A Mountain Tsunami in Kashmir

Today I miss Agha Shahid Ali. The Kashmiri poet died in 2001. Only he, the self-exiled poet from what he called "the country without a post office," could have made sense of the irony of an earthquake that in one mocking fissure kicked the "Line of Control" between India and Pakistan into rubble.

Though it rocked aquariums in New Delhi and collapsed buildings in Islamabad, the earthquake's real punch was reserved for Kashmir, the contested Himalayan territory over which both Indian and Pakistan have fought wars and which remains an emotional minefield for both sides, almost six decades after independence.

Pakistani newspapers describe the death toll in "Indian-held Kashmir." The Indian dailies talk about the devastation in "POK" or "Pakistan Occupied Kashmir." But looking at the pictures it's hard to tell from which side of the line of control they come. As Agha Shahid Ali wrote, "In the lake the arms of temples and mosques are locked in each other's reflections."

I long for his poet's eye to make sense of the omens and symbols of this "mountain tsunami." It came while the Muslims were observing Ramadan. The Hindus were celebrating Durga Puja when the mother goddess comes home from her Himalayan abode.

What symbolism does one read into reports that the earthquake shattered two piers of Aman Setu (Peace Bridge), a key bridge joining the two parts of Kashmir and over which the Srinagar-Muzaffarbad bus was supposed to ply in a fragile gesture of peacemaking? There is very little possibility of the bus plying on the route on its next scheduled date on October 20, a defense spokesman told the Press Trust of India, according to Rediff.com.

It would have been a brave, romantic omen of peace if the bridge had withstood the quake which took with it at least 50 soldiers. But perhaps peace can spring yet from the rubble? Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was quick to offer "any assistance with rescue and relief which you may deem appropriate" to Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf, while gracious, demurred, saying it was "sensitive."

While people still remained buried under houses and hillsides, few were talking about peace. The Pakistani Daily News International quoted a shopkeeper in "held" Kashmir as saying "(India) helped America after Katrina but there is no help for us from Delhi." Meanwhile the Hindu has a headline saying starkly, "Pak Rules Out Joint Relief Ops."

But editorials in other Pakistani newspapers like Dawn complained "the government's ability to cope with such a catastrophe was found extremely wanting." The Hindustan Times in India lectured the Indian government saying, "It is one thing to talk about 'disaster management' and quite another to practise it." It was probably cold comfort for either editorialist to notice that neither New Delhi nor Islamabad was quite prepared for the "big one" despite living near the fault-line where the subcontinent is slamming into Asia to produce the still-growing Himalayas.

But there were steps forward. The two foreign secretaries spoke for the first time over a recently activated hotline that the two armies said they might use to coordinate rescue operations. And the Greater Kashmir newspaper reported that the Mutahida Jihad Council, an umbrella organization of 14 militant outfits based in Muzaffarabad, has decided to suspend operations in the quake-hit areas and instead urged its cadres to help the victims. On an email list I subscribe to, one poster wondered if the quake and the landslide had managed to do what no one else seemed to have had the guts for -- bury Osama bin Laden in his hiding place in the mountains of the Northwestern Frontier Province. I wonder what he thought as the world shook around him.

There is one other person I thought of when I read the news of the 7.6 temblor. Shenaz Kausar, a citizen of Pakistan-controlled Jammu and Kashmir, jumped into a river in 1995 to commit suicide. Instead she washed up on the Indian side, where she was arrested as a spy. Raped by the prison guard, she had a daughter. In 2001 the Indians tried to repatriate mother and daughter back to Pakistan, but the border guards refused to accept the child, an Indian citizen. Both returned and the Indian government, unsure what to do, invoked the Public Safety Act and threw them back into jail until a crusading lawyer got them freed.

Did Shenaz Kausar's daughter with her star-crossed bloodlines have the last laugh today, as the earth split into two to show, as Agha Shahid Ali wrote, that we are stitched to each other's shadows?

Today I miss Agha Shahid Ali amid the ruins of a Paradise Lost. But I still hear him say with the kind of prescience only a poet can have:

"I am being rowed through Paradise on a river of Hell; Exquisite ghost, it is night."

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Happy Holidays!