Art and CulturePakistan

Beauty behind barbed wires


Rizwana Naqvi


December 11, 2022

Often called Paradise on Earth, the Kashmir valley is known for its beauty. But since long, its beauty is marred by death and destruction, and fear among the residents prevents them from enjoying the scenic beauty of the place. The problems started in 1947 as India and Pakistan gained independence. As 77 per cent of the population of the Princely state of Kashmir in British India was Muslim, it was anticipated that it would accede to Pakistan, but that did not happen. Since then Kashmir has been a disputed territory with both India and Pakistan controlling parts of the valley.

To counter the separatist movements in the valley, the Indian government maintains a strong military presence there, especially since the end of the 1980s, when, disillusioned with lack of progress through the democratic process, militant organisations began to pop up in the region trying to resist Indian control. The insurgency gained momentum in the second half of 1989 as the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) intensified attacks on Indian spies and political collaborators.

Living in times of such strife is not easy; it’s more difficult for young adolescents who feel the tension but their young minds are not strong enough to understand and accept all that is happening around them.

Farah Bashir, a former photojournalist with Reuters and now working as communications consultant, lived through the turmoil of insurgency in Kashmir in the 1980s and 90s. Her first book Rumours of Spring is an account of a childhood spent in a siege-like situation. The book details everyday fears and problems faced by the people living in town-down Srinagar, where curfews and crackdowns were a norm, and people were forced to live with the sound of guns, the sight of military convoys and soldiers everywhere, and the fear of death looming around, and how they made adjustments to cope with the situation.

Farah Bashir narrates how, with the troops and militants battling across the city, violence became the new normal, and how as a young schoolgirl she found ordinary tasks such as studying for exams, walking to the bus stop, falling asleep, punctuated with anxiety and fear. At the same time, she talks about the times when she felt resilient amidst the increasing trauma and turmoil of the passing years, and engaged in activities such as secretly dancing to pop songs on banned radio stations or writing her first love letter, etc.

The story starts with the death of Bashir’s paternal grandmother in 1994, and moves back and forth between 1994 and 1989. The funeral has to wait till the next day because of the night curfew — her father’s thoughts are about the problem of arranging curfew passes for the mourners and “What if they shoot someone?” as he decides to postpone the funeral till the next day. However, despite restrictions and curfew, relatives and friends arrive to offer their condolences.

As she sits by her grandmother’s body, unable to pray as she doesn’t want to say her final goodbye to her beloved grandmother, memories of the days spent in love, in fear, and in anticipation begin to fill her mind. She thinks of the times when life was normal, when they could easily go out without the fear of being stopped at the check-posts or having to rush before the night curfew. She recalls the Eid of 1989 when she happily went out with her sister for her first visit to the salon but on return gets to know that she was presumed dead by her family due to the rumour about the death of a 12-year-old girl, after which she “decided to never participate in the festivities again. … I began associating inexplicable melancholy with Eid.”

She also recalls the times when you could move around your house without the fear of wood creaking under one’s steps. Now, even going to the toilet at night would evoke fear as the creaking stairs could lead to an army interrogation and perhaps even shooting a stray bullet. She recalls when a 74-year-old asthmatic neighbour flung open her bedroom window, with “the wooden planks jostling against each other and made some noise”, to catch a breath of fresh air but instead caught a stray bullet.

There’s an interesting account of her aunt stealthily saluting the night patrol, and admitting with guilt, “I thought next time there is a search operation or a shootout in the neighbourhood, the troops would show some mercy. Maybe they’d remember that someone from this house saluted them.” The aunt’s house had been burnt down when after a gun battle between militants and paramilitary forces, the troops had set fire to the site of the encounter. As the fire spread in the congested neighbourhood, the aunt’s house was gutted.

