‘Every word I write is against fascism’: Hamraaz, the anonymous poet

Published : Apr 25, 2024 19:58 IST - 7 MINS READ

A screenshot from Hamraaz’s Instagram page from March 2024. The poem here, titled “Dreams of Fear and Rejoicing”, features in Yes, There Will Be Singing.

A screenshot from Hamraaz’s Instagram page from March 2024. The poem here, titled “Dreams of Fear and Rejoicing”, features in Yes, There Will Be Singing. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

The activist-poet talks about engaging with burning issues of the day in his poems and using words to protest authoritarianism.

In the recently released poetry collection,Yes, There Will Be Singing (Westland), there’s a poem called “We Have Been Here Before” where the poet (the anonymous “Hamraaz”, meaning confidante in Urdu) talks about their father writing the story of his life in a language he does not understand—the language of their mother. The father tells the poet that some day this text will be useful because,

“it has something to do

with the way we lived

in the dark times that came

before these dark times.”

For me, these lines worked as an elegant demonstration of the “personal vs political”, a largely artificial distinction but one still used widely while talking about poetry. Hamraaz’s book has poems about Shaheen Bagh, the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the farmer’s movement, and many other important moments in recent Indian history. But it affects you the most in unguarded moments like these, in poems where you are given a small taste of what it feels like to resist, what the consequences of visible resistance are for the rebel’s friends and families.

Cover of Yes, There Will Be Singing.

Cover of Yes, There Will Be Singing. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Hamraaz first posted a poem on Instagram in January 2020, following the abrogation of Article 370, which ended the special status allotted to Kashmir. In the years since, his poems have addressed the pandemic, the anti-Muslim pogrom of February-March 2020 in Delhi, the anti-CAA/NRC protests, and so on. These works have garnered him over 1,500 followers on Instagram till date. In a previous interview, Hamraaz said that the account’s anonymity was a case of “erring on the side of caution”, alluding to the policing of dissenting political opinions in India.

During an email interview, Hamraaz opened up about the making of these poems. Excerpts.

The poem “Hard Fruit” ends with someone having a nightmare wherein they break all their front teeth biting into a Kashmiri apple. Is it fair to say that most Indians view Kashmir this way, as an aggregate of commodified artefacts, a collection of ahistorical, context-free lakes and gardens and apples? And if so, doesn’t this qualify as the classic “colonizer’s gaze”?

That’s such an interesting reading of this poem. Like dreams, poems are often built out of images and symbols. One might assume writers have more control of words than dreams—but it’s not that simple. Yes, it’s the job of poets to take care with every word. But in the end, we’re using those words less to explain an idea or concept than to evoke or gesture toward a feeling—or an idea that feels true. Most good poems leave space for multiple readings; a successful poem will come to life differently for every reader, and what I think about this poem, or any other poem I write, is probably less important than what you or any other reader thinks of it.

Having said that, in my reading of the dreamin the poem you cite, the apple and the broken teeth suggest not just a distance from Kashmir, but also a realisation that the terror in Kashmir, a terror that many of us have been only distantly aware of, may soon be confronting us right where we live. Other readings of that image are also possible—for example that Kashmir cannot so easily be turned into a fantasy for consumption by outsiders; as always, a great deal depends on the reader.

Umar Khalid, activist and former student of Jawaharlal Nehru University, is detained for defying prohibitionary orders imposed by the Delhi Police during an anti-CAA protest at Red Fort in New Delhi on December 19, 2019. 

Umar Khalid, activist and former student of Jawaharlal Nehru University, is detained for defying prohibitionary orders imposed by the Delhi Police during an anti-CAA protest at Red Fort in New Delhi on December 19, 2019.  | Photo Credit: PTI

In “We Must Insist on Saying Unspeakable Things” there is a pushback against weaponised euphemisms—repressive regimes using PR language to downplay or obscure the evidence of their authoritarianism. We are not using “measured language”, the poem says, we are simply lying. Could you talk me through the making of this poem, and what prompted these thoughts?

