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Arrested Eyes – A Poem

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Today I felt so dead

That I could do nothing

I thought

I might as well

Try

To coax the feeling into words

Words and words and more words

Words like a blanket

To seek comfort in

To give up on the day

To admit defeat

At least for the present

 

The present as defined by

This moment

This chained series of hours

Until the deadness fades once again

To unleash another round of anger

Anger and agony

Helpless anger, constructive anger, creative anger

Like creative deadness?

 

For the crack of the whip

Is not just being heard now

Now, this time

The lash of the whip is being felt

During these long, long days

As it was intended to

Article 370

Its revocation, its repeal, its abrogation

Its –

‘Reorganisation’

But who even has been thinking of its merits and demerits

Of various administrative aspects

Let us not insult the decision-makers

They are straightforward folk

 

No, no, the purpose is quite clear

Clear as those smiles of sly, unspoken triumph

On lips which present careful ‘analysis’

The purpose was to give pain

To grab your heart and squeeze

Until your hands flail, your limbs quiver, and you’re ready to beg

Beg the world, beg them

Beg anyone and everyone

The purpose

Was to stretch you taut like a kite-string

Until you snap

Mentally, physically

 

A neatly executed piece of theatre

All eyes trained to the stage

The suspense, the curtain, the lights dimming and flickering

The gasps, the screams, the illusion of gasps and screams

Such a minimalist stage set

Why set things on fire

When you can create an illusion of flame and fire

Flame and fire, light and shadows, sparks and sounds, and silence

Bloodcurdling sounds, bloodcurdling silence

 

The taste of water is the taste of fear

The taste of bread is the taste of fear

Long, drawn-out fear

And then deadness

 

We who thought to look away

Out of civility, out of courtesy

Out of a desire not to look like those who do not self-reflect

“It’s a phase,” we hoped

A painful phase that comes over nations sometimes

But then they elected him again

By an even bigger margin

And we had nothing left to say

We were embarrassed for them

And for ourselves

No longer could we make the polite argument that it was done because

Of some possible hope and belief in development

It was a vote for hate

A vote for the promise to cause hurt

To show someone their place

Teach someone a lesson they will never forget

 

This wife who dared to break away

And make a public statement that she can live without me

She must be taught that she is but a woman

That it is mywill that will still prevail

She may leave, but I have hostages

I will make it hard for her to look away

Even though she experiments with amnesia

In her desire to forget and move on

 

When the lynchings began

We looked, we winced

But then we wished them the best in overcoming this ‘phase’

We are no stranger to the unreasoning frenzy of the crowds

But it started happening absurdly often

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We tried not to fixate on it

For the sake of our own health

These lynched ones are mostly very poor people, we said

Everywhere in the world, the poor bear the brunt of discrimination and violence

May their society’s progress and development bring them tolerance and security

We tried to look away, as much as we could

What’s the use, we said, of staring agog?

Are we getting pleasure from seeing how our coreligionists are suffering?

From being ‘proven correct’?

There is enough hysteria in this world

Our anger can help no one, it can only make matters worse

We must just wait it out

We must try to look away and focus on the things we can help improve inside our own house

 

When the films, when the television, when the news all filled with hate for us

Sometimes outright hatred

Other times hatred disguised as love and peace and understanding

It was as if they were rapidly forgetting us

Us, who had become part of their own aesthetic DNA

Us, who many of their ancestors had understood so much better

They were forgetting us and replacing us with a horrendous image

And expecting us to purchase it, to not be unhappy with it

 

We shook our head in despair and bafflement

Wishing that they would treat us as invisible, as non-existent

Wishing they would not prod in such uncivil ways into the affairs of another religious community

If our thoughts and existence were so abhorrent to them

We wished that they would erase us from their discourse, render us invisible

Render us invisible, rather than render themselves crazed and manic over us

We asked and explained, but to little avail

It was difficult to even get the gifted and aware to understand what it is that they were tacitly doing

So, we gave up and decided to try and look away

To leave them to their own devices

And seek pleasure in embellishing our own universe

Because, thanks be to God, we at least had the option to do so

But now, as if in revenge for our temerity in trying to hide

They have ordered matters thus

That we cannot look away

 

The world can look away, but we cannot look away

From this colossal drama unfolding before our arrested gaze

This war of attrition

Of shadowy deeds committed unconfirmed

Water dripping on stone, drop by drop

Eating away at our imagination, our strength, our endurance

 

It’s all just unconfirmed rumours

We don’t really know that they’ve done anything – new

But they have preyed on our fears

So. Very. Artistically

In a way the world has never before seen

Hats off to them

It doesn’t matter what comes now

Their purpose was clear

In light of that purpose, their move has been a success

Its purpose has been fulfilled

Beyond their crudest imaginings

 

It would have been nice to be able to cry

But our tears are frozen

Our tears are frozen

We who had thought we had seen everything by now

Wars, bombs, ambushes, mutilations

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Yet this

What we are seeing here and now, shocked and disbelieving

“It took us by surprise”, the civilised among them say

Like an unexpected guest who had not called before arriving with flowers and a cake

Like an underrated bowler who suddenly took six wickets

“It should have been discussed beforehand”

This, what we are seeing

Tense and waiting, unable to glance away

Is something not yet featured in our impressive portfolio of ‘resilience’

Right now, we each have two pairs of eyes

One that observes the roads we walk, the cities where we live

And another that watches and waits for news

It is odd to discover we are capable of motion

Of dressing, of eating, of offering greetings

Our face has two simultaneous lives

One of stillness, one of smiles

Our distractions are all fruitful and futile

 

We who have mourned the dead, masses of dead

How do we mourn the living?

 

It would have been nice to be able to cry

Our tears are frozen

In rebellion against the normalcy of our outward day

In submission to the silence of our inner night

 

We stretch out a hand before us to gently stroke

The misty vision of a different future for this new generation

The vision flows through our fingers, escaping us

Vanishing as if it had never been

 

The globe revolves, completing the cycle of day and night
It completes its journey around the sun, marking the change from year to year
But certain things remain the same
The fate of one generation cannot differ from the next, it seems
Except to become worse
With the anguish being recorded as never before

Images and voices being beamed out miles away

Bringing sharp pain to some and pleasure to others

 

[shab raft o sahar na-shud, shab aamad]

Night passed, and morning did not arrive; night arrived

 

Allow me to retreat

Into an unworld I can bear

Kashmir just means cashmere

A mythical land that gave name to a kind of wool

It was never a place

Never had people

It was all just imagination

It only lived in people’s minds

People are foolish

I know better

I live in a world of poetry

And unreal things

That enclose in a haze

Like lissom coils of smoke unfurling before my eyes

Enfolding me inside the blanket

– Aug 17, 2019

Zahra Sabri is a doctoral student in Indo-Muslim history and Literatures at McGill University, Canada. She is a literary translator and has translated folk and classical poetry from various South Asian languages. She has also worked as a journalist and taught History and Literature at several universities in Karachi.

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