The author narrates how everything changed post 1989. The insurgency and militancy which resulted in the increased presence of Indian Army in the valley made Kashmir one of the most militarised zones of the world. All these factors affected the day-to-day lives of the people of Kashmir and changed their lives. The author recalls how her grandmother used to hum wanwun, a Kashmiri song mostly sung at weddings, while she spun yarn skeins but stopped humming, saying, “wanwun belongs to the funeral of young men now, rather than weddings.” Her father who would normally sit relaxed against a large cushion, smoking his cigarette at leisure, while reading his newspapers, “began crouching as if always in a hurry and almost ready to get up.” Bashir herself, who after her sister’s wedding, had begun sketching — she would only sketch the backs of men and women as her grandmother objected to drawing faces — though continued making sketches, her pages “were taken over by drawings of guns, spools of barbed wires and helmets of soldiers” and when she didn’t sketch “I pulled my hair out, sometimes stealthily, sometimes openly, without caring much about being scolded or inviting glances from everyone, especially Bobeh.”

Bashir creates poignant pictures with her words. The reader is transported to the location, and can feel the suffocation, the trauma, and the tension of living under the constant watch of the army. There’s a touching account of herself and her pregnant sister being stranded at a grocery shop and worrying about their parents, especially her father who was held up elsewhere due to a shootout, and mother who went looking for him. The words so powerfully sketch the fear Bashir and her sister experienced. At the same time, it brings out the humanity in the grocer who did not pull down the shutters of his shop completely despite the risk to his shop and staff.

When Bashir notices her young nephew being petrified of sounds, she wonders “if the fear had anything to do with the chaos and trauma that he must have absorbed in Hina’s belly on the day of the shootout near the grocer’s shop.” The child was born one and a half month after the incident at the grocer’s shop.

The sight of her cousin coming forward to lift the coffin of her grandmother to be carried out for burial, brings back memories of the funeral procession of Mirwaiz Maulvi Mohammed Farooq, the chief cleric and political leader who had been shot dead in his house, as described by the same cousin who was “one of the survivors of the carnage that the funeral had been turned into.” The details of the carnage during the funeral procession explains the horror that people lived in. “The firing didn’t stop. The people were being killed and injured. Maulvi Sa’ab’s coffin shifted from the pallbearers in the front to the pallbearers behind them. … It was tough to not stumble on the fallen, dead bodies before us. … I don’t know how we managed to take Maulvi sa’ab amidst all that.”

Incidents in the state’s history, such as the siege of Hazratbal shrine in 1993, are interwoven with personal narrative. The siege that lasted around 40 days led to panic and despair among the people. Unsure of the outcome and uncertainty, “I lost the resolve to do well in my exams. What was the point? People were struggling to stay alive. How did my distinction matter? … Our lives were controlled from somewhere else and the dreams that we dreamt were always at the mercy of someone else, someone occupying us, ruling us.”

She remembers her friends who had to leave quietly for security reasons, like many other rich families who had businesses outside the valley. “The militants did have some affluent families on their list of large sums of donation.” The kidnapping of Rubaiya Saeed, the daughter of the then Indian Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, by Kashmiri separatist militants in Srinagar, was enough to spark fear and drive many to leave the valley. Rubaiya’s release was secured after the release of some jailed members of Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) as per the kidnappers’ demand.

An incident where children played a prank on one of the child’s brothers by kidnapping him evokes memories of the games that they used to play before 1989 and which had “disappeared from the streets, from our courtyards.” Instead of playing chuppan chuppai, hide and seek or lakad-lakad, “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.” Her sister’s words are worth noting: “what distinguishes them [children born in ‘post-Tehreek’ era] from the ones born before the active resistance movement is the lack of fear! That, and this envious ability to laugh at the fear in its face”.

A lot changed due to curfews, and the uncertainty it brought; a lot of adjustments had to be made, which were not always welcome. For instance, her mother who took pride in her elaborate recipes had to change her cooking style, to use less oil and more water to make each dish last longer. “Like so many aspects of our lives, mother’s kitchen too seemed unfamiliar. The way food tasted changed. … I detested the new kind of watery curries.”

Sharing her experience of the conflict in Kashmir in the 1990s when bunkers, frisking, colluding with statist forces, and search and cordon operations were a new norm, the author describes what it means to live under military occupation, how it can lead to phobias and unhealthy habits, affect mental and physical wellness, and a general decrease in the quality of life.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Rumours of Spring is a book that one should read if they want to understand the everyday lives of the people of Kashmir under army control.

Rizwana Naqvi is a freelance journalist and tweets [email protected] She can be reached at [email protected] All information and facts provided are the sole responsibility of the writer

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