A friend of mine – a Kashmir arts and crafts dealer-, after viewing a picture of mine that I had posted on Facebook, in reference to my embroidered jacket wrote, “ it looks good but is womanish”. As I walked into an ATM booth, the guard looked at my pheran- a loose , graceful and beautiful , flowing robe peculiar to Kashmir(stylishly designed by me)- and the Karakul hat that I was wearing said, “ Do your folks at home allow you to wear this outfit?”. Whenever I wear the Karakul and the pheran, people stare at me; some even stifle and squelch incipient laughter. (The only people who actually “wow(ed) at my outfits were my Western friends and some random strangers who walked upto me and showered adulations over my outfit(s)). These quotes are meant to illustrate a broader point emblematic of our society and culture: Being Kashmiri has ceased to be cool. The reference here is to the cultural emblems of our culture, of which language is an important and even an indelible component. At some subliminal level, we recoil at our Kashmiri culture and artifacts thereof. How many of us would, for instance, walk into a swanky coffee shop or restaurant and place our order in Kashmiri? How many of us would actually walk the esplanades of a metropolitan city wearing Kashmiri outfits? Or, how many of us would walk into and attend an official or work related meeting in Kashmiri attires? How many of our women would wear the female version of the Kashmiri pheran- innovatively and creatively designed- and not merely look to Pakistani soap’s for inspiration? How many of us know or even try to know the works of our cultural icons and poets like Soche Kraal, Mehjoor, Habba Khatoon and so on? The bleak answer is: either the eccentric few or none at all.
Before readers misinterpret or get me wrong, I am not rooting for cultural or ethnic chauvnism but what I am doing is articulating a commentary of lament on our lost cultural moorings and anchors. The most apposite and germane term that might capture what I am aiming at is cultural particuralism, which need not be a zero sum cultural dynamic that comes at the expense of other cultures. Cultural particularism can be understood as a dynamic, living , enduring and abiding cherishing of the “cultural ideal” in a given society. I would hasten to add there that I am not alluding to “originality” here. No culture can be original and all are defined by varying degrees of osmosis and diffusion but underneath this lurks a certain “ essence” of a culture. It is this essence that we have lost or are in the midst of losing.
The nagging question that this loss raises is: what accounts for the loss or the process of losing our cultural “ essence”? The answer neither lies in “Westernization” nor “Modernization”? Wearing blue denims , speaking a vernacularized version or idiom of English, watching MTV or Hollywood movies is not Westernization; it is merely a skin deep , pale imitation which amounts to mimicry. Neither is it modernization which actually is a change in temperament , outlook and modes of thought. The process of losing our cultural “essence” then is more than these facile categories would suggest.
It( process) can actually be traced to the locus of our- selves and inner lives. Our(Kashmiris’) relation to our inner selves and lives is eminently paradoxical. While we have a degree of a superiority complex embedded within our selves; we also suffer from an inferiority complex. The reasons pertain to the probability that the notion of an expansive live has eluded us and we live a cloistered existence superimposed by a material condition- landlocked nature of the place, cocooned and a non layered collective self that accrues from this. The inference that can be drawn here is that our collective self is not relational or , if , at all, it is relational, it is vis a vis our selves. That is to say, our comparator, in terms of our self is, our own self. This may have created a restricted sense of self, which among other things, might have created a degree of self loathing within us. Hence , our self excoriating and negative self criticizing tendency. These psychic and subliminal themes then probably cross and spill over to the domain(s) of our daily lives and existence- attire, dress, language and other cultural accoutrements. The end result is the loss of our cultural “essence”.
It bears repetition here that by cultural “essence” I do not mean and am not referring to a zero sum cultural chauvinism. I have in mind a broad, and an expansive sense of Kashmiri self that privileges our culture and yet at the same time , savours and appreciates other cultures without losing our “essence”. For instance, while I love wearing the Kashmiri pheran, the Karakul, embroidered shawls and coats, I also wear the Western hat , blue denims and swanky jackets; I am reasonably fluent in English, Urdu and to some extent French and negotiate different worlds with relative ease. I was perhaps lucky to have travelled almost across the world , which besides according me a more relational self , laid the ingress of a more expansive self. I understand that many might not be as lucky as me but this does not and should not mean that we lose, gradually but inexorably , our cultural “essence”. It is then about time that we reclaim our culture and make being Kashmiri cool.
The author can be reached at: [email protected]