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.