Interview by Majid Maqbool
Rahman Rahi’s residence in Vecharnag is on a slightly elevated ground. An air of melancholic loneliness surrounds the poet’s house. I ring the bell of the small, old style wooden door. Rahi Sahab himself comes out, and quietly greets me in. “Vaelev yaeve, taapas behvee kene andar bahmaeu,” (Come in. Should we sit in the garden or inside?). We sat in the garden, where it is warm with the sun directly coming down on a pleasant Sunday morning. Rahi sahab goes inside briefly to put on his coat. I need a table to place the recorder on. Rahi sahab, immediately sensing my need as soon as he came out, went back to get the table for me. Before I switch on the tape recorder, he makes me feel comfortable with a light chat, offers me tea, and then he politely asks: should we begin? He says that he is not fluent in English. But knowing that the interview is for an English publication, he answers all the questions in English. And contrary to his confession, Rahi sahab spoke in impeccable English throughout the interview.
Rahman Rahi has an emphatic and poetic way of speaking. He talks in an animated voice as if he is in front of an audience. And his eyes light up like a child whenever he speaks about Kashmiri language and literature. As he talks, a beatific smile plays on his lips. A special kind of love affair for Kashmiri language reflects in his answers. He is hopeful of the future of Kashmiri language. He also says that we must learn the English language but cautions in the same breath: if there’s no Kashmiri language, there will be no Kashmiri, and hence there will be no Kashmir.
How do you see the future of Kashmiri language, say, after thirty or forty years?
The thing is that whichever the nation, if it is conscious of the importance of its language, nobody can kill that language. We have a very glaring example of the Israelis before us. They were scattered throughout the world, speaking different languages but they had the idea of their language i.e. Hebrew. When they came together, they revived it, they enriched it and made it a viable medium of expression and education and all other intellectual pursuits. So it depends on people, and if they are not conscious, they will lose their identity. They will lose their very being as a separate or as a distinct nationality or nation. Kashmiri language is a nation in itself by all means and by all angles. It has its own civilization and its own culture. But I don’t think Kashmiris are as conscious of Kashmiri language as they used to be earlier.
There is a cultural onslaught on us. So we have to resist it, and preserve our language. Not that we should hate or oppose other languages. We must learn other languages. For example, our younger generation must learn English. The more language we learn and speak, the better it is for us. Especially the English language, it is an international language, it is the language of future, it is the language of knowledge and it is the library language also. So we can’t do away with it, we must learn it. But to start with if we want to educate our young people and educate the nation in the real sense of the word, and if we want to have real concepts of things around us—that can be done only through our mother tongue. Because every language has at least three meanings: every word has three meanings: the dictionary meaning, the emotional meaning and the cultural meaning.
If you look for the meaning of a word in dictionary, you will have the definition there but without the emotional meaning and without its cultural background. There are some words which you can speak with me but cannot speak with your mother or your sister. It will be perhaps uncultured to talk in those words before your elders. For example, I can say I am glad, I am pleased, I enjoy — these are three different words. There is actually no equivalent for a word. In the dictionary you will find equivalents, but emotionally and culturally words are different. For example, in Kashmiri when someone sees a young girl and says, “yeha che katej heish bolaan”. Now try translating this Kashmiri expression into English. Will you say ‘she speaks like a swallow!’ Or will you say in Urdu — yae ababeel ke tarah boltee hai! So it completely distorts the meaning and it even becomes derogatory.
Let me give you another example in Urdu language. In Urdu there are two words. One word is ‘aues’ that falls on the grass; it is also called ‘shabnam’. If you look in the dictionary for the meaning of ‘shabnam’, it would be same as ‘aues’ and vice versa. But these are two different words. We say in Urdu—’uskay armanoo par aues padaee’. We don’t say, ‘auskay armanoo par shabnam padee’. We can’t say ‘shabnam’ here in this expression because its emotional meaning is different.
Everybody sees the moon, be it the Russian, African or American, but Kashmiri sees it differently. We say ‘zoon mouj.’ We see it as a mother. And someone whose language is Urdu, he will say ‘chanda mama’. So the way you find this world depends on your language. You see it through your language. English and other languages, you will learn, but that will be only intellectually. You will have only the dictionary meaning. And if you ignore your mother tongue that means you ignore two essential aspects of your personality–the emotional aspect of your personality and the cultural aspect of your personality. So you can’t develop your personality as an individual also without your mother tongue. Yes, you can have the emotional meaning of English language provided that you live throughout in that atmosphere or in that environ. So this is the importance of our mother tongue.
