Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Middle Stage's Best Books of 2008 – Non-Fiction

The Middle Stage wishes itself, (why not? good cheer begins at home) and all its readers, a very happy New Year, rich with books, talk, companionship, love, food, exercise, travel, and plenty of sleep. Links at the end of some paragraphs lead to longer pieces on the books cited. A separate survey of the best fiction of 2008 is here. I hope you will excuse the great length of these two essays they are meant to be read at leisure.

Political dissidents rarely have the doors of power opened for them, and when this does happen, they often find themselves swept away or compromised by the pressures of practical politics, of action rather than reaction. One man – also a man of letters – who has made a success both of dissidence against the might of a totalitarian state and then of political office is the Czech writer Vaclav Havel, who came to power in Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989. To The Castle And Back (Portobello in the UK, Alfred A. Knopf in the USA), Havel’s memoir of his fourteen years (1989-2003) in Prague Castle, is among the three or four most satisfying political autobiographies I have ever read. Havel not only describes how political life is a mix of the profound and the banal, of the thrust of policy and the conformity of protocol, but dramatises it by mixing long, thoughtful answers to questions from an interviewer, Karel Hvizdala, with his own notes, memos to Castle staff, and diary entries from his years in office. This makes for a highly appealing structure: here the President can be heard meditating on the relationship of our actions to the world (“We should, after all, do everything seriously, as though the future of the world depended on it, and, as a matter of fact, in some ways it does”); there he is found arriving to the conclusion that “We need a longer hose for watering”, or asking “In the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept, there also lives a bat. How to get rid of it?” Havel’s place in history, grand themes, fidelity to language, powers of self-scrutiny, and distinctive organization of his material make for a work that may come to be seen as a classic of political literature. Longer essay here.
The theme of the Australian diplomat Walter Crocker’s book Nehru: A Contemporary’s Estimate (Random House India) might be said to be the one implicit in Havel’s: that is, “the dilemma faced by men of goodwill who acquire power and responsibility is remorseless”. This is why, although Crocker’s work, written only a few months after Nehru’s death in 1964, is highly critical of its subject on a number of counts – in particular economics, foreign policy, and the delegation of power – it takes a realistic and holistic view of Nehru’s contribution to Indian life, and leaves us finally with a sense of admiration for Nehru’s enormous intelligence, ideational power, energy, and discipline. Crocker’s unexpected but prescient conclusion, from the vantage point of 1964, that “Nehru’s rule will leave some mark on India, but not as much as is expected” has proved to be right on the mark. Both anecdotal and analytical, Crocker’s beautifully measured and composed account seemed to me a model of political biography.
Steve Coll’s brilliant and complex The Bin Ladens (Allen Lane) was simultaneously the biography of the world’s most feared terrorist and the story of the great business empire founded by his father. Most of us only know Osama Bin Laden the rootless holy warrior, spewing hatred against the West, America, modernity, and secularization, but his positions have not always been so consistent. He was the son – one of 54 children from several wives – of one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest business scions, Mohammed Bin Laden, and in his youth he worked as a junior executive alongside his brothers and cousins in the family construction firm. Tracing the radicalization of the black sheep of the Bin Laden family against the expanding range and influence of the Bin Laden business group in the nineteen-eighties and -nineties, Coll, formerly of The Washington Post and now at The New Yorker, brings together the many strands and leanings of a remarkable family, and can in fact be read as a Tolstoyan exploration of what Coll calls “the universal grammar of families”. The long section devoted to Salem Bin Laden, Osama’s gregarious, westernized, pleasure-loving, high-living eldest brother, transported me totally into the world of this man. A longer essay on the book here, and here is Coll's piece "Young Osama".

