She Writes Back: Erasure, Écriture, and Power Dynamics in the Poetry of Habba Khatoon and Arnimal

Meghamala Ghosh studies English Literature at Presidency University, Kolkata. She is interested in war studies, diaspora studies, literary horror and a feminist reworking of society. She is co-founder of The Memory Gazette. When she is not bashing patriarchy, she exists, writes, and debates.

Debadrita Saha is a postgraduate student of English Literature at Presidency University, Kolkata and a research intern at Decolonising Our Bookshelves with a keen interest in postcolonial and postmodern studies, gender studies, ecofeminism, and everything contemporary.


Kashmir has always been rich in literature. Kashmir has always been neglected, just like its women. This blog post plans to rectify that. What is meant to be accomplished through this blog post is to refer to the erasure of the Kashmiri female voice from canonical literature, to portray the power dynamics within gender, region and language and to show how maybe unconsciously, the two poets, Habba Khatoon and Arnimal have screamed in anguish for a language in which they could articulate their desire and their bodies.

S.N. Vakhlu writes of Habba that Kashmir’s literary muse awoke from a deep slumber, “fluttering and singing, not the mystical experiences or the moral exhortations, but the lilting tunes of true romance”.¹ The 16th century has many stories about her origin, the most notable being the unhappy marriage that forced her to live in seclusion, singing her loals, until Yusuf Shah Chak, the ruler of Kashmir found her. He then approached her to become his queen, and she accompanied him to his harem.¹ Some of Khatoon’s achievements include the Rast-i-Kashmiri Gharana of Kashmiri Sufi classical music and desire-laced loals.

Arnimal, on the other hand, was never fortunate enough to experience marital bliss. The wife of Bhavani Dass Kachru, the writer of the Farsi work, Behr-i-Taveel, Arnimal had always been neglected by her husband, a court poet.

Just as to be cuckolded is a word that removes the female from the speaker-listener narrative and turns her into a property in the male-dominated kinship system, the tradition of female writing falls into the space of the ‘Other’ or the space of difference, where there is no dialogic transaction between the female and the intended to whom she is writing back. Habba Khatoon and Arnimal are veiled not just by gender, but also by language, region and religion. This is explained by Muntaha Amin, who notes that Kashmir has been subjected to numerous attempts of colonisation and invasion under various regimes, all of which tried to propagate their own culture through the language they brought into the valley. In this process, Kashmiri is relegated to a space of shame, embarrassment, inferiority and oblivion by the Kashmiris themselves. Habba and Arnimal used Kashmiri to speak up against the regime of truth that patriarchy had trapped them in. Secluded under purdah, trapped in loveless marriages and abandoned by their husbands, their poetry evokes the loneliness, the grief and the helplessness they felt. The erasure of their narrative from the annals of canonical literature is also a significant way to keep the patriarchal regime of truth intact. This erasure also evokes Derrida’s critical use of différance, where the use of a particular set of words negates the other meanings that could have been developed (here, the use of the masculine language negating the existence of the feminine language). It also suggests what gets lost in translation. The fate of Habba Khatoon also lies in her name, which indicates her lineage from a religious minority community. Upholding the spiritual longings of a Muslim poet of the 16th century in the literary convention would only exacerbate the communal fracture between Muslims and Hindus, and would be perceived as a threat to the supremacy of the Hindu, upper-caste Self, which perceives the Muslim as its Other. Furthermore, a voice that so candidly expresses her love and yearning for her Muslim lover, “Naad ha layei, Myani Yusufo Wallo [ Am Calling out for you, my Yusuf]”, and subverts the male gaze by refusing to be objectified through the assertion of her sexual agency (“He looked at me from the rooftop/He let me burn like a flaming torch),² Habba Khatoon poses a dual threat to the heteronormativity of Brahminical tradition- first, by asserting her desire as a woman, secondly by expressing the desire for a Muslim lover.³

Arnimal’s poetry, in contrast to Habba Khatoon, but also in the continuation of her spirit, shows how irrespective of any religion, women are always oppressed with their liberties curtailed. Neerja Mattoo points out that Arnimal’s abandonment unlike Khatoon was a greater shock because Kachru was a scholar interested in poetry, and yet did not find Arnimal’s words of any value. ‘Castration and Decapitation’ by Hélène Cixous provides an answer where she insists that “Man/Woman automatically means great/small, superior/inferior… it is ordered around hierarchical opposition that come back to man/woman opposition, an opposition that can only be sustained by means of a difference posed by cultural discourse as “natural”.⁴

