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)


Anurag said...

Thank you for the review as well as the links. What's happened and is still happening in Kashmir is very sad, setting aside the politics, from a human standpoint. What I find even more troubling, as an Indian (and a North Indian at that,) is how little I have seen/read of anything that is a first person account of what life was like and what it has become now.

Anonymous said...

yay! You posted it here.


Suresh said...

May I recommend the set of articles by Madhu Kishwar in Manushi here:

Kishwar has written about human rights violation (see the 1994 article titled "Voices from Kashmir") and also about taking referendum seriously much before Arundhati Roy and Vir Sanghvi (see the 2002 article "Why fear people's choice?")

ia said...

Thanks for the links. Any fiction recommendations on the subject? I have Shalimar the Clown on my to-read list.

Chandrahas said...

IA - I can help you in some small way with a book suggestion. The Stranger Beside Me: Short Stories from Kashmir edited and translated by Neerja Mattoo (UBS Publishers, Delhi, 1994). I have pilfered this from a longer reading list on Kashmir by a friend of mine, Dr. Ananya Kabir, which is here:

Ashraf Bhat said...

Curfewed Night, by Basharat is a discourse of every Kashmir youth equating the age of protagonist. It is not simply an autobiographical sketch, or a figment of imagination, but a real journey of “self” of the youth of conflict undergoing zone, experiencing each single event. It resembles and memorizes the voyage of Canard to Congo River in the Heart of Darkness, although the mission of the colonizing powers differs. It is the best untold and unknown but the more real story of the children of conflict and the post traumatic stress, which keeps a space in their minds always. Expressing such naked truth about self, space, time and events is extremely courageous and highly praiseworthy. It is a read to must.
Ashraf Bhat
PhD Fellow
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
IIT Kanpur

Anonymous said...

Well as an Indian i found the book hurtful but must accept the portryal. Wish peer had found something redeeming about India. An approach which used the devices of constitution such as freedom of speech and civil rights would have proven more effective rather than an ill-concieved militancy with Pak complacency. Peer could also been a little more forthright about the Pakistani complicity in promoting militancy

Anonymous said...

Much of Peer's commentary comes from a foreign voice, standing distinctly apart,(even with a slight air of superiority regarding Kashmiri culture and climate) with not the least bit of identification with India. It makes one wonder whether all Kashmiris feel this disconnect with India, and why, for instance, places in the South like Tamil Nadu and Kerala whose cultures differ significantly more from the Indian norm than Kashmir's, don't feel the same alienation. The only answer I can think of is Kashmir's proximity to Pakistan, which willingly acts as a polarizing influence, further alienating Kashmiris from mainstream India.

Also, the methods of torture that are described as used by the Indian army against militants, pale when compared to American methods of torture. Peer also laments that the military took a heavy handed approach to the Kashmir problem right from the beginning instead of holding dialogues. Perhaps the Indian govt. over-reacted to prevent other states from starting secessionist movements.

Reader said...

I searched for this post, and really appreciated the way you have added so many links to encourage readers to inform themselves about the issue. That is really great.

Shipra Shukla and Ashraf Bhat said...