Some of the best works of Indian non-fiction in 2008 can be arranged neatly into pairs. All Indians now know that the Naxalite insurgency presents a serious threat to the stability of the Indian state, but beyond this our comprehension of the world and the motivations of the Naxals is shadowy. Indeed, “Naxalite” has become a convenient banner under which tendentious arrests and gross human-rights abuses are conducted; it would seem that any Indian citizen is potentially a Naxal. The journalist Sudeep Chakravarti’s Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country (Penguin Viking) travels through the desperately poor and backward regions of Andhra Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Nepal to tell us the tragic story of the rebels, the Indian state, and the people caught in between. Chakravarti iconoclastically mixes travelogue, interviews, reportage and analysis, quoting here from a Maoist document, there from a taped exchange between police officers, and ferreting out both state apathy and revolutionary excess with an unflinching and often mordant gaze (longer essay here).
And Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night (Random House India) does for Kashmir what Chakravarti does for the Naxal heartland, showing us a land and its people that has suffered both the negligent eye and the bruising fist of the Indian state far more than it has partaken of its privileges and freedoms. Peer’s book is both reportage and memoir: he recalls how the Kashmiri resistance spiralled around him as he himself reached adulthood in the late eighties, and then, having become a reporter for a periodical in New Delhi, he travels through Kashmir in the early years of the new century, sympathetically logging testimonies and bearing witness. There is a heartfelt poetry in Peer’s book to go with the gloomy prose of machine guns, arrests, and curfews, such as in his plangent description of Srinagar as a city of absences. Longer essay here.
The historian Vinay Lal’s The Other Indians (HarperCollins in India, UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press in the USA) was an fascinating account of the history of Indians in America, from the curious and often socially marginal mix of farm labourers, students, and political activists of the early twentieth century to the mass of economically, academically, and politically influential diaspora in America today. Among the best sections of the book is a passage on the Ghadr party, a formation of Indian nationalists and revolutionaries in early twentieth-century America (longer essay here).
Anand Teltumbde’s blistering j’accuse Khairlanji: A Strange and Bitter Crop (Navayana), which takes its title from the poem "Strange Fruit" written by Abel Meeropol in 1939, was a disturbing study of the facts and the larger meanings of the heinous massacre of four members of a Dalit family in Khairlanji village in eastern Maharashtra in 2006. Indeed, Teltumbde's book might also have been called The Other Indians for what it showed us about the persistence of caste prejudice at the level of both state and society. and about the changing dynamics of power within caste groups in Indian today. For Teltumbde, Khairlanji is an atrocity so chilling that it “transcends the context of space and time and interrogates our claim to be humans. It is a mirror that shows us for what we are...It should not be viewed as a mere 'caste issue' to be dealt with by Dalits alone."
The impact of the moving image on India in the last century has been immense, and the magisterial essays of Chidananda Das Gupta’s Seeing Is Believing (Penguin Viking) made for what must be one of the most fulfilling books ever written on Indian cinema. Das Gupta argues that, although film originated in the West and was associated there with the march of science, its transplantation in the early twentieth century to a pre-industrial society heavily invested in faith and in myth instantly made it a very different thing in India. To this day Indian films, under their glitzy surfaces, draw upon the currents and structures of Indian religiosity: “the currents of traditional belief are kept alive beneath a modern exterior”. Whether analysing the phenomenon of Indian movie stars leveraging their fictive personae to become political heavyweights, thinking about the place of the song as “the transcendental element in the language of popular cinema”, or making a distinction between folk culture and pop culture, the range and shrewedness of his Das Gupta’s linkages is enormously satisfying. Longer essay here.