Arnimal’s outburst is through her verses:

For love, I left my home and hearth

And tore the veil, O come:⁵

The act of her ‘tearing the veil’ is central to Cixous’ proposed subversive writing strategy of the écriture feminine. Expression of the female body and libido will, according to her, “…articulate the profusion of meanings that run through it in every direction- will make the old single-grooved mother tongue reverberate with more than one language”.⁶

Where Habba talks of what Muslim women of the time did in their daily lives, Arnimal also touches upon the issues of domestic violence through very vivid imagery of emotional and physical abuse. This is an accomplishment from a female poet belonging to the 1700s in India, without rights, without modernity, without the medium of print, to express her anguish and call out her abuser.

He grabbed my wrist

while I was asleep

The armband dug into my flesh

He tore off my gold

He stripped off each jewel

Tell me friend, who’s to be trusted?

With his spear, he pinned me down

My necklace broke, my blouse was torn…

…The pearls from my neck lie scattered

He tore them off my throat…7

Like Habba, Arnimal uses sensuous imagery and rhymes to great effect. She calls out to the bulbuls and the moonbeams too, but her use of sandalwood instead of henna and allusion to Ruma Rishi instead of Khwaja Khizar reveals someone deeply absorbed in Kashmiri Pandit culture, therefore challenging Amin Kamil’s attempt to erase her presence through transferring of her legacy to Mahmud Gami.

1. S.N. Vakhlu, “The Nightingale of Kashmir (HabbaKhatoon Her Life and Work),” in The Literary Heritage of Kashmir, ed. K.L. Kalla (Mittal Publications, 1985), 198-208.

2. Neerja Mattoo, The Mystic and The Lyric: Four Women Poets from Kashmir, 1st ed. (New Delhi: Zubaan Publishers Pvt. Ltd, 2019).

3. Sameer Bhat, “Romance in the Hills- The Immortal Story of Habakhatoon and the Last Kashmiri Emperor,” in The Kashmiriyat (2020), http://thekashmiriyat.co.uk/romance-in-the-hills-the-immortal-story-of-habbakhatoon-and-last-kashmiri-emperor/

4. Helene Cixous, “Castration and Decapitation” in French Feminism Reader, ed. Kelly Oliver (Maryland: Rowman and LittleField Publishers, 2000), 276-290.

5. Prem Nath Bazaz, Daughters of The Vitasta, (New Delhi: Pamposh Publications, 1959).

6. Helene Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa” in French Feminism Reader, ed. Kelly Oliver (Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2000), 257-275.

7. Mattoo, The Mystic and the Lyric: Four Women Poets of Kashmir, 201-223.


Bibliography

Amin, Muntaha. “Memory As Ammunition: What Are Kashmiri Women Poets Telling Us?” Wande Magazine, December 23, 2018. https://www.wandemag.com/memory-as-ammunition-kashmiri-women-poets-telling-us/.

Bazaz, PremNath. Daughters of the Vitasta: a History of Kashmiri Women from Early Times to the Present Day. Srinagar, Kashmir: Gulshan Publishers, 2003.

Bhat, Sameer. “Romance in the Hills- The Immortal Story of Habakhatoon and the Last Kashmiri Emperor.” Weblog. The Kashmiriyat (blog), May 20, 2020. http://thekashmiriyat.co.uk/romance-in-the-hills-the-immortal-story-of-habbakhatoon-and-last-kashmiri-emperor/.

Cixous, Helene. “Castration and Decapitation.”Essay. In French Feminism Reader, edited by Kelly Oliver, 276–90. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.

Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Essay. In French Feminism Reader, edited by Kelly Oliver, 276–90. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.

Mukhopadhyay, Arpita. Feminisms. Edited by Sumit Chakrabarti. Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan Private Limited, 2016.

Mattoo, Neerja. The Mystic and the Lyric: Four Women Poets from Kashmir. New Delhi: Zubaan Publishers Pvt. Ltd, 2019.

Vakhlu, S. N. “The Nightingale of Kashmir (Habba Khatoon: Her Life and Work).” Essay. In The Literary Heritage of Kashmir, edited by Krishan Lal Kalla, 198–208. Delhi: Mittal Publications, 1985.

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