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Growing Up in the Land in the Sufis and Dervishes

The situation in the Valley is terribly distressing. Fortunately, I got a chance to speak with my parents a little while ago. My father told me that he had managed to say his Eid prayers in our local Sonwar mosque but hadn’t been able to go to Khanqah-i-Mualla, the intricately carved and exquisitely painted shrine of Shah Hamadan on the banks of the Jhelum, which my paternal family has tremendous faith in.

Faith is a legacy of one’s upbringing, and I owe my ingrained reverence of Sufi dargahs to Mother and Father.

Votive rituals at shrines have been a part of the religious life of the Kashmiri Muslim community in which women as well as men participate. The wise say that, “faith can move mountains,” and I believe that my faith gives me the resoluteness to face the many whirlwinds that cause political chaos in my immediate as well as distant world.

I witnessed Mother’s and Grandmother’s ineradicable faith in the miracle attributed to Khawjah Moinuddin Chisti, thirteenth century Sufi saint of the Chisti order. I accompanied them to the shrine of Khawaja Moinuddin Chisti in Ajmer several times, which, according to them, was one of the most sacred sites for votive rituals. I remember being overwhelmed by the incontrovertible reverence with which they prostrated themselves at the shrine. The grandiose structure, the pennants around the edifice, the beautifully carved frieze around the imposing dome, and the reverence with which devotees flocked to the shrine provided a magnificent backdrop to Mother’s and Grandmother’s spirituality.

Grandmother believed, with a winsome credulity and clarity that praying at the portals of a hallowed site, or covering the grave of a saint with an embroidered cloth, would cure her of all afflictions and would restore the body politic of Kashmir before the scourge of undemocratic practices impaired it beyond recognition. Visitation at shrines and tombs was an integral part of her religious experience. She believed that one of the most efficient methods of deflecting malignant forces was the amulet, which is “a passage from scripture used as a prophylactic shield against harm or the container that holds the holy words” (Doumato 149). Grandmother, paradoxically, a well-educated and well-traveled woman, of a scientific temperament had an unshakable faith in specialized religious knowledge that enabled practitioners to “prepare writings for amulets, utter healing words correctly, and prescribe what were called Prophetic medicines” (Doumata 131).

I note that she had tremendous respect for what she called “real” learning as opposed to the regurgitation of tradition and rote memorization common, at the risk of generalization, to many people. She was quite willing to openly discuss political movements to meanings of customary practices and their implication for what was taught in the Quran.

While she lived at my parents’ house, she would enrich my Arabic and Quranic education. I was taught to read the Quran by a mild-mannered and congenial Maulvi, who, surprisingly, took delight in my childish pranks. He would relish his afternoon tea in the paneled study while listening to my rendition of the Quran, interspersed with shenanigans. But every time Grandmother would preside over the lesson, the Maulvi would magically metamorphose into a serious scholar and would grandiloquently recite religious verses in crescendo. Grandmother would listen to his recitation with her hands held up in supplication and tears flowing down her face. I am inclined to believe that a genuine mystical experience was invoked in her by the rhythmic sounds of the recitation.

She had studied religious scriptures comprehensively, and perceived a higher content in rituals and external observances than just the emotional response that is elicited by the sound of prayer. Grandmother did not propound a regressive discourse or a determinate concept of Islam. In other words, her religious and sociopolitical ideologies allowed negotiation between different value systems. This rigidity of a religious discourse that doesn’t enable such a negotiation rends the consciousness of the Kashmiri subject, who is caught in the quandary of living her life in the constant epistemological tension of having to take more than one reality system into account. Also, she would explain that the model of hierarchy between men and women might be institutionalized in legislations made and executed by the state or in Muslim Personal Law, but gender ideologies are neither impenetrable, nor do they remain fixed till kingdom come. Even when cultural values and religious law are incorporated into legislations, they are capricious and subject to personal discretion (Doumato 2000: 228).

