Image source: Asia Pacific Screen Awards
“Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox,
my home a neat four by six inches.”
-Agha Shahid Ali, A Postcard from Kashmir
How many narratives must exist for the truth to be asserted? How many existences must go unnoticed for death to be ascertained? In the reveries of narratives, two film narratives, Tahaan (2008), directed by Santosh Sivan and Hamid (2018), directed by Aijaz Khan are woven together by the sacred red yarn, binding the Jhelum with these tales, and these tales with Shahid. For as long as I can remember, I receive fractured impressions of Kashmir, sitting here in Delhi through Agha Shahid Ali. What do I know about Kashmir? All that Shahid sings, all the dreams that he has penned- the nostalgia and the loss, and the slow churning of his emotions ironically into neat postcards for easy consumption. In which language do we read Shahid? In the language of mourning, in the language of an all pervading loss over everything that existed “before the cry existed” (Existed, Agha Shahid Ali).
A Call, Agha Shahid Ali
I close my eyes. It doesn’t leave me,
The cold moon of Kashmir which breaks into my house
and steals my parents’ love.
I open my hands:
empty, empty. This cry is foreign.
Tahaan and Hamid are tied together primarily by the virtue of the perspectives they represent. Both films explore the lives of children in Kashmir without a childhood. Experiencing direct or latent emotional violence, these boys, aged 8 and 7 respectively experience the cold winds of Kashmir’s landscape in search of their lost homes. While Tahaan finds that solace in his sole companion, Birbal, the donkey; Hamid finds the same in the call he makes to Allah. Both the narratives are plagued heavily with the sense of loss- Tahaan and Hamid, before anything else, have lost their childhood. In Kashmir, it is not only the people who go missing, but also life from the living. In their search for paternal love, they experience the excruciating geographical and emotional landscape; an innocence of childhood laced with the complexities of the political atmosphere…
“When will you come home?”
Father asks, then asks again.
The ocean moves into the wires.
The Home is always a lost land. You don’t belong anywhere because your roots are scathed, worn out, and almost ruptured. Parched of existence, both Tahaan and Hamid experience the struggle of living with the idea of an absent father. While Tahaan latches his hope onto Birbal, his speechless mother struggles to find the whereabouts of his father. On the other hand, Hamid, having experienced the disappearance of his father, ardently expresses his desire to speak to Allah once for ensuring the well-being of his father. Both women, distraught and worn out by the hopeless situation, strive to find their husbands, scrounging through countless bodies that keep appearing in the mortuaries. They are not the only ones doing this: photographs of such disappearing people keep increasing in number. Both films comprise the shocking frame of a collage of such disappearances- fathers who have been away from the children, lost without a trace in the cold winds of Kashmir. All men become only this: a photograph. All women spend their lifetimes without knowing whether their husbands are dead or alive. All children, nonetheless, remain fatherless.
I shout, “Are you all happy?”
The line goes dead.
The waters leave the wires.
What is it to be happy in a place strewn with bodies under the earth and lifeless people above it? What ray of hope shines upon Kashmir to allow these young lives to thrive? Hamid, with a worn out shoe, keeps looking for Allah’s number to pass a message to his father. Hamid’s mother doesn’t switch off the TV in the hope that one day some news of his father will arrive. Tahaan traverses landscapes every day in the hope that one day he will be reunited with Birbal, his only hope for survival. At a tender age, he handles a grenade as he has been promised Birbal in exchange of the task. His speechless mother thrives to make the ends meet and ensure safety for her children amidst the violence in Kashmir.
The sea is quiet, and over it
the cold, full moon of Kashmir.
When you interrogate any loss, all you find is an all pervasive quietness. What can be really said of loss? The sensitive Hamid notices his mother’s withdrawal as she assumes oblivion by immersing herself in cathartic act of undoing the sweater that she had been knitting for her husband. Tahaan has unwillingly accepted the occasional periods of tremor his mother experiences as she empties herself out at the Dargah.
A sublime moment in Tahaan portrays all the characters in a moment of peace as Tahaan’s grandfather narrates a fable for everyone. As his story unfolds, Tahaan’s mother continues to unwind the red yarn. Red yarn thereby becomes a poignant metaphor in both films, a metaphor for paradise lost and paradise regained. Hamid fulfills his father’s long lost dream of painting the boat red, taking it for a ride in Jhelum with his mother.
The moon still shines over Kashmir. Friendships are the saving graces in both the films, nurturing hope and faith even in the lost times. As stillness reigns over the grim landscape of Kashmir, both films portray soul-saving moments of solidarity and brotherhood. The only thing that can save the childhood for these children is the hope for preservation and companionship of their dreams and hope, and their conscious desires. The sacred number, 786, becomes an important number for Hamid and his scientifically-aware family as all their hopes and dreams invested in the return of his father are rekindled with the accidental call. These chance encounters and accidental friendships are important narrative driving forces for both the films, and in the lives of people.
Agha Shahid Ali’s A Call is a poignant poem interrogating an internalized experience of the latent violence one has experienced through exile. Exile, not only from a geographical land, but a displacement from one’s mental and emotional comfort, from a sense, rather the only sense of home. This poem now bears a testimony to the experiences common to the narratives of both the films. His poetry brings out the dissenting voices of the people in exile, never having a homeland to call their own. These children with absent fathers, in the same state of oblivion to their own state of belongingness.
Shahid translated the poem, “Eleven Stars Over Andalusia”, written by Mahmoud Darwish. Two lines from the poem are, as follows:
Violins weep for a time that does not return
Violins weep for a homeland that might return
The homeland for these children is never lost, the home is yet never found. What remains is a feeble hope of some kind of restoration, conservation, or preservation; the hope that we will continue to be stubborn even in our death.