Curfewed Night is an evocative and moving rendition of all that has happened in Kashmir over the last 20 years.
Curfewed Night, Basharat Peer, Random House, p.246, Rs. 395.
Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night brought back the days I was in Srinagar as a young lad. My uncle was a police offer posted there and I visited almost every corner of the valley, taking in the breathtaking beauty that lay before me. No Scotland or Wales could match a landscape that people from across the world take risks to visit even during such disturbed times. As Peer writes: “Spring was the season of green mountains and meadows, blushing snow and an expanse of yellow mustard flowers in the fields around our village.” And now this beautiful land lies scarred with the Kashmiri secular youth holding the Indian Government responsible for rigging elections and sending in forces that have heartlessly exterminated all who come under suspicion. The referendum that the Kashmiris want so desperately is postponed indefinitely. A political solution across the table is called for. Violence or mass migration is not the answer.
The book is an evocative and moving rendition of what happened in Kashmir over the last fifteen years that compelled many to desire a re-affiliation of their national leanings, and this time with Pakistan. It is a searching and forceful insight into the working of democratic institutes and the pretensions of a secular State ideology that is preached with agendas that are blatantly intended for political expediency. The various stories guide the reader through the harrowing and contentious historical and political issues that inform Kashmir’s volatile period of insurgency over more than half a century and the appalling role of the Indian State, alerting the reader to the inside story of Kashmir’s dark history.
It is by reading this simple and excellent narrative on Kashmir that Peer not only retrieves his history, but enables the reader to alter his perspective of what is the truth behind the camouflage of the New Delhi agenda. The story is the tragedy of Kashmir ending on a note of hope “that someday the war they were fighting and the reasons for its existence would disappear like footsteps on winter snow in my childhood.”
The violent history of Kashmir, with its disastrous record of terrorism and bloodshed is here recounted by a Kashmiri Muslim who is deeply touched by the turmoil in his land: “Both Kashmir and I had changed. The heady, rebellious Kashmir I left as a teenager was now a land of brutalised, exhausted and uncertain people. I was now in my late twenties, already old. The conflict might leave the streets, but it might not leave the soul.” With young militants being born daily, Peer’s parents sent him to a school in Aligarh. For years he trained to become a journalist and eventually made a ritual return to his home to find his idyllic valley turned into a land of loss and sorrow. Though residing outside his State, his soul remained within the turmoil of his land, and his later views a testimony of his concern for his people. During his stay in Aligarh he dreams of becoming a writer: “It was uninspiring, except for the well-stocked University Library. I heard echoes of Kashmir in the pages of Hemingway, Orwell, Dostoevsky and Turgenev… I wondered if one could write like that about Kashmir but kept the thought to myself.”
His dream came true when he decided one day to begin writing his book. For him, writing becomes a mode of survival and an act of resistance in the face of an unprecedented crisis. As he narrates, the year 1989 ushered in the rise of the rebellious youth who were tempted to cross over the border for guerilla training that would be used to counter the hegemony of the Indian State and win back their fast eroding autonomy. Peer gives a clear revelation of Kashmir’s Muslim leanings and the hurtful past and present that motivates the Kashmiri to even back the Pakistan cricket team: “Grandma sat facing Mecca on a prayer mat, seeking divine help for the Pakistan team.” Peer himself had “a sense of alienation and resentment most Kashmiri Muslims felt against Indian rule.” The deep-seated desire of the people was to push Indians out. The hostile feelings in the youth are clear : “One afternoon we were on the football field when a militant passed by. Even our snooty games teacher went up to him, smiled, and shook hands. The militant took off his loose pheran and showed us his gun. ‘We call it Kalashnikov and the Indians call it AK-47,’ the militant said. We clapped. From then on we all carried our cricket bats inside our pherans, in imitation and preparation.”
The massacre of January 21, 1990 on the Gowkadal bridge by the CRPF had become a catalyst in the unification of anti-Indian sentiment in Kashmir. As Peer writes in an article, “The calls for independence have been so widespread and powerful that a friend’s two-year-old daughter shocked me by launching into the protestors’ slogan: ‘We Want! Freedom!’ Many teenagers have invented a new dance of defiance against Indian rule.
The book is quietly but firmly positive, the outlook is from within and the voices belong to Kashmir and its agonising cry of pain. Basharat Peer handles the macabre with telling restraint and the pathetic without any false embarrassment. Nevertheless, it is a heart-rending account of a placid valley where life has been made sour by the ignominy of politics, where the language of politics has excluded the voices of the people. It offers a position designed to expose a fuller understanding of history as recalled by the people who are the real sufferers: “I’m not a solutions guy,” Peer says. “Ultimately it is public opinion, those most affected who have to decide. But one thing I know; it can’t be top down.”
There is probably no other book on Kashmir that shows such love and warmth for its subject as well as the deep-seated concern for the dark fate of its people. It is neither parochial nor ethnocentric. It is human and this is what is most vital to changing the misconceptions of many.