On the 26th of October 1947, the Maharaja of Kashmir signed an Instrument of Accession to the Dominion of India. On the 27th of October 1947, the conflict of Kashmir was born. On this day in October, Indian troops landed in the valleys at the behest of the last Maharaja of Kashmir, just two months after the birth of the state of Pakistan and the commencement of modern day India. The land and its people became bitterly divided, only to achieve the largest land migration in human history, a current and ongoing dispute between two sibling nations, and three major wars over the land known as Kashmir.
In 1947, the rulers of Kashmir were given a choice to join India, join Pakistan or remain independent. Though initially maintaining independence, the Muslim-majority state was seeing that the Maharaja was leaning towards joining India with no regard for the peoples’ choice, as was common for the day. With this, Pashtun Tribesmen from Pakistan invaded Kashmir and defeated its government forces. The Maharaja appealed to India for help, which resulted in the accession of Kashmir to India so they could send their troops and take the land. The dispute is ongoing.
I’ve spoken specifically about Kashmir because within the 5.5% South Asian population of England, 2% of that is Pakistani and around 70% of that community is from the Dadyal-Mirpur area of Kashmir. Over 280 villages were displaced and submerged under water in the building of the Mangla Dam. A large portion of today’s British Pakistani population hails from this land and more importantly from this area of trauma, not to mention the wider trauma experienced by the violent partition of India and Pakistan.
Fast forward to July 1971, and a child is born who today we know as Mohsin Hamid. A writer and novelist born in Lahore, Pakistan, Hamid is known for his books, “Moth Smoke”, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” and most recently “Exit West”, which brings a human face to immigration and the life of seeking refuge. Hamid spends a large amount of time travelling.
Fast forward to December 1982, another child is born who today is known as Rizwan Ahmed. An actor, rapper and flag-stretcher; Wembley-native Riz is known for his representation of South Asians and Muslims within the entertainment industry and in his own words is working towards “stretching the flag so it’s big enough to embrace all of us.” And for those of us who’ve been watching his moves… its working.
All of these events are what occurred in history for all of us today to be sitting together on October 28th 2018, over 70 years after the division of India, listening to a conversation about migration and identity, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall of the Southbank Centre in London. It is not every day that I get to shed light on the story of India, Pakistan and Kashmir. But sat amongst a majority Desi crowd on this day allowed me to be able to experience seeing people who looked like me doing what I want to be doing now and in the future; creating a dialogue. Representation is a highly blessed responsibility we have to each other; and though it can be violently painful at times to be the only one of your kind in a certain environment, it is still down to us to break all barriers and borders that threaten to hold us in the box labelled “Other”.
So what is home? The talk opened with the most simple yet complex of questions from host and journalist Keiran Yates. For Mohsin, “Home is everywhere”, as it would be for a well-travelled man who sees the world in poetic concepts. He went on to say that home is not what it once was; the concept has evolved somewhat with time and with human experience. “Home is a story you tell yourself.” Rizwan’s description felt akin to the immigrant experience; finding no space to actually “fit in” and so being torn between spaces where code-switching becomes second nature- to the point where we can become unsure as to what the true story is.
Riz spoke about growing up and idealising Pakistan within his peer group, but when reaching Pakistan as a young man, he realised that we don’t belong there either. He went on to talk about how that leaves us on a middle ground where this sense of nomad allows us to share a different perspective. The immigrant experience, speaking strictly from my own experience, is a golden lens. Not only can I see both sides of a story and relate/empathise with people from different walks of life, but I get to immerse myself in the depth of what it is to be human; emotional exchange, energy exchange and the willingness to nurse a broken heart, even if it’s not my own.
Mohsin talked about how the basis of what it is to be human is ever-changing and evolving, as a result of this, the world is also an ever-changing entity. However, he went on to say, this is threatening to the myth of permanence which is used so tactfully to entice people in to an idea that their very existence is under threat by those known as the “Other”. Mohsin went on to point out that we use the “Other” to figure out who we are. It’s important to mention that being otherised can happen to any community. It happened to Africans in Asia and America as it continues to happen, it happened to Jews in Europe and it’s happening to Muslims right now.
The panel went on to discuss that what we’re essentially facing is a battle of stories. People are effectively stories and we all fight each other on a daily basis, whether it’s an argument with a loved one or a bloody war on the other side of the world, the story is what is fighting. The story is what made him pick up that gun, what made her join the military, what made them murder those people. At the end of the day, the stories we tell each other and ourselves are the very things that either build us up to be phenomenal or break us down into devil-dust.
Riz went on to make a highly valid point, and I only wish that more people would understand this of our community and wider society. The people who are committing violent acts of terror i.e. shootings and bombings (locally and globally) are people who are very clear products of our society. No matter what their story is or what their story is deemed to be, they are still what we as a collective have fostered from our efforts. The minute we otherise people, we dilute the responsibility we hold to each other as a community. And if you’re wondering what that is, it’s everyone from the homeless to the imprisoned, to the so-called terrorist, up to and including all those people you believe you have no kinship to. Make no mistake that we have created the world we live in and everything you don’t like about it was created by our acceptance of bad behaviour and our ultimate rejection of our inherent nature.
In closing, the panel went on to discuss the power of names. Mohsin chooses carefully when to give names in his writing, this allows people to play with their perception of what they’re reading as opposed to boxing their imagination in with a “label” and it’s two children; connotation and stigma. Riz spoke about how his name carried different versions of itself; how his name is perceived currently and then how it stands with so much more confidence when pronounced in full as Rizwan. Riz is the Pakistani lad who is cheeky and non-threatening whereas Rizwan is Heaven’s Gatekeeper, according to the Islamic definition.
It all comes down to what Riz explained as our need to edit ourselves and our ideas of ourselves; it allows us to move between worlds and in some ways wear our names as armour. Experiencing the life of a nomad; one who truly doesn’t fit anywhere, everything we see, hear, experience, and name becomes the tribe we walk amongst. We no longer place expectation on other people; instead we endeavour to fulfil our higher purpose as challengers of the norm, and storytellers of the spirit.
Mohsin Hamid and Riz Ahmed: Migration and Magic was part of Southbank Centre’s 12th London Literature Festival (18–28 Oct)’.
Photo Credit: ©India Roper-Evans (Southbank Centre Media)
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