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In exile from Curfewistan

William Dalrymple talks with Basharat Peer, author of Curfewed Night, a kashmiri memoir about the kashmir conflict.

india Updated: Nov 08, 2008 00:22 IST

William Dalrymple: Basharat, what struck me while reading this [book] was not only that in Indian writing today, there’s so much amazing fiction, a bit of history, a bit of biography, but there’s hardly any memoirs. And what you’ve written — Kashmir, from the point of view of a Kashmiri, rather than some guy from Delhi coming up and reporting it — seemed to be a voice that was completely absent.

Basharat Peer: That was the reason I wrote this book. I worked in Delhi and in Srinagar as a journalist. I would often wander around in bookshops and come across books from all parts of the world. In your books, for instance, you were going to places where you did not grow up and making them ‘home’. And then, there were books in which people were telling their own stories, like Amos Oz, David Grossman in Israel, or the great Palestinian writers…

WD: Orhan Pamuk in Turkey…

BP: Yes, Pamuk. There are hundreds of them. There is a book by Agha Shahid Ali, the great Kashmiri-American poet, and every time I read it, my reaction goes beyond appreciation of good literature. There is a mention of a paan shop on the street I would pass…

WD: Familiar territory…

BP: Yes, seeing the familiar, seeing the banal, seeing the mundane, getting its place in literature is beautiful. And I felt that absence very keenly. I wanted to see great books about that place [Kashmir]. So I thought I’ll try and write one.

WD: As a young correspondent reporting from here, I was always very impressed by the vibrancy of the Indian press when they were covering, for example, caste violence, communal violence. In general, the Indian media seemed remarkable, especially compared to Pakistan or parts of the Middle East, in its willingness to say unpleasant truths. But it seemed to me that Kashmir was a place where very little honest reporting was going on. Has that been also your experience?

BP: It has been. When I was in college, I would read reports that were about Kashmir and there was a disconnect. It wasn’t the world I knew. Just the way questions were framed, the way events were reported, with the exception of some very respected journalists, it didn’t connect with reality.

WD: In general, reporting in Kashmir seemed to be the Achilles heel of the Indian media.

BP: I agree. I was once talking to a friend who grew up in Delhi. “What does Kashmir mean to you?” I asked her. “We see it as the crown on the map of India,” she replied. You see the map in textbooks, and it’s really the myth of Kashmir being that crown. But there’s little engagement with the people. The whole idea of the houseboats, the paradise your parents went for their honeymoon...

WD: You talked about this tendency, especially of Western writers, to create an ‘other’ when they go to write about another part of the world. Did you feel that journalists from Delhi and from ‘mainland India’ were creating an ‘other’ out of the Kashmiri? That the Kashmiri was almost a foreigner, almost a creature?

BP: Certainly. The ‘other’ works on various levels. There are a range of reactions. One could be absolute hostility, another could be condescension. But then, journalists are also people. The relation between Delhi and Srinagar, the larger political forces shaping this relation did affect journalism too. The feeling you get is that Kashmiris are viewed as coming from the backwaters, not cosmopolitan, filthy poor villagers…

WD: But in some cases, it’s worse than that, isn’t it? That they’re not filthy but they’re terrorists. And fifth columnists...

BP: The ‘fifth columnist’ angle works more with Indian Muslims because most Kashmiri Muslims don’t claim to be Indians. But what happens is that at a certain age you want to gravitate towards the metropolis, make a living, learn the crafts in whatever you intend to do. So there is the difficulty of an education or a career in the Valley. There aren’t many things you can do there. Where, for instance, does someone who loves books end up? I ended up in Delhi at one point.

WD: Let’s go back a bit. Where are you from?

BP: I’m from Anantnag, from a small village on the way to Pahalgam.

WD: As journalists covering Kashmir, we weren’t allowed to call Anantnag ‘Anantnag’ by the insurgents. It was rechristened, somewhat forcibly, Islamabad, wasn’t it?

BP: The locals always call it that. We only call it Anantnag when we have to write it on paper, the official name. It’s not the Pakistani Islamabad. That’s a new city. This is an older story.

WD: Where were you educated?

BP: I studied in a school in my village.

WD: In Urdu or in English?

BP: In Urdu, English and Hindi. Most of my textbooks were in English.

WD: So you can read all three scripts?

BP: I can. And a bit of Farsi.

WD: And Farsi was taught too?

BP: That wasn’t taught in school. My father loved classical Farsi poetry and taught me some.

WD: So you’re probably the last generation who knows all these languages. For maybe 800 years, Farsi had been taught to children in this country. But today virtually no one speaks it any more. Like French disappearing from Russia in the 19th century.

