"It’s never a straight line"

March 20, 2016

An exclusive interview with the Kashmiri poet and the first non-Irish recipient of Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award, Rafiq Kathwari

Take a walk around Rafiq Kathwari’s brain -- there’s gold and grief in the shadows, guarded by beautiful, strange creatures nobody else has seen. His poetry leaves the reader with a sense of danger, of language teetering on the edge of a precipice, between centuries, between continents, between fleetingly improvised realms, suspended between memory and invention, reality and nothingness.

Rafiq Kathwari is the first non-Irish recipient of the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award, in the 44-year history of the award, for his debut collection In Another Country. Born, as he puts it, "a Scorpio at midnight" in Kashmir Valley, he obtained an MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University and a Masters in Political and Social Science from the New School University. He has translated selected poems of Sir Muhammad Iqbal from the original Urdu. He divides his time between New York, Baile Ui Mhaonain in County Louth, and Kashmir.

A natural actor, even though he missed out on movies as a kid, a literate craftsman who can play a New York gentleman, and a man suited to his profession due to a chronic wanderlust, Kathwari blurs the boundaries, talking to The News on Sunday in the lounge upstairs at Beach Luxury Hotel in Karachi at the KLF. Excerpts follow.

The News on Sunday: How did you take to writing poetry, of all the literary genres?

Rafiq Kathwari: It was always in me as, I think, it is in all of us. And if you are fortunate enough to be part of a group of workshops among a society of friends, you can help bring it out. Then, you are a lucky person.

It was always with me ever since I was growing up in Kashmir, wherever life took me. It’s never a straight line -- there are always loops and, in my case, there were too many of them, spiralling downwards, taking me away from what was inherently there. I arrived in the United States in 1971 when I was twenty years old, which isn’t too long ago!

TNS: Can we return to the days you spent growing up in Kashmir?

RQ: Both my parents were Kashmiri, living in Srinagar. I finished school as well as college at Sri Pratap College, which is named after one of the Dogra Maharajahs. After college, the outward journey started. When I was one year old, the family was split apart. My mother and four of my siblings had to cross over from Kashmir to Pakistan because the Kashmiri government cancelled my father’s return permit from Lahore. My father was a political person; he was a lawyer who had studied at Aligarh. He was very close to MA Jinnah. When Jinnah came to Kashmir, my family hosted him. He took a liking to my father, and my father was assigned to escort him. Wherever Jinnah went, my father went with him. They had long conversations. My father also took some really great shots of Jinnah, which are in the National Gallery (somewhere in Pakistan). We lost the negatives in the floods in Kashmir in 1913-14.

In other words, my father was a Muslim Leaguer. That being the case, my family was politically active ever since the days of Quit Kashmir Movement in the ‘30s. So, there was always talk of politics in the family. You may fast forward time from there to the split in the family due to Partition or whatever the circumstances were.

Two of my siblings stayed in Kashmir with my grandfather; three went with my mom to Pakistan; and the sixth one was born in Muzaffarabad. My father then had to support the family, and he did whatever he could: he joined politics -- first in Azad Kashmir and, later on, in WPIDC. It spread the family up for 10-12 years. It split my mother’s mind because she wanted the family to grow together. She started to lose her mind in many ways. During the Ayub regime, we got return permits, excepting my father’s. Whether or not it was a good decision to send us back, history’s proved it all right. Whether or not it was good for my father who eventually returned to Kashmir another six years, it was a disaster for him as history proved him wrong.

TNS: How did you land up in the US, and how did the New School of Social Research, NYC, nurture your talent?

RQ: First, my elder brother went to the US because my father had already been sent to the States by the Pakistan government to direct the New York World Fair in 1964. Subsequently, I joined my brother in 1971. We lived there as immigrants for whatever it took. Then I joined the New School.

At that time it was called the New School of Social Research. It was formed by a group of intellectuals who had fled Nazi Germany, and aligned themselves in the University of Chicago, raised money and formed the New School, oriented towards German studies in Marxism, Hegel, Nietzsche, Hannah Arendt, great intellectual of the 20th century, Saul Padover, with the final work on Jefferson, Jacob Landowsky who was a New York Jew and a Rabbi rolled into one with enormous knowledge of American Constitutional Law, were the people I studied with. In New York, somebody gave me a copy of Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews. I read that as much as I could.

Coming from Kashmir, I had no idea that such a thing had happened because I had lived a relatively sheltered family life -- Convent School, Burn Hall School, and so forth. Another friend of the New School gave me a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. We’d been exposed to poetry in Kashmir -- the standard Romantic fare like Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Eliot etc., but nothing like Ginsberg. This was the Vietnam era.

I had spent eleven months in Calcutta before coming to the States. In Calcutta, at that time, the US Marines used to come en route to Hanoi or Saigon. Calcutta exposed me to classical literature, to friends, the Godfather novel, etc. I was exposed to western music, to Mahalia Jackson for the first time giving a performance. I was exposed to friends like yourself who wrote for The Statesman, and the critics; and I was exposed to people who were bookish like myself.

What I would do in Kashmir was to go to the book fair and buy a book; whether or not I read it was a different issue. Remember, there was no TV, at least, not in Kashmir.

TNS: Allen Ginsberg was a seminal figure of the ‘70s Underground, followed by William Burroughs, Ken Casey, Jack Kerouac, and many others. How had he been an influence?

