the courtyard, continuing his verse:
Naeto naeto asi dyueth khoon, be’ zan dapha ase’ kyah zue’n
(We offered oceans of blood, but what did we gain?)
Aese kaur bunel sea kaem chuen
(We instigated the earthquake but who felt the pain?)
As more people started gathering in the courtyard of the house, I left. Balhami took the street down to the neigbour’s house where he will be probably living in coming months or perhaps years. He will need time and courage — lots of it — to overcome the pain of losing his written treasure. And lots of money too, to rebuild his home. "A house," he corrects me, "Home has been destroyed forever and, with it, a part of me too."
Madhoosh Balhami's poetry was translated into English by Sringar-based senior journalist Gowhar Geelani
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