BP: It’s really all about English these days. Even Urdu writing. And there’s nothing much in Kashmiri. There are some good poets and some short story writers, but…

WD: You were 13 in 1989. That’s when the insurgency starting getting going and India started sending a large number of troops for the first time. Did you see them as your ‘own’ or troops from a foreign country?

BP: They were never our own. You would be sitting outside your house and these men, heavily armed, tense, really edgy, would walk past. And all you hoped was that nothing happened between you and them. And there was hostility.

WD: Did you or your friends ever suffer? Lathi beatings..?

BP: Things like that happened. You went with your friends to school, you got slapped once in a while.

WD: For throwing stones?

BP: I never threw any stones. I was very lazy. [Smiles]

WD: Insults?

BP: Insults? I didn’t want to insult a soldier. He could shoot me. I was a little more pragmatic. [Laughs] Maybe that’s why I’m alive.

WD: But did you lose friends?

BP: I did lose friends. By the late 90s, there were neighbours, friends, regular people you met. Half of the cricket team was gone.

WD: Where were they?

BP: They had gone across the border for training. It seemed like the most natural thing, the coolest thing, to do.

WD: And could you imagine yourself…?

BP: I thought about it seriously. I was 14. I went up to a group and asked them to enlist me. The guy slapped me. [Smiles]

WD: You’ve been slapped by the CRPF and by the JKLF? [Laughs]

BP: The man said, ‘Go home kid.’ And I’m quite thankful for that. As I grew up, families got involved. Politically they might agree with the idea of an independent Kashmir, but no father wanted his son to be the one holding a gun and shooting and dying. It’s basically an invitation to death.

WD: Can you remember the first time you heard about friends and acquaintances being killed?

BP: When I was 14-15. A friend of mine from school. He was a good football player. When I think of him, I think of him wearing a blue tracksuit and standing in that field. Later I heard he had joined the JKLF and was killed in a gunfight.

WD: Most people in this country read in the media that the insurgency was funded, inspired and more or less created by Pakistan. Why were your friends joining?

BP: We never thought about Pakistan. Really. The intensity of the relationship was between Srinagar and Delhi. And Pakistan, you know, fished in it. They did play a role. When the boys crossed the border, they did give them guns and fund them. But when you look at the moment of crossing that line, taking that decision, a 16-year-old in Kashmir does not think of Pakistan.

WD: So what were the grievances? Many people reading this will be thinking, ‘We’ve given Kashmir so much, we’ve poured money into the state. If these guys are rebelling against us and taking up arms, it’s either because they are fanatics who have no education, or because they’ve been bribed to do this by Pakistan. Are any of these two ‘motives’ you recognise?

BP: It’s not about being fanatics. A lot of people I know weren’t fanatics. It was the usual crowd, which is all into popular culture, big time into sports, the guy you’ll see hanging out outside the theatre on the first day first show… those were the types who first joined.

WD: So why would there be people taking up arms against India when India has given Kashmir special status, forbidding Indians to buy land in Kashmir?

BP: The crucial break happened in 1953 when Sheikh Abdullah was arrested by a policeman, on Nehru’s orders. It was a big psychological blow for most Kashmiris.

WD: But for kids your age in 1989-1990, this was ancient history. Why were they risking their lives to fight a benign democratic nation?

BP: I can see India as a benign democratic nation. But when I stand in Srinagar, it doesn’t appear to be a benign democratic nation. It started with autonomy that was enjoyed and is being slowly taken away.

People haven’t forgotten those things. It’s a small place, the people have a lot of time, and they talk. Even before I had read my first book on Kashmir, I knew all these stories. You hear them. You get a haircut and people tell these stories.

WD: The most chilling bits in your book are your conversations with people who had been tortured. Talk a bit about that?

BP: In the mid-90s, you would hear a strange sounding word a lot: ‘Papa 2’. It was an ‘interrogation chamber’, ‘interrogation’ being a euphemism for torture. It was closed down around 1998. Then a senior IAS officer got it whitewashed, painted and had a big havan in which he had priests of all faiths ‘exorcise’ it. Politicians continue to live in this defunct torture chamber.

WD: What happened inside Papa 2?

BP: There was a range of torture methods: from cigarette butts pushed into your body to electric shocks to the genitals. Beatings of all kinds, hanging from the legs…

WD: You write that a whole generation of Kashmiris have been made impotent because of electric shocks.

BP: I won’t say a generation. But it happened to a lot of people. Kidney damage was rife. The process of interviewing these men whom I had never met before brought back memories of friends who had been tortured... of a high school teacher who taught me Urdu poetry and talked only of Ghalib and Faiz.

WD: Did moving to America help you write about Kashmir?

BP: It did. In Srinagar I was too close to my material. In Delhi, I would waver between fear and apprehension. In New York, the distance helped. I also found a lovely infrastructure with friends and teachers who advised me to read better books.

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