Do you think that Kashmiri youth are going away from their mother tongue? And who is to blame for this?
You can’t accuse them because our education system is such that they are deprived of their own mother tongue. It is not their fault; it is the fault of our education system. Our education system must change and give preference and importance to our own mother tongue. The whole world agrees with this. Even the United Nations recently organized Mother Tongue Day throughout the world. We have the example of Iran before us, they are Muslims like us and they love their language and protect it.
Our education system has now become a little conscious of it and they have introduced Kashmiri language into schools after a long, long time. Kashmir language was once introduced when Sheikh Abdullah was the prime minister. From 1948-1953 Kashmiri language not only was the part and parcel of our syllabus but it was a medium of instruction also. All the subjects were taught in Kashmiri. And if that process had prolonged and come to our times, Kashmiri language would have been very much developed.
What was the reason behind this?
Sheikh Abdullah was politically not acceptable those days to the Indian government and they put him behind the bars and along with him this language was put behind the bars. Sheikh Abdullah came out of the prison, but our language did not come out from behind the bars. Now the government is a little conscious of it. It was Farooq Abdullah first who realized the importance of Kashmiri language. There were intellectuals who met him and made him understand the importance of this language and it was he who took the cabinet decision to introduce Kashmiri language at the primary class level. Perhaps this government is also adhering to that line. But ultimately what happens to our mother tongue is dependent on the attitude of the people.
How has Kashmiri language evolved from the past? Do you see any change in it over the years?
Kashmiri language has a very rich tradition. It is the most important language so far as the history of language is concerned. It is the oldest language of all these modern Indian languages. There are people who say that it is as old as Vedas. There was a time when people used to think and scholars thought that Kashmiri language is the daughter of Persian and Sanskrit. But now the conclusion at the scholastic level is that that Kashmiri language is a sister of Persian and Sanskrit, not a daughter. It is at least as old as Sanskrit and Persian. And so far as its creative potential is concerned, it has a very, very rich potential. You have the evidence in the form of Lal Ded and Sheik-ul-alam (RA) —a chain of very great poets up to this time. So that way we should be proud of our language. But the only thing is that we must become conscious of the onslaught of other cultures and languages too. There are people who want to kill our language for different reasons. They want us to lose our identity and we have to protect it. We speak of our freedom, and our independencebut we must also have this point in mind that our language is one part of our independence and a very important aspect. If we lose our language and get independence, that is perhaps not fruitful.
Where do you place Kashmiri language and literature as compared to other languages and their literature?
Kashmiri language has been recognized by all knowledgeable people in India and outside that it is one of the most important languages. And our literature recently got national recognition. So our language is as important and full of treasure as any other language. It has been ignored by all political systems we had right up from the Mughals up to this time this language has been ignored. Now we wish and hope that things will be better.
You were awarded the prestigious Gyanpith award, and you said that this is an award for Kashmiri language and literature…
This award that has been given to me as a person is in fact recognition to Kashmiri language and the people who speak this language. Their identity has been accepted. And it is a national award which means that every year they give this Gyanpith award. There were many languages competing for this award and only Kashmiri language was estimated as an important language at the national level. A Kashmiri poet has been recognized as a national poet. Before this award also, I was fortunate enough to receive another award called Rashtriye Kabir Samaan which is also a national award. They didn’t give this award that particular year to Bengali or Malayalam or any other language. But Kashmiri language was selected for the award out of all other competing language. So that means a virtual and actual recognition of Kashmiri language as a national language. It has already been accepted as national language. In the eighth schedule of Indian constitution also it has already been accepted as one of the national languages. And it is as important as Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and other languages. Indian constitution had earlier recognized only seventeen languages and one of the languages was Kashmiri. Later on other languages have also been also included in that eight schedule of constitution.
How do you see the trend of Kashmiri Journalism, and do you think this will popularize Kashmiri language among the masses?
This trend is very good and it should be appreciated and welcomed by all. We must try to encourage such efforts as these are very important steps for the language. We have the example of Sangarmal and another very good weekly, Soun Meeras.
How flexible is Kashmiri language in terms of adoption of words from other languages?