Paul Ginsborg’s Democracy: Crisis and Renewal (Profile) synthesised a huge amount of old and new scholarship to arrive at sophisticated insights into the quality of and possibilities for world democracy today. Ginsborg’s book is all the more attractive because it is set up as a debate between John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, two of the most demanding influential theorisers and critics of democracy. Whether on the subject of how capitalism and consumerism have eroded the public sphere or the role of the family as a school for a thriving democracy, Ginsborg offers us much to think about as we enter our own election year and ponder, in a winter of fear and discontent, how to reform and refine our own democracy. After reading this book I also found much of interest in Ginsborg’s older book The Politics of Everyday Life. Longer essay here.
The Lebanese novelist and historian Amin Maalouf is the author of several excellent books, including On Identity, which I bought very profitably for one pound in a damaged-books store in 2001 and which taught me – and I daresay would have something to offer to most Indians – many useful things about how to think about my relationship to family, society, history, and nation. Maalouf’s new book, Origins (Picador in the UK, Farrar Straus Giroux in the USA), was a very unusual reconstruction, built almost entirely on the leads provided by a trunk of old letters, of the life of his grandfather, an immense, iconoclastic teacher and scholar named Botros, in a small village in Lebanon in the early years of the twentieth century. A strident humanist and universalist in a provincial and sectarian society, Botros wishes for nothing less than the day when “the East [will] catch up with the West and – why not – outstrip it”. Origins is hot with his ringing assertions and demands, with Maalouf’s own voice providing a quieter counterpoint. Among the notes that Maalouf strikes is one that every reader can relate to: that of not taking old people seriously enough, or of reducing them to a bag of burdens and eccentricities. “Elderly persons are a treasure that we squander in cajoleries and blandishments; then we remain forever unsatisfied,” writes Maalouf. “[B]y reviving the past, we enlarge our living space.” A most unusual and charming book.
Leszek Kolakowski’s Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? (Basic Books in the USA, Allen Lane in the UK), a tour through the riches of the Western philosophical tradition by one of the world’s greatest living philosophers, was a little gem of trenchant thinking and compressed erudition. Kolakowski knows that his material is vast, so he synthesises the thought of each figure he takes up – Socrates, Heraclitus, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Kant, Bergson, Nietszche, among others – into a question, and shows how his subject answered that question, anew, in a convincing and yet startling way. Descartes’ aim was “to find the absolute beginning of knowledge, the starting point that is immune to error and doubt”; Aquinas holds, against the might of the Christian tradition, that “the fact that we are corporeal beings is not a minor or contingent matter, the result of chance or a reason for shame; it is part of the definition of our existence; Locke demonstrated what seems obvious to us today, that “liberty, property, political equality, religious toleration and the people as judge of the executive power – all these elements of the social contract are connected”. The word “philosophy” comes from the Greek work philosophos, a lover of wisdom or truth, and Kolakowski shows us the human mind arrowing away towards that goal through the centuries and allows us to participate in the thrill of these endeavours. I always feel especially awake after reading Kolakowski: read, for instance, his piece "What the Past is For".
The historian David Levering Lewis’s God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe 570-1215 (Norton) was a marvellous reconstruction, wide in its historical sweep – acute in its points of rest or focus, and narrated in the splendid lancing sentences of a masterly writer of prose – of the ascent of the newly emergent religion of Islam in Europe in the Middle Ages and its sallies upon Christendom. Lewis shows how the rule over a part of Spain for nearly four centuries by an enlightened Muslim dynasty, the Umayyids, was a kind of golden age of religious tolerance, cosmopolitan values, and science and learning in medieval Europe. He argues that today “much of the Muslim world stands in relationship to Europe and the United States as much of a ramshackle Christian world once stood in relationship to a highly advanced Islamic one”. Lewis shows us how interconnected our civilizational pasts really are, and how we cannot possibly take a us-versus-them, boxed-up approach to history, much less the present. Lewis is also the author of a two-volume biography of WEB Du Bois and another of Martin Luther King.
Lastly, I also found much to enjoy in Chitrita Banerji’s whistlestop tour of Indian cuisine Eating India (Penguin Viking), Alice Albinia’s massively erudite study of the Indus river Empires of the Indus (Hachette India), and the study by Martin Dupuis and Keith Boeckelman of the early years in politics of America’s new President, Barack Obama: The New Face of American Politics (Praeger).