It took me a while to forgive myself for not having been by Grandmother’s side when she passed away. On the morning of July 11, 2000, while gathering information about the latest happenings in Kashmir from internet sources in my sanctum sanctorum, the cluttered study, in Norman, I received a call from Father who informed me in a barely controllable voice that Grandmother had died at around 10:20 am that morning. At the time of her death, Mother, Father, Aunt Khalida, Uncle Mustafa, Mother’s cousin, Sheikh Nazir, and Grandmother’s cardiologist, Dr. Jalaluddin, had been with her. Mother tells me that while the rest of them were milling around Grandmother’s room, Uncle Mustafa had put his hands on his mother’s legs and, unable to hold back his emotions, had cried out that they were losing her. Grandmother, without uttering a word or expressing any emotion, had breathed her last in a doleful and funereal Valley.

Reader, I cannot express my grief and terrible sense of isolation at that moment in Norman, Oklahoma, where I could not break through self-created walls to pour my heart out to friends and acquaintances. It seemed so difficult to lift the mood of dispiritedness and melancholia that had engulfed my family and me. I was able to derive some solace, however, from the organization of a Nimaz-e-Janaza (funeral prayer) at every Masjid (mosque) in Oklahoma City. The Muslims of the community, even those who had never known her, gathered to offer their collective prayers for the salvation of the departed soul. In life as in death, it was her tenacious certitude that, “Glory belonged to God, and exalted was His majesty, and there was none to be served besides Him.”

Grandmother died a broken-hearted woman, having witnessed the distortion of her husband’s political agenda; the disintegration of the political and socioeconomic institutions built and fortified by her husband through decades of political wilderness, hardship, ferocious opposition, and seemingly unsurpassable trials that had taken their toll on him. Grandmother had bolstered her husband’s strength, his political commitment, and assiduously worked toward the materialization of his vision. In his years of incarceration, she had raised five children, three sons and two daughters by herself, in a politically repressive environment that peripheralized and sought to erase the ideological bulwark of which she had been one of the architects. Despite the palpable hostility toward the Sheikh in the 1990s and the attribution of false motives to him and the organization led by him, his political credo remained an article of faith for Akbar Jehan. The Sheikh, despite the political compromises and expediencies required in the oscillating and vast spectrum of subcontinental politics, believed that the course of Kashmir’s political destiny would be charted by the people of Kashmir:

Yih mulk tumhara hai, yih mulk kisi aur ka nahin.

Yih Roos, America, Pakistan ya Hindustan ka nahin hai.

Yih mulk yahin ke Hinduon, Musalmanon aur Sikhon ka hai. (Quoted in Beg, 47)

This land [Kashmir] belongs to you, not to anyone else.

It does not belong to either Russia, or America, or Pakistan, or India.

The land belongs to the Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs of Kashmir. (translation is mine)

The thought of making the adjustment to being the last remnant of a dying world wasn’t a pleasant one. With the death of the Sheikh in 1982, Grandmother had lost the emotional center of her life. With the inception of the disintegration of the sociopolitical fabric of J & K in 1989, the values for which she had made great sacrifices slowly fell apart. The woman who had played a significant role in the consolidation of democratic elements in J & K, who had braved many a storm to bolster the Sheikh’s fight for self-determination for the Kashmiri people watched, with pain-filled eyes, her ideology being made redundant not only by the militarized interventions of India and Pakistan, but also by the fragmentation in Kashmiri society. Grandmother Akbar Jehan had been one of the pioneers of the broadening of the intellectual and cultural horizon in J & K and, toward the end of her life, watched that horizon violently diminishing.

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Nyla Ali Khan is the author of Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, and the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir. Nyla Ali Khan has also served as an guest editor working on articles from the Jammu and Kashmir region for Oxford University Press (New York), helping to identify, commission, and review articles. She can be reached at nylakhan@aol.com.

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