Perhaps incomparable! Our language has all along been enriching itself with words from other languages. It accepts them and adapts them. It changes their pronunciation and it changes sometimes their meaning too. There are hundreds of words which originated from Sanskrit or Persian or Arabic but when we use them, we are not conscious of that. We use them consciously or subconsciously as if they are our own words. And so is the case with other languages also. If you look at English, it has improved itself by adapting words from French, German and other languages. Even original Kashmiri words have been introduced into English language, for instance the word deodar and Hangeul.
How far is the reach of Kashmiri language? Is it specific to our region only?
Kashmiri language is spoken in many parts of our state which are not included in this valley. For instance Kishtwar, Badarwah, Doda—and even in Himachal Pradesh you will find Kashmiri speaking people. And now Pandits have spread throughout India and they are very conscious of their Kashmiri language. Our young generation must become conscious of their mother tongue. People in some private schools banned Kashmiri language from being spoken inside the school premises. They would not allow it to be spoken inside the schools. And if this situation continues, then how can you help it. So the speakers of the language itself are responsible and they can play a very important role in protecting our language. Now the look at rulers and politicians, they want votes. Politicians go to a village, there are many pockets of our society where they know and speak only Kashmiri language. And our politicians go and speak in Urdu there! We must become conscious that our language is a nation in itself.
What is it about Kashmiri language that once you’re away from your motherland you have this irresistible urge to speak and reconnect with your mother tongue?
People experience isolation once away from their roots. And they want to maintain links with their roots. Kashmiri Pandits hardly spoke in Kashmiri when they were here; they were as ignorant of the linguistic realities that they didn’t speak Kashmiri with a sense of pride. Now they are speaking in Kashmiri language as they are away from their roots and they’ve become conscious of their roots.
What are the latest trends in Kashmiri literature especially in Kashmiri poetry?
Kashmiri language has had a great tradition of mystic literature and romantic literature. Later we came in contact with other languages also like Urdu, Persian and English. So new windows were opening and cultural ties were strengthened. We had no prose in Kashmiri literature but now it has developed. Our short stories qualitatively are as great as those of any other language and literature and so is the poetry. So far as the changing trends are concerned, our poetry has adapted itself to all the changes in conformation with their own tradition. So the old traditions and new influences are there. And that way our Kashmiri literature is a living and vibrant literature.
What about the translation of Kashmiri literature into other languages to make it available to non-Kashmiri speaking people?
Thus is very important and translation must be done. For instance when I don’t know Bengali how can I know who was Tagore, so is the case with other languages also. We have been asking for and demanding the concerned circles that we must have a separate translation bureau here, either at the university or at the cultural academy. This will help in translating Kashmiri literature into other languages and literature of other languages into Kashmiri which will help in enriching our language. We don’t have scientific literature in Kashmir at the moment. And if we have a translation bureau here, it will definitely enrich our language.
How do you see the Kashmiri literature in terms of quality that is being written today? Are you happy with it?
Yes, very much. But our short story perhaps is not that powerful and that way desirable as it was two decades before. But there are younger writers now who are writing. I am not despondent. I am hopeful, and especially the Kashmiri poetry which is as good and as fine as any poetry of the world. But we must have readers and people who speak this language. There have been languages which are dead now because the speakers of those languages did not carry on the tradition and with the result those languages became extinct. They say that every day some language becomes extinct in the world. So our language can also die out if we don’t care. And if Kashmiri language dies, it means a Kashmiri is dead, and that means Kashmir is dead. People talk of Kashmiriyat; that is a hoax unless you have the Kashmiri language. We take pride in our mystic past of Lal Ded, Sheik-ul- alam (RA)—and that is because of Kashmiri language. If you uproot this Kashmiri language, there will be no Lal Ded, there will be no Sheik-ul- alamc(RA)—and may I remind you that we call the Sheik-ul- alam’s (RA) kalaam as the Kashmiri Quran. That means we have learnt Islam through Kashmiri language.
If I ask you how should people of Kashmir remember Rahman Rahi?
They should pay attention to the development of Kashmiri language. That’s all. And if this language lives on, Rahi also lives on. (Smiles)
I will quote a couplet from my poem:
Hasab nasab te mashed goyee, na taaj chea na asa
Waen chae yea zaev, te dapaan chea kashab racheat di sada
translation: You have forgotten you ancestry, your hierarchy, your old past. You have this language left now, call back your own past again
Majid Maqbool a writer and journalist is a recipient of numerous writing fellowships is based in Kashmir.