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Lifting Kashmir’s Curfew

Lifting Kashmir’s Curfew

December 06, 2010
Barnaby Haszard Morris

One Kashmiri journalist’s book is a sad yet hopeful light in the dark.

Basharat Peer sits calmly on the stage at The Hay Festival Kerala, giving his full attention to a question from a man standing beside me. Peer resembles a slimmed-down, younger James Gandolfini, but it’s impossible to imagine his passionate-but-measured speech exploding in a flurry of curses and pronouncements à la Tony Soprano – the kind of spraying invective, in fact, that he is being subjected to right now. As the questioner continues his diatribe on “the lies we are getting out of Srinagar” and ultimately has the microphone forcibly taken away from him, Peer keeps his gaze on the man and, with hardly a flicker of anger, frustration or sadness, diplomatically invites the man to fact-check his book and moves on to the next raised hand. He’s seen worse. After all, he grew up in Kashmir.

Peer was speaking about his book ‘Curfewed Night’, an account of his experiences growing up in Kashmir and then returning as Delhi-educated reporter. His book was not written for Kashmiris. It came into being after Peer noticed that the bookshops of Delhi and New York (his current home) contained books about such troubled nations as Palestine, Sudan and Bosnia, and they all felt familiar to him; however, stories from Kashmir were absent on the shelves beside them. ‘Curfewed Night’ is Peer’s attempt to represent what he has seen and understood about Kashmir for a foreign audience, making it a book for Kashmiris only by proxy; indeed, to Kashmiris it is mundane, of interest only to see if they know any of the stories first-hand.

Nevertheless, Peer’s account of the everyday makes for compelling, sobering reading. In the beginning, he is a reckless teenager dreaming of Kalashnikovs and cross-border exploits. Aazadi (freedom, used as a byword for independence) is the first word on his and everybody’s lips. These were the times of greatest agitation and violence in Kashmir, shortly after hundreds of pro-independence protesters were gunned down by Indian soldiers in January 1990. After a weighty talk with Grandfather, who tells him, “You don’t live long in a war,” Peer’s family soon ships him off to study in Delhi, where his mind is broadened by university study at the same time as he deals with discrimination from Kashmiri-wary landlords.

After his parents miraculously survive a landmine explosion, he feels the pull of home grow stronger and decides to return; there, he finds that former militants – the people he wanted so desperately to join – are now nearly destitute and bear the physical and psychological scars of torture. “[The soldiers] cannot even imagine what torture is like,” repeats one man who spent time in Papa-2, Kashmir’s most infamous torture camp. No civilian has been left untainted by violence and loss. It isn’t all sadness and dark – intimate details, such as village in-jokes and the raucous Bollywood songs that have infiltrated traditional Kashmiri Muslim weddings, pepper the narrative – but these lighter moments serve to set the scars and violence deep into a very real, human face.

Through it all, Peer’s presence in the narrative is a constant. It is, after all, his story, though it is hard to consider it as such because he is particularly humble narrator. His evolution as the book unfolds is fascinating, beginning as he does as a gung-ho youth and progressing steadily to deep hurt and even powerlessness, demoralised by the weight of knowing so many troubling stories. He offers no solution; ‘Curfewed Night’ isn’t a pro-aazadi polemic, or the report and recommendations of a government inquiry. It is Peer’s attempt to present the facts of what he has seen, heard and experienced, including but not limited to his own emotional response, and leaves all the room possible for the reader to form their own opinion.

Back on stage, the interviewer wants Peer to make a stand one way or another. Surely the youth of Kashmir are being left behind by the rest of India, who wear denim jeans and tweet from their mobile phones, she says. He smiles and says that “jeans and mobile phones are overrated”, and holds resolutely to a lack of conviction in any one solution or dialogue; still, even if there isn’t yet a solution, there is hope, he says. Peer isn’t interested in grand pronouncements or easy answers. His contribution to the Kashmir question is a book as straightforward as it is powerful, and provides hope that those who read it will thereafter think not of rebellious uprising and anti-India sentiment when they hear the word ‘Kashmir’, but of the millions whose lives have been forever altered by bloodshed and conflict.


7 Comments

  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    17.12.10 11:02 AM
    As I say, read the book and you'll see how even-handed and even-tempered he is. I unfortunately failed to mention it in my article - my mistake - but he writes at length about the effects of militant Kashmiri groups on the civilian population, not only the Indian Army.
  • ashwin
    By
    ashwin
    17.12.10 12:00 AM
    What i mean to say is the world knows these miseries were brought by the people of kashmir themselves,no one else. YOu reap what you sow. But Peer's book seems to point out only the "sow" part,not the reap part. That's why i say it's incomplete.
  • ashwin
    By
    ashwin
    16.12.10 11:56 PM
    Looks like he hasn't "seen" a lot of things. Otherwise he has conveniently avoided writing about how his people have been made to suffer by islamic fascism.
    Just talking about pain and violence and bloodshed would be just a piece of art,nothing factual in it. I mean was only the armed forces responsible for all the violence, or was it something else.

    And if he intends his audience to be people living in new york or new delhi,then i would say people really aren't interested in reading books on pain and miseries when a lot of facts have been very nicely hidden under the mask of "a mother's anguish".
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    16.12.10 01:35 PM
    Well that's exactly it, ashwin - in my opinion, Peer wasn't actively seeking to 'make a difference' with this book, but trying to present his story and those of the people he met in a plain and honest fashion. It's a remarkably restrained piece of work when you consider the subject matter, and I recommend you read it to gain a little more perspective.
  • ashwin
    By
    ashwin
    12.12.10 08:11 PM
    If Basharat Peer wants to really make a difference he should write something for the kashmiri muslim population to stop wasting their lives protesting on the streets and to do some work. This is the only road to peace. Rest all other lead only violence,frustration and victim mentality.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    10.12.10 06:28 PM
    Thanks - it's definitely not going away. A little more awareness of the reality would surely be of benefit, which is why I think Basharat Peer's book is important.
  • deeptha
    By
    deeptha
    09.12.10 12:49 PM
    Hi morris, nice post - reminding Kashmir's great historical impact to india. Ofcourse, no one (indian) can forget or unnotice this tragic Kashmir issue.

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