Choosing Word Over Sword

October 3, 2013 at 9:15 PMOct (Activism, Friends, Literature, Musings, Poetry, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

I knocked the door and a warm smile welcomed me. I had heard about her from Hiren Bhai when I was in Ahmedabad in August for a protest meet. He and Sarup Behn had told me about her book. Soon after coming back from Ahmedabad I had written to her asking for the book. She promised to send me the book and took my postal address. But never sent the books. So when my trip to Mumbai got finalized I decided to meet her in person and collect the book from her. I wrote to her about my trip to Mumbai and she invited home. And there I was on 2nd of October.

Ayesha Khan, Hiren bhai and Sarup Behn had told me, was a journalist with Indian Express in Ahmedabad. A Maharashtrian born and brought up in Gujarat. She later not just quit IE but also Gujarat and settled in Mumbai. After the 2002 carnage Ayesha Khan, told Hiren Bhai and Sarup Behn, had travelled all across Gujarat and collected poems written by common people, only Muslims, as a response to the 2002 carnage. She collected them and translated them too. The book was published but never distributed to the market by the publisher, for whatever reason. Hiren Bhai had told me that Ayesha had a few copies with her. After a few email exchanges now I was at her place to collect the book Scattered Voices.

After asking me how I know Hiren Bhai and listening to my answer she handed over the book Scattered Voices and its Hindi version Kuch Toh Kaho Yaaron. Handing over the book she started speaking about the book.

After reporting the carnage for Indian Express Ayesha was left with the question, “This was done as a part of my profession. But did I do as a human?” At the same time she was surprised and shocked by the silence of the mainstream Gujarati literature with regard to the 2002 carnage. This made her curious to know if the most common men respond, poetically, to the 2002 tragedy. “More than the curiosity it was my need to come to terms with what had happened,” said Ayesha speaking to me about it after 11 years.

She told herself that she would compile the poems written by Muslims in Gujarat only. Because she by then had realized that she was, “a Muslim more in political and social terms than religious.” With this one condition she set her journey. She just went on asking people if they knew of anyone in the surrounding who had responded to the carnage, for she would not know or take a guess as to who could have possibly written. People, she said, would guide her to someone in their near by surrounding saying, “Yeah s/he had written.” What she found interesting was that people around knew about the poetic responses. When she would meet the people who had written poems, she said, some would take out a sheet from a polythene bag which would be holding some bills and other stuff and hand it over to her. Some would tear off their only copy of the poem, from the note book, and give it to her. On the other hand, some women who had written poems refused to share their poems saying, “We did not write it to share it.” There were people who had written but did not want to own them. There were people who had written but did not want to share them. The night before this I had gone to sleep wondering what did Neruda after writing the saddest of all lines on that melancholic night! I asked this to myself because I was doubting of any cathartic possibilities of poetry. But here my notions were challenged. It was further  when I asked Ayesha as to why she did not approach any other publisher later on when the publisher of the book refused to release the book in the market. She said, “I was emotionally drained out by then and I was kind of satisfied, though not over it completely, because at a very emotional level the entire project had helped me come to terms with whatever had happened because these poems gave me hope.”

She also spoke of a butcher she met who wrote poems in Urdu. She said this man knew the entire lineage of Urdu poetry and had several masters’ poetry on the tip of his tongue! This man she said had studied till class 8 or 9. “See every time the education qualification of Muslims is brought into arguments to speak about how ‘backward’ they are. What does literacy has to do with education and culture? This butcher knew Urdu and Urdu literature better than a well educated girl like me.” She added, “This collection breaks all those stereotypes.” It also breaks open a new image in my mind. I, who consider myself quite liberal, too cannot imagine quite easily the image of a butcher and the image of poetry. But these two images come together as one in this poetry collection.

“One of the dominant emotion in this collection,” she said, “is betrayal.” “When does one feel betrayed?” she asked me and immediately answered, “When you love.” When this love is questioned and asked to be proved, said Ayesha, it hurts badly. “See in spite of that if people are not leaving this country and staying here it shows how much they love this country. Their love is more than the love of those who question their love,” she said and asked me how many of these people would continue to live in this country if they have to “pay price everyday” for being what they are? Getting a house, sending kids to a school, getting a gas connection- these things are not something which require great effort in a democratic country. “But for all these day to day things we have to struggle and there is no normalcy in our lives when these day to day things are affected,” she said and added, “We pay price for our identity every day in one or the other way. Yet we continue to stay because our love for this country is such.”

Coming back to the collection of poems she said, “I don’t know the literary merit of these poems. I am not a literary person. I don’t understand literature and aesthetics much.” While listening to this I wondered, what is the aesthetics of a response? What is the aesthetics of intervention? What is the aesthetics of catharsis? What is the aesthetics of therapy?

“I look at prosperity with great suspicion.” She said one wo/man’s stomach got filled the questions of identity and history start bothering him. It is not a coincidence, she said, that it is in well educated and “prospered” areas that are communally quite tensed. She then spoke of the anti-Nirma struggle by farmers in Gujarat which was a success and the struggle of fishermen in Bhadreshwar (Gujarat) which again was a success. Quoting these two examples she said, “These things don’t get reported in the national media the way they should be. These stories puncture the aura of Narendra Modi. The farmers and fishermen ensured that Modi’s development projects will not affect their lives. They stopped those projects. But its also because they are farmers and fishermen. It’s a matter of their livelihood. The middle-class with its want to prosper will never challenge anything.”

Then she asked me about the situation in Karnataka. I spoke briefly about the situation in my part of the world. From her expression it looked like she was familiar with the situation.

I took her leave and took an auto for a friend’s place. In the auto I opened the book randomly and found these lines:

Khuda hee karta hai hum faislaa nahi kartey 
Sitam ka karz sitam sey adaa nahi kartey. 

– Nadeem Sayyed Ali

The lord only decides not us
We don’t repay debt of atrocity with atrocity

Yes, the fact that in such troubled times people chose poetry and not retaliation is a hope. They chose word over sword.

The agony of troubled times was clearly searching for a language. It found a language. In language it found some catharsis. Sad, these voices did not reach people. Under tons of dust, I am sure, the books lie in some godown!


  1. Venkataraya Bhandary said,

    Dear Sam,
    This is one of your best articles.God bless

  2. Reema said,

    Great work Sam..I would love to read the book…just bring it along whenever you come to campus next..:)

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