I was thinking about this just a few days back when the Delhi Police again argued against Umar Khalid’s bail, saying that he had used social media to spread “false narratives” to “expose the Delhi Police”. Most news organisations ran headlines that amplified that idea. Less prominent was the argument made by Khalid: not one of the witnesses who have testified against him has tied his actions to terrorism, which is essentially what he is jailed for. The problem is that in the eyes of the current government, dissentoften counts as false narrative, defamation, or, in the case of Khalid and many other political prisoners, terrorism. 

Words like these matter—that’s the point of this poem. I wrote and posted it on February 24, 2020. Earlier that day, I had posted a lightweight set of haiku about Narendra Modi’s meeting with Donald Trump. We’d also just seen videos of BJP leader Kapil Mishra threatening to forcibly shut down protest sites if the police didn’t do it first. Things were tense, but I don’t think anybody expected what came next [the 2020 Delhi riots].

Also Read | Meena Kandasamy: ‘A poet says what’s on their mind’

“Our leaders fear our farmers” goes a scathing line from “13 Ways of Looking at a Farmer”. The farmer’s protest presents one of the rare instances when the BJP-led Central government backed down from a previously-held position. In your view, what are the things that worked for this movement, things that set it apart from others like, say, the (equally brave) protests at Shaheen Bagh?

To be clear, I’m a poet, not a political analyst, but I do read widely. I think a couple of factors were at work. First, there was the pandemic. The Shaheen Bagh protest was not shut down by the government, but rather voluntarily shut down in the face of a once-in-a-century threat that none of us really understood. Looking back, it seems clear that the first lockdown was better at projecting state power and quelling dissent than it was at stopping COVID-19. Even at the time, many of us suspected this was the state’s goal.

The bravery and commitment of the farmers were truly extraordinary. But they also had another advantage, which they used to great effect: numbers. I don’t know the exact number of protesters, but everyone could see that they were in lakhs, not thousands. The ruling party rightly understood that numbers like that influence elections. The farmers weren’t budging and the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election was approaching when the government finally withdrew the laws. I don’t think that was an accident.

Also Read | Why are we not reading the likes of Jussawalla and Mehrotra?

Thousands of women protest in support of farmers at Tikri Border in Delhi on March 8, 2021.

Thousands of women protest in support of farmers at Tikri Border in Delhi on March 8, 2021. | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

“Every word I write is against fascism”, you write in a poem dedicated to Varavara Rao who is, of course, a stalwart of politically-charged poetry himself. My question is to Hamraaz the reader, not Hamraaz the poet: what, in your view, makes a poem an act of protest?

Whether and how a poem functions as a protest has to do with many things, including its subject(s), its form, and the reaction it evokes in readers. In the past month, I’ve coincidentally read three wonderful collections of poems that all answer your question in different ways. In My Body Didn’t Come Before Me, Kuhu Joshi examines the way patriarchy, societal views of disability, and our bodies themselves condition who we are and how we see ourselves. It may not be seen by many as “protest” poetry, because this kind of dissent is still “allowed”. Still, in subtle but important ways it challenges the way readers view gender relations and disability/ability.

The poems in Tomorrow Someone Will Arrest You by Meena Kandasamy are equally personal, and many of them also critique patriarchy. But Kandasamy is more blunt and visceral—in addition to patriarchy, she is critical of state repression, and she attacks the very idea of caste. At points, I felt rage when reading this book: Kandasamy’s craft seems intended to provoke both reflection and action. Kandasamy is not new to controversy; she understands very well that she will likely pay a price for writing this important book.

Finally, I just finished Vivek Narayanan’s After, an extraordinary response to Valmiki’s Ramayana. As in Until the Lions, Karthika Nair’s feminist reworking of the Mahabharata, Narayanan gives us new language and new frames to re-examine a very old epic. Over the centuries, our epics have been retold in many ways, but in today’s climate, the act of throwing new, complex light on old, complex stories must be read as a kind of protest. Narayanan goes further, though; for example, “War”, the third book of After, is both a translation of sorts and a protest against decades of torture in Kashmir, the violent repression of rural uprisings in other parts of the country, and the idea of war itself. It is gripping and powerful.

Aditya Mani Jha is a writer and journalist.

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