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Middle Stage's Best Books of 2008 – Fiction

The Middle Stage – forgive these sniffles; I have a bad cold – wishes all its readers a merry Christmas. A similar list for non-fiction follows next weekend. A link at the end of some paragraphs leads to a longer essay on the book. A minor but nevertheless important aspect of writing fiction is the work of finding a title that brings out in three or four words the themes and the tone of the entire work (no other phrase one composes is repeated as often in the world) and while putting this list together I was struck by how many of these works – particularly those by Saramago, Morrison, Nemirovsky, Lahiri, and Adiga – have titles that are both apt and memorable.
Joseph O'Neill’s pitch-perfect Netherland (Knopf in America; Fourth Estate in the UK) beautifully dredged the agitation beneath the placid and unprepossessing exterior of Hans van den Broek, a Dutch banker in New York. Hans – that is how we always think of him, by his first name, because of his vulnerability – is going through a marital crisis, and while it seems to the reader that his wife is at fault, it is Hans who takes the blame for it. Miserable, Hans finds an unlikely redemption in a motley band of cricketers – of Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, and Jamaican extraction – who meet and play every weekend, and who evoke the multiracial and multicultural medley that is the future of our world. The marvel of O’Neill’s narration is rooted in the voice – rich with regret and yearning, shot through with doubts and qualifications – he finds for Hans, and his painstakingly laid links between self, family, sport, and life. Writing about Netherland in an essay called "Two Paths For The Novel", the novelist Zadie Smith offered the criticism: “It seems perfectly done – in a sense that's the problem.” Longer piece here.
The life of the Russo-French (and Jewish) novelist Irène Némirovsky was tragically terminated at Auschwitz in 1942, and it took the publication of her undiscovered novel Suite Française in the late nineties to restore her to the attention of the world. I haven't read Suite Française, but All Our Worldly Goods (Chatto & Windus), at once intimate and detached, slow and swift, telling through dramatic close-ups and long shots the story of a couple, Pierre and Agnes, and their family across the two World Wars, seemed to me to thrillingly deploy a range of sophisticated fictional techniques towards both the revelation of highly particularised emotional states and the architecture of an entire social order. Némirovsky's brilliant one- and two-page portraits of her minor characters are worth studying as much as anything else in her work. I thought this book one of the moving and beautiful depictions of a marriage that I have ever come across in literature.
I didn’t much care for Jhumpa Lahiri’s previous book of stories The Interpreter of Maladies, but I found the work in her new collection, Unaccustomed Earth (Random House in India; Knopf in America; Bloomsbury in the UK) extraordinarily good. Lahiri is like an GP who only examines and ministers to one set of patients – Bengalis in America – but that doesn’t matter, as the world she finds within them is a very large place. These slow-burning stories, discreetly and patiently accumulating details, observations, and epiphanies, lead the reader to that state of heightened feeling and sensitivity that all great art does. Longer essay here.
The Portuguese novelist José Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1998, is an absolute original whose work – with its spiralling sentences punctuated only by full stops and a rash of commas (the relationship between Saramago's syntax and his meanings is worth an essay on its own) and enormous and minatory paragraphs, leavened by a wizened and gnomic narrative sensibility like that of a very clever grandmother – resembles that of none other. His novels always start from some intriguing and disquieting premise, and Death At Intervals (Harvill Secker in the UK; Harcourt in America) considers what it might be like if death suddenly abandoned humanity, and every person could contemplate eternal life. Would we be happy, depressed, bored, weary, gloomy? What would happen to human institutions? Would we still believe in God? Surprisingly, the most affecting character in Saramago’s book is Death herself (whom Saramago imagines as “a skeleton wrapped in a sheet”, so old and hoary that she “can no longer remember from whom she received the instructions to carry out the job she was charged with”), struggling, after thousands of years on the job, to cope with the burden of humanity.
Some people consider Philip Roth the greatest living American novelist today, but my vote would go to Toni Morrison, whose ninth novel A Mercy (Knopf in America; Chatto & Windus in the UK) was a small masterpiece. Morrison is one of those rare writers who attempt sophisticated experiments with voice and narrative structure while also attracting a mass readership because of her compelling characters and situations. A Mercy gives us, in a language of sculpted cadences and great emotional force, the stories of five individuals – white, black, and Native American – battling against society, the elements, and their private griefs on a farm in Virginia in 1690, at the dawn of American history. "The structure is the argument" – this remark by Morrison (in an interview, naturally, not in a novel) is to my mind a highly germinal and revelatory observation about what novels are about and how they communicate their meanings differently from other forms of discursive prose.
The Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany scored a hit last year with his novel The Yacoubian Building, a portrait of Cairo society as seen through one building, and his follow-up, Chicago (HarperCollins in America; Fourth Estate in the UK), was just as good. Some readers find Aswany, with his love of sex and seediness, his gossipy narrators, and his lush language, too coarse, but these criticisms cannot obscure the fact that he is an extraordinarily deft writer, able to work dozens of characters around while seeming absolutely interested in the interior life of each. Set in a university department with many expatriate Egyptian students and teachers, Chicago daringly turns a great American city into a little Egypt. Longer essay here.
For a long way through David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk (Bloomsbury UK and Bloomsbury USA), a fictional retelling of the Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan’s years in England, I remained skeptical about Leavitt’s project. But the book – which is narrated from the point of view of several British characters, including Ramanujan’s associate and mentor GH Hardy, but leaves Ramanujan inscrutable, a cipher – finally won me over with its majestic orchestration of voice and period detail. Its second half, with its superb recreation of Britain in crisis during the First World War, provided some of my best reading days this year. Longer essay here.
Books, friendship, and memory are perhaps three of the most reliable consolations of life. One of the most beautiful evocations of friendship in literature – the way it makes the simplest things seem poignant or funny, the dialectical manner in which it arrives at the meanings of things, the gestures by which it dissolves gloom and heals grief, or by sharing joy doubles it – is to be found in José Maria Eça de Queirós marvellously sweet and sublime The City and the Mountains (New Directions in the US; Dedalus in the UK), first published in the original Portuguese in 1901 and republished this year in a striking new translation by Margaret Jull Costa. Jacinto, the wealthy, pleasure-loving protagonist of the story, is utterly worn out by the sensual surfeit and moral squalor of Civilization, and can only be rescued if he can be led away from Paris to the ruder world of the mountains by his country-bred friend Ze Fernandes (who is the narrator of the story). Eça's story combines a satire on materialism and urban sophistication, the comedy of dashed expectations, and swooning descriptions of the wonders of air, light, trees, and skies – of “the briefest beauties, be they of air or earth".
The careful detailing, corrosive rage, and violent juxtapositions of Aravind Adiga's Between The Assassinations (Picador India) made, I thought, for a much more original and insightful study of the ugly binaries of Indian life than his Booker-Prize winning novel The White Tiger. The diseased, broken, or marginal figures seething at themselves and the world in the small town of Kittur in the mid-eighties made for an uncommonly vivid and striking catalogue of India's disabling hierarchies and rationalisations. Longer essay here.
Anuradha Roy's An Atlas of Impossible Longing (Picador in India; Quercus in the UK) was, at the level of language and of structure, a clear head above most Indian novels, and its rapturous descriptions of houses and landscapes were especially memorable. One of the signs of how much care has gone into this work arrives two-thirds of the way into the novel, when we are jolted out of the omniscient third-person narration on which we have been sailing thus far, and thrown into the first-person viewpoint of Mukunda, who is a kind of late protagonist. Longer essay here.
Some of the stories in Kunal Basu’s The Japanese Wife (HarperCollins India) were marvels of fictional roving compressed into small narrative spaces, especially the title story, which records the yearning of a schoolteacher in a village in Bengal for a spouse he has never set his eyes on (longer essay here).
The Adventures of Amir Hamza (Random House in India; Knopf in America), Musharraf Ali Farooqui's English translation of Ghalib Lakhnavi's nineteenth-century rendition of a popular Mughal epic, was a winning combination of humming language and swashbuckling storytelling. Farooqui's vivid translation thrusts glittering lists and catalogues of the world's delights at us, and the book's syntax is similarly ornate and pleasure-giving, as if drawing the reader into the folds of an enchanted cloak. Books like Farooqui's, drunken on the glories of the world and of language, provide a neccesary counterpoint to modern conventions of narrative prose and the self-made walls and corridors of realism.
Another story from Indian antiquity, the Buddhist monk's Ashvaghosha's Saundarananda or Handsome Nanda (Clay Sanskrit Library/New York University Press) is, on the surface, the story of a stubborn young man's initiation into the truth and power of Buddhist mindfulness and spiritual discipline, but it also delightfully evokes all the giddy pleasures of sensual life even as it decries them. Ashvaghosha's highly metaphorical language and expansive manner seem to be continually in tension with his message. Longer essay here.
Lastly, I immensely enjoyed the brilliant opening section – but only the opening section– of Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence (Alfred Knopf in the US, Jonathan Cape in the UK) , which shows us an Italian traveller arriving in the court of King Akbar. Many characteristically Rushdean tropes are woven into this account of Akbar, his family and court, and the stranger – for example the idea that “witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits or magic wands. Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough”, or the inversion of the hierarchy between reality and fantasy in Akbar's opinion, regarding his imagined lover Jodha, that "it was the real queens who were the phantoms and the non-existent beloved who was real”. The rest of the book I thought a disappointment.
Previous lists of the best books of 2006 and 2007 are here and here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Best of the year lists

