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 readers more simply and securely Indian than Kashmiris are.
Indeed, Curfewed Night lifts the veil not just from a Kashmir that is insufficiently well-known and no longer a point of mainstream contact, 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 to ransom in a double bind of ineptitude and brutality.
Curfewed Night ; Random House India, 250 pages, Rs395.
Peer was born in 1977, the son of a bureaucrat in the state civil service and the grandson of the village headmaster, in a village in Anantnag district, Jammu and Kashmir. His childhood was relatively peaceful and uncomplicated, bound up with the circadian rhythms of village life and the seasonal cycles of farm work and winter slowdown.
Sent at the age of 11 to a boarding school a few miles from the village, he feasts on books by Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, and Robert Louis 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.
But 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 stability 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, Peer gains an awareness not available to him in Kashmir, of “the various Indias that existed, Indias that I liked and cared about”. 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.
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. The living must resign themselves to the loss and try and stay under the radar.
Meanwhile, for every person who is confirmed dead, there is another who has disappeared without a trace. 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 and continually accused by one side of sympathy for the other. Thus the living, too, “have buried and cremated the individuals they had once been”. Srinagar, the capital, is a ghost town of “empty streets, locked shops, angry soldiers, and boys with stones”.
As is evident from some of these sentences, Peer has found a language equal to the burden of representing the anger and loss of an entire world and a whole generation disfigured and blighted 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.
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