As she was stepping out of her session at a literary festival in Chennai, earlier this month, a huge billboard caught Nighat Sahiba’s eye. The board invited people to write the name of a book that changed their lives. The poet wrote her answer in bold red colour: The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir. As someone who grew up in a village in Kashmir and for a long time thought that men tried to control her movements due to brotherly concern, that may have been a watershed moment.
“A friend had asked me to read The Second Sex and it had truly changed my life,” said Nighat.
Nighat began writing poems as a teenager but like most teenagers, she decided against showing them to her family.
“They probably would not object to my poetry, but I was trained to think it would upset them because at that age, I wrote on personal relationships, love and separation. But when I decided to show my poems to my elder brother, he showed it to his professor and friends. They liked it, and told me I showed some promise,” she recalls.
In Chennai for the Hindu Lit For Life festival, Nighat struck a heartwarming friendship with her co-panelist Jacinta Kerketta, an Adivasi poet from West Singhbhum district in Jharkhand.
A conversation with the two friends, who belong to states and communities torn by State violence, turns into a fascinating discussion on the power of words and the role of poetry.
“I write in Hindi because I want to speak to the perpetrators of injustice and violence on my community in their own language. I write in their language so they will know what we think of them”
Jacinta, who hails from the Kurukhar community (also called Oraon), speaks the Kurukh language, which is her mother tongue.
“The name Oraon was given to us by the Hindu mainstream society to degrade us. I would like to identify myself as belonging to Kurukhar community,” said Jacinta.
She prefers to write her poetry in Hindi for a number of reasons.
“People are never worried about why my mother tongue is disappearing but when I say I write in Hindi, they have questions. I write in Hindi because I want to speak to the perpetrators of injustice and violence on my community in their own language. I write in their language so they will know what we think of them,” she said.
“Also it gets translated into English,” she said.
Jacinta’s poems are brutally honest about the struggles Adivasi communities face in the face of the onslaught of ‘development’. Her poetry is a powerful account of the injustices perpetrated on the community by the mainstream society. In one of her poems, she writes:
My Pet Dog was murdered
For the sole reason
That it had barked on seeing a danger.
It was declared rabid
Before being killed
And I a Naxal…
In Public interest.
“I would prefer to write in my mother tongue, because my language has no word that abuses women. Strange it might sound, but a word like ‘randi’ in Hindi is treated with some empathy in my language. It means ‘widow’. Yet, I need to write in Hindi,” she said.
Nighat empathises—but there is a twist. This is why she prefers writing her poems in Kashmiri and Urdu, the languages close to her heart.
“A language is more than a mode of communication. It has a culture to it, a history. When I write in Kashmiri or Urdu, I make a very emphatic statement. Like Jacinta says, there is no word for rape in Kashmiri. We had such rich culture and yet look at what we are forced to suffer today,” she said.
When Jacinta first came in conflict with power and saw how her community was persecuted for no fault of theirs, she decided she wanted to write about it.
“My uncle was murdered by dominant caste members when I was in school and the mainstream media reported it as human sacrifice made by our community. That is when I decided I should be a journalist. But later, I realized I am not doing much as a journalist. But poetry has given me a voice that is heard. I have travelled many countries, picked many awards and continue fighting for my community. Poetry changed my life,” she said.
Nighat couldn’t agree more. “I had this deep desire to be known as a poet. Growing up and living in Kashmir, I had so much to say. We grew up in a highly militarised atmosphere. Kashmir has one military person for every 17 civilians. For women, it was more difficult. Our parents hesitated to send us to schools and colleges. I had so much to say, but nobody was willing to listen.”
That was when she began writing poems.
“When I write in Kashmiri or Urdu, I make a very emphatic statement. Like Jacinta says, there is no word for 'rape' in Kashmiri. We had such rich culture and yet look at what we are forced to suffer today”
Nighat’s poetry, which has images of both violence and resistance, is torn between the irresistible need to express oneself and the fear of being killed on doing so:
I expressed only what you whimed to
Else what wishes my heart didn’t mark?!
No sooner did my verses take birth,
Then I strangulated them, as two cents
The Throat of the Couplets and the
Rhymes I slit
The refrain, the metaphors too I away
Burned the letters, the words to the
Gallows I did send
What else I possessed for sacrifice to
Jacinta’s mother was insistent that she get an education.
“My mother knew education was going to redeem us. Also, when she realised that Hindi will take us to places, she stopped speaking in our mother tongue and encouraged us to speak in Hindi at home. I did mass communication in a local college but I started writing poetry when I was in Class 8. I was staying away from my family to do my education. It helped me speak to myself. And I had to write poetry.”
She always knew poetry would take her life forward.
Both Jacinta and Nighat are torchbearers in the environment that they live in.
“I feel responsible in that I am an icon of sorts in my community. They have seen me grow; they have seen that my poetry has taken me to places. Now they know what it means to express ourselves in the mainstream. Our voices are beginning to be counted, and it is a huge change,” said Jacinta.
Nighat is perhaps among the few women voices in Kashmiri literary landscape.
“We have had powerful women like Lalla Ded and Habba Khatoon writing powerful poetry, and then it is kind of forsaken. For 200 years, there are no women writing poetry. But to me, it is impossible that there were no women voices. It is possible that the voices got lost, that the poetry had got vanished. In a place of conflict, the women are first affected. They are most vulnerable, yet the vulnerabilities are never allowed to express themselves in powerful ways.”
Both Jacinta and Nighat believe in the ‘poet’s obligation to be a witness to the times they live in’. But their lived experiences make them more than witnesses.
To Jacinta, it is not just about being a witness but being part of the change. “We take our verses from common people, yet how many writers stand with common people when it comes to issues? How many writers actually want to go out there and be part of their struggles? I want to be known as people’s poet. That is where I come from, that is where I belong to.”