Coming up over the next two weekends: the Middle Stage's choices of the best books of 2008 in fiction, and then in non-fiction.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

On Basharat Peer's Curfewed Night

There are many books now in circulation on Kashmir and its discontents, but possibly none as haunting and intimate as this one. Basharat Peer has been a name in Indian journalism for some years now for his reporting on Kashmir for Rediff and Tehelka, but his new book Curfewed Night, a blend of memoir and reportage, is probably the best first-hand account of the region—its beauty, its alienation, and its pain—available to thousands of interested readers more simply and securely Indian than Kashmiris are.

Indeed, Curfewed Night lifts the veil not just from a Kashmir that is no longer a part of mainstream experience and limps along on its own track, but also from an India that many of us are not willing to acknowledge. Here is India as a military power, holding its own citizens—or people that it asserts are its citizens—to ransom in a double bind of ineptitude and brutality.

Peer was born in 1977, the son of a bureaucrat in the state civil service and the grandson of the village headmaster, in Seer village in Anantnag district, Jammu and Kashmir. His childhood was relatively serene and uncomplicated, bound up with the circadian rhythms of village life and the seasonal cycles of farm work and winter slowdown. Here is an idyllic village scene from early in the book:

On most Saturday evenings throughout my childhood in the mid eighties, a blue Willys jeep would drive to my village in southern Kashmir. It would follow the black, ribbon-like road dividing vast expanses of paddy and mustard fields in a small valley guarded by the mighty Himalayas. Two or three floor mud and brick houses with tin and thatch roofs faced the road. A few were brightly painted and most were naked brick; dust and time had coloured their rough timber windows and doors a deep brown. A ground level room in every third house had been converted into a shop. Villagers who routinely sat on the wooden shopfronts to gossip, talk politics and cricket would wave at the jeep. A not-so-tall man in his early thirties, almost always wearing a suit, a matching tie, and brown Bata shoes would raise his right hand in greeting. If you saw him up close, you could see his deep brown eyes, straight nose, plump cheeks, and the beginnings of a belly. The Willys would slowly come to a halt in a village square, not far from a blue and green milestone that bore the name of our village: Seer, 0 kilometres.

Father would step out near a modest, naked brick house next to a grocery store and a pharmacy...
What is so charming about this passage is that although Peer is describing his own father, we are given this information at the very end. We see the older Mr.Peer as the villagers see him, and although he is one of them, his position in the wider world gives him a kind of glow, a halo, when he comes back home to his humble origins.

Sent at the age of 11 to a boarding school a few miles from the village, the young Basharat feasts on books by Kipling, Dickens, and Stevenson. His connection to India, like that of many Kashmiri youth, is remote; he knows it only as the force that rigs elections and rules by decree from a distant centre. Then the rising pitch of the demand for self-determination in the winter of 1989-90, and the white heat of the Indian response, destroys the delicate balance of the old world for good. “That winter began my political education,” writes Peer. “It took the form of acronyms: JKLF, JKSLF, BSF, CRPF. To go with it I learnt new phrases: frisking, crackdown, bunker, search, identity card, arrest and torture.” At school, the students spontaneously stop singing the national anthem. Peer hears of teenagers slightly older than him crossing the border to receive training in arms from Pakistan; he finds boys from his own school absent after the vacations after the exodus of Pandits from Kashmir and he is herded with other males of his village to camps where their affiliations are scrutinized. Briefly, he too wants to enter the world of guns and glory, but is talked out of it by his family. He is sent off to study in Aligarh and then Delhi, far from the war zone.

In Delhi, though, Peer gains an awareness not available to him in Kashmir of “the various Indias that existed, Indias that I liked and cared about, Indias that were unlike the militaristic power it seemed in Kashmir”. Peer enlists in the media boom at the turn of the century and becomes a reporter. He returns to his homeland to try and be the voice for its troubles, even as he knows he is one of those fortunate Kashmiris who can leave for better prospects any time they like.

