In this column, Saikat Majumdar discusses books from India that haven’t received due attention.

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They treated every unborn infant
as a weapon of mass destruct.
They bombed the city hospital
at the centre of Baghdad
The maternity ward and all.

A cry inside a maternity ward
means one thing.
A maternity ward inside a cry
means another.

Basant Rath’s author bio establishes a life-trajectory with a pointedly ironic relevance to contemporary India: born “in a village in coastal Odisha, studied sociology in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, before joining the Indian Police Service in 2000. He considers Mandi, Poonch (a border district in Jammu and Kashmir) his second home.”

The move from rural Odisha (formerly Orissa) to the premier university in Delhi, named after independent India’s first Prime Minister, points to the advancement made possible by the socially responsible higher education system established with a Nehruvian vision. At the same time, it draws our attention to the embattled state of this university under the current regime of Hindu nationalism. From this university, Rath’s selection into the prestigious Indian Police Service is another sought-after triumph for students from different parts of the country who come to the capital — but everything changes again in Kashmir, the most traumatically troubled part of the subcontinent since independence. Moving to this tormented land as a high-powered police officer, Rath writes, “Own me, Srinagar.” The title of his striking collection of poems, the expression becomes a bruised, lyrical plea for belonging in a land that has long fought its own battle of belonging in South Asia.

Belong he does, in a way that makes him indistinguishable from Kashmir, its beauty and its pain. He creates a conscience so wide and powerful as to hold violence from all over the world close to his chest, as in the lines above. But it his sensory evocation of his adopted region that packs the greatest ironies of history:

Don’t worry. This valley is eatable.
Eminently. Farm fresh.
Exactly forty summers back
Nehru came for the breakfast
and praised our apple sauce.
Jinnah couldn’t stay for dinner.
He sent his apologies
and a personal messenger.

When it comes to the mangled kinship between India and Pakistan, history becomes a homespun colloquialism, a domestic spat, a bothersome love story. Hence, the poem “New Delhi and Islamabad” unleashes a new kind of seasoning:

Salt and pepper shakers
standing togethe
shoulder to shoulder
hand in hand
on the walnut dining table
after many a meal
after many a prayer
known and unknown to each other

like teenage lovers
like seasoned strangers.

Own Me, Srinagar is energized by geography and history. Abstract thought plays little role in these poems. Why would it? Rath is writing about a terrain whose physical contours speak for themselves, and whose past and present — and an ever-ominous future — are even more vocal. The convergence of stunning beauty and jagged pain in the valley have rendered everyday life a high-strung affair for the longest period in the subcontinent’s long memory. It is a place where history is but a privileged and oppressive visitor; so little here seems to be decided by locals — a fact iterated with finality by the current Indian government’s removal, in October 2019, of Article 370 of the Constitution, which had given the state of Jammu and Kashmir a special status since 1954. Written long before this happened, Bath’s poem “History” might as well be a direct comment. In it, the titular force

is a foreign tourist,
sexy and sophisticated,
who knows how to say
“smile please” in ten dialects,
“thank you” in six,
“how much” in twenty,
“which way” in fourteen,
and “fair enough” in one.

But she can’t understand
a single curse
in street-smart Kashmiri

And she carries a kitchen knife.
and movie camera with her.

Knife, she conceals.
Camera, she flaunts.

A quick Google search reveals that Rath has drawn controversy and popularity in equal measure both as the Inspector General of Traffic Police in the state and as an author of provocative op-eds. There is little doubt that he has become well-versed in curses in street-smart Kashmiri, and knows well the meaning of carrying a knife and camera on the streets of Kashmir. Police action, political retribution, even Twitter storms, to which Rath is no stranger, easily overshadow poetry, even when the latter speaks in a sharper, more painful, more meaningful language. Rath’s collection, published in 2013 by Writers’ Workshop, did not receive much of a response, despite his bureaucratic fame and notoriety. But it is a striking book that deserves its place in the explosive canon of Kashmiri verse.

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Saikat Majumdar is the author of three novels: The Scent of God (2019), The Firebird (2015), published in the US as Play House (2017), and Silverfish (2007). He has also published a book of literary criticism, Prose of the World (2013), a general nonfiction book on higher education, College: Pathways of Possibility (2018), and a co-edited collection of essays, The Critic as Amateur (2019). His new novel, The Middle Finger, will be published in fall 2021.