RQ: Even people like Tariq Ali and Noam Chomsky had been in the forefront, in those days. In Ginsberg, I found so many things that were churning inside me, like in the first opening line, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…" that I kept reading. Later on, I discovered that his mother was also a chronic schizophrenic. From there, I went to Kaddish, which was written for his mother. I said to myself: "What else has this guy written?" He became sort of a guru for me and his poetry became surreal. It was actually refreshing to go away from Eliot and Wordsworth, Shelley and Coleridge to this sort of a contemporary expression.

When I found a job, there were classes in the evening I had joined. One of the things that had attracted me was the fact that I could continue to work during the day. But that did not satisfy the immigration authorities -- they wanted me to be a full-time student to get my I-94 stamped.

TNS: What did it take to become a poet?

RQ: The Director of Admissions took a liking to me. So, I stretched a two-and-half year course to five years, after which I took more courses. There was a brilliant Pakistani Marxian economist, Tariq Anwar, at the New School of Social Research, around that time, apart from the German intellectuals.

My life ran parallel to my elder brother Farooq’s. So, when you read my poetry book there are two or three characters that keep popping up -- my mother and Farooq. The grandfather and father make a supporting cast, here and there. I didn’t have a strong fatherly influence, growing up in Kashmir. I do, however, have a very strong grandfatherly influence, who was an autocrat. He was the first Kashmiri who used to get English cigars and Harris Tweed. He was a visionary who had a vision for his business. I basically ran away from Kashmir because my father used to say, "If you don’t join the family business, you’re not my son!"

I went to America, lived in Brooklyn with Farooq, and started to help him with his business while going to school. Finally, in the late ‘80s, I joined a society workshop by accident. I took these scattered pieces of paper -- an eight lines long poem, and came home with four lines. That workshop lasted me for twelve years, between 1988 and 1998.

Every Tuesday night, there was a woman called Susan Shapiro who would open up her apartment, and some really important, reputable editors, critics and book reviewers from The New York Times and The New Yorker would come in to participate. For the first 7-8 months, I did not say a word. After that, in the next ten years, I found my voice.

As soon as I graduated from the New School, they wanted me out. My advisor came to me -- he was from Latin America -- and said, "You’ve been here long enough. You’ve got to move on. So what’s your paper going to be about?" I asked him, "How about the reunification of Germany?" He looked back at me and said, "Good luck!"

TNS: How did a true-grit Kashmiri family acquire the sir name Kathwari?

RQ: When we first went to the US, we were called Ahmed Jan or Ghulam Ahmed. Or, we used to take our father’s name Ghulam Mohammad. My mother still calls me Mohammad Rafiq.

In America, when you formalise, i.e., when you take on the citizenship or the Green Card, you have to have a first name, a middle name and a last name. This tradition of the Kathwari family was there in Kashmir from the 1830s. Kathiawar is in Gujarat State where they used to rear horses. It may be that 400-500 years ago, a Kathiawari went from Gujarat to Kashmir, and was converted to Islam by one of the Sufi saints.

I remember my great uncle and granduncle -- one was in the jewellery business, another in the shawls business -- being the fourth generation living in Srinagar. They were called Kathwaris. So, the Kathiawaris became Kathwaris.

In Kashmir, everyone was converted from Hinduism to Islam in 4th or 6th century, except the Naqshbandis who, later on, came from Central Asia, by the Sufi saints like Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Wali, the patron saint of Kashmir.

TNS: Tell us about your friendship with Agha Shahid Ali.

RQ: In Kashmir, we grew up in a neighbourhood called Rajbagh, right behind the Convent School, along the banks of Jhelum. The ancestral house we grew up in was backed by Agha Shahid Ali’s place. We grew up together in many ways: we were neighbours, our families knew each other, and his father, to a very large extent, became a surrogate father.

Ali’s father and mother were teachers. I have a childhood memory of Agha Shahid Ali which then became even more important when we finally met in the US. He had moved on, life had been fairly forward for him, he knew what he wanted but his struggle was something else. His struggle was ‘coming out’. At that time, in the Indian society or in the American one, it was not easy. My struggle was basically a revolt against my traditional business family. Nothing wrong with that mentality but it was not easy to come out of it. As they say, you have to heed your own calling!

When I came to the US, Shahid was doing his doctorate from Pennsylvania State. Then he was in Arizona for a while, and we lost touch. What happened after the workshop was that my experiences had amassed for me a collection of poems but I needed a formal letter nonetheless. Ali read that whole bunch of stuff, and asked which school I wanted to belong to. I realised I was 48 years old and that the students over there could be my children.

I wrote a great, dynamite critique of Philip Levine’s What Work Is. I submitted the application, and all that it needed was somebody to look at it. Shahid picked up the phone and called Lucie Brock Broido. Lucy and Shahid had applied for the same job at Columbia University. They were friends. Columbia didn’t want a darkie. "I have a darkie for your class," snarled Ali but they didn’t want a darkie.

I’d give credit to Shahid for making a difference. So, I went to Columbia for two years where you studied under people like Richard Howard and Alfred Corn and Lucie Brock Broido. The reason why you go to an Ivy League school like Columbia is because you have people like Edward Said in this division or that. I was lucky to have been taught by the Pashas of American poetry.

Richard Howard and I had worked on a series of translation of Iqbal’s poetry. I selected about 48-50 poems by Iqbal, which was also an accident because we had to take a course from outside your division. Princeton was offering a seminar on Iqbal, and Richard had brought Baudelaire to America in a course on translation and married the two. He said, "You have two choices -- either stick with the literal or create your own version!" I decided to cut through the didacticism of Iqbal like, for instance, the poem ‘Jugnu,’ also called ‘Firefly’ or ‘Glower.’ Richard Howard looked at my translation and said this is what Ezra Pound would have called the exoticism of Oriental poetry.

"It’s never a straight line"