Peer’s book is so good because it moves skilfully between close-ups of people and the long view of history, and because it describes the scars not only on the physical but also the psychological landscape of Kashmir. He treats his subjects with sensitivity and sympathy, and they respond graciously in turn. His work illuminates many vexing predicaments that cannot be accounted for by mere statistics. For example, he shows how, even when an innocent is killed on suspicion of being a militant, his family is counselled not to seek justice for him because it will only mean further trouble for them. The living must resign themselves to the loss of a loved one, and try and stay under the radar of the authorities as if they are not victims but criminals.

Meanwhile, for every person who is confirmed dead, there is another who has disappeared without a trace: Kashmir actually has an Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons. Kashmir, in Peer’s reckoning, is a twilight realm of the dead, the absent, and those left behind who furtively eke out a perilous existence, caught between soldier and militant. The living are fortunate to be still standing—"In these times, every day is a gift", says one of them. But it is not much of a gift, for in order to survive the living, too, “have buried and cremated the individuals they had once been”. Srinagar, the capital, a medieval city dying in a modern war. It is empty streets, locked shops, angry soldiers and boys with stones. It is several thousand military bunkers, four golf courses, and three bookshops. It is wily politicians repeating their lies about war and peace to television cameras and small crowds gathered by the promise of an elusive job or a daily fee of a few hundred rupees. It is stopping at sidewalks and traffic lights when the convoys of rulers and their patrons in armoured cars, secured by machine guns, rumble on broken roads. It is staring back or looking away, resigned. Srinagar is never winning or never being defeated.

[Srinagar newspapers often] print headlines announcing deaths in red. Some run a box on the front page giving the daily, updated statistics of the dead. Srinagar is being in a coffee shop, in an office, outside of a college, crossing a bridge and feeling, touching, breathing history, politics and war, in unmarked signs and landmarks. It is seeing a bridge, a clearing, a nondescript building, and knowing that men fell here, that a boy was tortured here.

[...] Srinagar is a city of bunkers. Of the world's cities, it has the highest military presence. But Srinagar is also a city of absences. It has lost its nights to a decade and a half of curfews, and de facto curfews.
Peer has not only travelled widely to put faces and names and stories to the situation that goes just by the name "Kashmir" but, as is evident from some of these sentences, he has also found a language equal to the burden of representing the anger and loss of an entire world, of a whole generation disfigured by armed conflict. If Curfewed Night offers no solutions, it is because there is already no shortage of them. What is in short supply is the courage to admit culpability and the will to begin on a new footing, and that redemptive state cannot bloom without books such as this one.

And some links to further reading: "Mutiny In The Mountains", a recent piece by Peer; "Death In Kashmir", "The Birth of a Nation", and "Kashmir: The Unending War", a three-part essay by Pankaj Mishra from 2000 (and an exchange between some readers of the piece and Mishra); "The Trouble With Eden" and "How Pluralism Goes Bad" by Mukul Kesavan, from 2008 and 2006 respectively (and again a response to Kesavan and Kesavan's reply); "Azadi", a recent essay in Outlook by Arundhati Roy; "The Question in Kashmir" by Pratap Bhanu Mehta; "Think The Unthinkable" by Vir Sanghvi, "Independence Day For Kashmir" by Swaminathan S. Aiyar, "A New Compact With J & K" by Nitin Pai, and "Rethinking Kashmir Politics" by Yoginder Sikand, four essays published at almost the same time in August this year; "The Kashmir Conundrum" by Harinder Baweja; "Report From Kashmir" by Amitava Kumar from 2002; "Kashmir: The Roads Ahead" by the foreign policy expert Stephen P. Cohen, from 1995; "One-Sided Coverage", an argument by Sevanti Ninan on the representation of the Kashmiri viewpoint in the Indian media and a recent interview with the journalist Chindu Sreedharan on the subject of media coverage of the Kashmir issue; "A Target Forever", a recent piece by SAR Geelani, the Delhi University lecturer first sentenced to death by an Indian court on a charge of involvement on the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 and later acquitted in 2005 by the Supreme Court; and lastly, "On The Making of Jashn-e-Azadi" by the documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who has also written about the reception of his controversial film here.

A list of links to selected Internet resources on Kashmir maintained by the UC Berkeley Library can be found here. And a good book to read on the Kashmir dispute is Sumantra Bose's Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths of Peace (2002), from which a brief excerpt is here. A reading list of other books on Kashmir with brief comments on each can be found here.

[A shorter version of this piece appeared last Saturday in Mint)