Random House India l Rs 395 l pp 246
That Kashmir should continue to be an unmitigated headache for India after we have had 61 years to get our act together is a matter of great national shame. Part of the problem is vanity — we are loath to admit we could be doing anything wrong — and part, sheer ignorance of how lives are lived on the battleground that we call Kashmir.
Responding to an article I had once written on Kashmiri alienation, an irate Delhi-based gentleman accosted me with ‘facts’. Wasn’t it true that Pakistan trained and launched armed militants and that the Indian state had a right under international law to defend itself? Wasn’t it true that India had pumped vast sums of money into Kashmir and that the average Kashmiri was much better off than, say, a Muslim from Bihar? Didn’t Article 370 protect Kashmiri land from the avaricious businessman from the plains? Didn’t we hold regular elections and that even the international community conceded that the 2002 elections were ‘free and fair’?
Yes, I admitted, all of this was true. But while it was true, for the ordinary Kashmiri this truth was overshadowed by a larger truth, a somewhat simpler truth: the overwhelming burden of living every single day of your life as a suspect under a large, hostile military force.
This truth becomes irrefutable as we journey with Basharat Peer through the pages of his deftly written memoir, Curfewed Nights. It is a remarkable book for many reasons, the first being that it is the first English language narrative by a young Kashmiri Muslim (Peer is in his early 30’s) that describes Kashmir’s recent tumultuous history as lived experience.
That experience could easily have translated into a long litany of horrors of a human rights report, but thankfully Peer resists the temptation. He focuses instead on his own life, his village, school, family, friends, and upon the ordinary, revealing quite paradoxically the sheer horror of the ordinary in a place like Kashmir.
The shock one feels for instance, reading Peer’s account of the young bride whose life is overturned on her wedding night when, quite by chance, her bus meets a rampaging BSF patrol; or the horror and shame one feels when one discovers that the army one has grown up admiring and respecting is capable of picking up two young boys who were only minutes before playing cricket, and having strapped landmines on their bodies, sending them to confront a group of armed militants holed up in a house.
The question that Peer never asks but is implicit in every one of these pages is how long can we continue to oppress a people we claim as our own to maintain the idea of India? Equally, how can we ever expect someone like Mubeena, the raped bride, or Shameema, the mother of the boy who was blown up, to feel Indian or believe in India?
For all its quiet power challenging Indian nationalism, the beauty of Curfewed Nights is that it never wanders into the realm of propaganda. Pakistan is almost conspicuous by its absence, militant violence is never glorified, and the young Kashmiris who populate Peer's book are more interested in grappling with an India with all its flaws and contradictions. Peer as the protagonist is an intensely familiar character to any young Indian student. As a child, he’s enthralled by the Three Musketeers, as a young man in college he has heated discussions on The Fountainhead. He studies at Aligarh and at Delhi University, hangs out with friends in teashops and smokes. He can hold a conversation on philosophy, politics or the latest Hindi movie. In short, were it not for his Kashmiri Muslim name, he would be ‘just like us’.
It is this that makes this book unique. No longer is the Kashmiri an unfamiliar character with vague, unreasonable demands. For the first time, perhaps, the young Kashmiri and the young Indian can find themselves on the same page, speaking the same language. Basharat Peer has just stretched his hand and said hello. Every young Indian who believes that Indian democracy is a work-in-progress that needs fixing should read this book, reach out and shake that extended hand.
(Sonia Jabbar is an independent journalist who has worked on Kashmir since 1995)