Review: A Memoir From Kashmir Bracketed by Death

Most periods of violence and conflict are often followed by a period of mourning, of silence, reflective perhaps of the trauma that such an infliction brings about – a trauma that makes articulation in language almost impossible. This is true to a great extent of at least mainstream literature emanating from, or about the violence-torn Valley of Kashmir.

However, of late, there has been a growing attempt to give voice to the everyday experience of the ordinary people of Kashmir, caught in an extraordinary situation over which they barely have any control. What is further remarkable about this developing  literary trend is that the writing emerges in spite of the incessant violence, marked by intermittent periods of uneasy peace. Rumours of Spring: A Girlhood in Kashmir by Farah Bashir is an effort in this same direction that evocatively takes us into the heart of Kashmir during the violence-torn ’90s.

Rumours of Spring: A Girlhood in Kashmir
Farah Bashir
Fourth Estate, 2021

A memoir, Rumours is framed by the demise, and the subsequent funeral of Bobeh, the grandmother of the girl-protagonist-narrator through whose unique perspective the stories unfold. It’s a Kashmir in which every night is a Shab e-Barat night, a night during which you keep vigil for the departed, a place and a time where the imposing and the lifting of curfew marks the beginning and ending of a day, a day often riddled with blasts, grenade attacks and random searches. It’s a world where violence is a constant, a fact of life, as normal and as regular as the daily chores that mark the regular ordinariness of yours, and my life. It is a world where complete unpredictability, violent intrusions into the private space, unending brutality and resulting trauma, is the order of the day.

Shredded and slivered lives

The stories, effectively a recollection of memories, are episodic in nature, disjointed, fragmented; capturing the very nature of shredded and slivered lives that the people of Kashmir have been forced to reconcile with. It’s a world where every innocent and happy memory is soon tainted by the dark and tragic – a prayer ground turns into a martyr’s ground overnight, a young girl whose engagement you had just learnt about is blown to smithereens a few minutes later, a son you saw off in the morning simply vanishes into thin air, or his bullet-riddled body is found on some street in broad daylight.

Love, filial, friendly, romantic is possible but often dies an untimely death. Stolen glances, seemingly unplanned meeting of lovers, the exchanging of love-letters are all determined and curtailed by curfews and blasts that raze to the ground the only post-office in town. Language exists but it becomes an impossible medium to reach out to a friend whose father is abducted and killed, or for a daughter to communicate to her mother the terror that besets at the fall of dusk every single day. Sometimes of course, those like the deaf-mute Koal are inhumanely robbed off the comfort of utterance of even the one word that he was capable of.

Us and them

What the recollections repeatedly highlight is how the most mundane aspects of everyday life is a luxury, or an impossibility, for those who inhabit the Valley. Fresh air is a luxury, something like inching open a window could mean the difference between sight and blindness, or worse. You learn to live with pain out of necessity because just the creaking of the floorboards at night while you got yourself some medicine might invite the wrath of the ever-patrolling army. You forget the rituals that once ushered or bade farewell to a season because time stood still, the sirens, and the thuds of army boots, or the announcements of crackdowns on loudspeakers, remaining the only markers of the passage of time.

The yawning chasm between our reality and those in the Valley is poignantly painted in an everyday scene of wrapping notebooks wherein a world of “unending deaths, killings, arrests and protests” printed on the local, black and white, Urdu newspapers is juxtaposed against the colourful, national, English dailies with of a world scented by  “colognes, couples grinning wide to show their perfect dentition…”

As always, with any conflict, women and children are always the subject of multiple jeopardies. Often, the man – emasculated by violence, a mute spectator to regular instances of humiliation – turns on the woman to unleash his pent-up fury, directs his frustrations at her, with tragic consequences sometimes, such as that of Nasreen, who takes her own life as she is unable to bear her husband Naseer’s abuse.

The stories told by the child-narrator is a narrative of innocence lost, a childhood interrupted, of a life bereft of dreams and hopes. It is this sense of utter helplessness, of all yesterdays, todays and tomorrows blurring into a cold and dark winter, enveloped in a red mist of blood and gore, that haunts you long after you leave the pages of Rumours of Spring. What you find here is an honest attempt at telling the world what it means to grow up in Kashmir without any kind of Faustian selling of the soul, but perhaps with a hope that the telling will finally bring about some understanding, some healing.

Shibani Phukan is a bibliophile and a lecturer at a Delhi University college.

Featured image: A Kashmiri woman travels in a boat in the waters of Dal Lake in Srinagar June 9, 2012. Photo: Reuters/Ahmad Masood