Heemal, the Unsung Poetess of Kashmir

“Ha Ta’bee’bou Ches’na Beh Bai’maar
Waa’re Vich’tam Kea’me Daa’deuk chumm Azaa’r
Ash’qii Daa’de Ashiq’qov Rou’tt Ma’Zaar
Waa’re Vich’tam Kea’me daa’deuk chummy Azaa’rr

Oo healer! By God I am ailing!
Can you figure out the cause of my pain?
Indeed lovers die, with the suffering of love
Can you figure out the cause of my pain?”

Khatija Begum (75), over the past 40 years, has written thousands of poems and compiled hundreds of books. It was not an easy path for her to take. Being illiterate, she could not pen her words by herself. Whenever some verse came to her mind, she would call somebody to write it. It was through her dedication to poetry that she was able to compile her couplets into books successfully.

The narrow allies of the Zaina Kadal area of Srinagar lead to her house. Every day, Khatija, known as Heemal, looks at the pile of her poetry collection placed on a desk in her room with a deep sigh, hoping that her books will be published someday.

The essence of her innocence, pain and deep thinking reflects in her poetry. In her lines, one can feel the aroma of mystics. She usually writes about love, life and death. All of the poetry is in the Kashmiri language.

“While I was on the journey of my poetic life, it was not easy for me to memorise each verse of my poetry, so I asked my son to bring a tape recorder for me,” says Heemal. She recalls how she used to wake up at night to offer prayers. On the same prayer mat record, the verses that would spring to her mind.

“Those tape recordings not only have my verses recorded but they also have the humming of insects, prayers of the masjid, the cackle of roosters in them,” Heemal said. She also adds that she used to turn off the lights so that her husband would not get disturbed.

One day, while her husband was at his shop, he narrated the whole story of Khatija to his friend about how she would wake up at midnight and start reciting verses to record them. After listening to this, his friend told him to bring some of those recordings so that he could listen to them. But after listening to her poetry he told her husband to not stop her. Khatija believes that he might have understood the pain of her words. She then told her husband that whatever she had recorded was sacred.

Also read: ‘Main Khud Sey Ek Ladai Hoon’: Life in Kashmir

When Matija took bundles of those recorded cassettes to a writer to have them transcribed, he asked for Rs 70  per page – which was a heavy investment at that time. So, she started with hand embroidery to earn some extra money and utilised the money she earned to preserve her poetry.

It took her seven years to get her first book published through J&K State Cultural Academy by the title Ser e-Asraar, which means “The Secret of Mysticism”.

“Ash’qe Tab’rey Kor’nam lur’paa’Rou
Be Ma’rey Yaa’rou Roo’dum Am’maar
Cxe’ rous’ May Chum’ne Qara’rou
Be Ma’rey Yaa’rou Roo’dum Am’maar

The axe of love left me in pieces
Oh my beloved, I will die with my unfulfilled wish!
Without you how can I be peace
Oh my beloved, I will die with my unfulfilled wish!”

Khatija recalls that the journey of her poetic life started when she was 35. At that time, she was busy with her ill mother, and spending all her time with her and praying for her recovery. One day, when she brought her mother to visit a doctor she encountered something unusual. Some verses originated in her mind but she was unable to apprehend what was happening to her. After returning home, she told her niece about it who then wrote those verses for her.

“Shea’ysh mye’an Tass’ kus’ ni’yay
Chu’mmyou’lll kar’sa’na Yi’yay

Who will bring to him my message
Tell him how eager I am to meet him”

She believes that her life was enriched with poetry because of the prayers and blessings she received from her mother during her ailment. She dedicates her poetry to a Sufi saint, Amm Sahib Kharra, whom she was very close to and even considered a father figure.

Khatija said that she never directly looked into the eyes of the Sufi saint. Whenever she had visited him she always sat at the door.

“When I took my books to show him, he was overwhelmed and he told me to endure a lot of patience so that I can bear all the hurdles that will come my way on this journey. Moreover, he told me that what I have achieved is priceless,” she said, with tears in her eyes.

When she recites her poetry, everything around her blurs out and one gets lost in those mystic verses. She is a poetess who needs love and support so that history sings her verses while remembering the great poets of Kashmir.

Featured image: Heemal/ Photographed by: Ahsaan Ali