‘Rumours of Spring: A Girlhood in Kashmir’ review: Growing up under curfew

Farah Bashir has written an extraordinary, poignant account of life as an adolescent in the conflict-ridden Kashmir of the 1990s. A narrative on the death and funeral preparations for Bobeh, the protagonist’s beloved grandmother, is interspersed with multiple flashbacks where the author recounts growing up in Srinagar when militancy was at its peak.

The chapters of Rumours of Spring follow the day of Bobeh’s funeral — Evening, Night, Early Hours, Dawn, Morning, Afterlife — and each touches on different aspects of Farah’s life. Kashmir is often seen through the lens of politics and violence. Farah humanises the violence in a heartrending way and makes you reflect on the kind of life it must have been for a young girl growing up in constant curfew, with sounds of gunfire and convoys, and the perpetual talk of death. Every simple aspect of life we take for granted is fraught with terror. Exchanging love letters with a young man is brutally interrupted and never resumed when the post office is burnt down; attempting to escape the strict Islamic dress code by wearing a high pony tail and lowering her socks ends when a friend has acid thrown on her because she was wearing jeans; she makes herself invisible and less attractive by wearing a headscarf, plucking out her hair, not washing her face for days, not wanting to look attractive in any way, so that she doesn’t attract unwanted attention.

Killing field

An asthmatic neighbour cracks open a tightly shut window to get a breath of fresh air and is instantly killed by a stray bullet; Farah suffers from pain during her periods and does not get up for a medicine in case a creaking staircase attracts dangers for the family. No wonder that she suffers from anxiety, palpitations, sleeplessness and is diagnosed with PTSD — as a friend jokes, in Kashmir it should mean Perennially Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Time is measured before and after 1990, when “crackdown” or search operations and curfew become a part of life. The simple pleasures of life are curtailed: the joy of eating freshly baked bread is lost when the aroma is blended with jackboots. Children don’t play hopscotch or hide and seek in the courtyard at the evening play hour; instead, “these days it was common to see children enact scenes of an ‘encounter’ between the troops and the militants or be busy making toy guns out of wooden planks and discarded wires.”

Happy moments

The adolescent Farah yet tries to steal some happy moments, carrying the imported music system bought by her father in Saudi Arabia to a forgotten storeroom and having secret afternoons dancing to Nazia Hassan’s ‘Disco Deewane’. Also shining through are glimpses of the rich cultural heritage of Kashmir — from pherans, kangas, kahwa and nun chai to traditional foods served at weddings and funerals, and practices such as storing grain for the whole year and drying vegetables to eat during the harsh winters.

Through the protagonist’s memories we get a view of history in a deeply personal manner; the exodus of Sikhs and Kashmiri Pandits from the valley in 1990 is understood through the eyes of the girl whose neighbour Lakshmisree Kaul suddenly vanishes with her family in 1990. The fall of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the siege of the Hazratbal shrine in 1993 are events that show her that her exam grades are no longer of any importance, and she loses the will to perform well.

A particularly poignant and recurring motif that runs through the book is the importance of newspapers: a glimpse of an Indian newspaper lying next to Bobeh’s body provides a sense of relief, with Farah examining the coloured advertisement on the front page featuring a woman next to a mattress with the words ‘Guaranteed Comfort’ floating around her head. A page filled with comics, a crossword puzzle, film releases and horoscope readings is in stark contrast with the Kashmiri dailies, which are “mortuaries laid out on broadsheets”, “report cards of death”, “mass killings, firing on unarmed protestors, grenade blasts killing civilians and troops… Horrific headlines punctuated with photographs of men with disfigured faces and gaping mouths.” She finds it comforting to read the obituaries section, to know that people still die of old age, illnesses, under ordinary circumstances, and to see Bobeh’s name on the obituary pages, knowing that she died of natural causes, bring some moments of calm.

Rumours of Spring: A Girlhood in Kashmir; Farah Bashir, HarperCollins, ₹499.

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Printable version | Oct 24, 2021 5:56:22 AM |

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