Bringing Kashmiri stories to life
Unlike current-affairs discussions that anaesthetise the Kashmir problem, fiction reminds us that human lives are involved too
Why should you read the heart-breaking stories that comprise the recently-published The Night of Broken Glass by Feroz Rather (222 pages, HarperCollins India)? Recently, there has been much written about Article 35A of the Constitution of India, which empowers the Jammu and Kashmir legislature to say who is that state's "permanent resident" and who is not. Permanent residents have special rights and privileges: they can acquire land in J&K, government jobs, aid and scholarships. Kashmiris want it to stay because they fear demographic change in the Kashmiri Muslim-dominated Valley — as has happened in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, where a great many Punjabi Muslims have settled. An RSS think tank has challenged it judicially and it is currently being heard by the Supreme Court.
The Kashmiris are as afraid of demographic change as the Assamese, whose draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) was recently published. The right wing tom-toms the NRC, which has excluded four lakh residents, because the majority population in Assam is Hindu. The right wing challenges 35A because the majority in J&K is Muslim. (Then, of course, are the legal and Constitutional arguments.)
The writings, I found, are dry and virtually academic in nature. Such newspaper and magazine articles seem to anaesthetise the problem of Kashmir, forgetting that human lives are involved. This is also a shortcoming of much non-fiction that is published about Kashmir: they are so caught up in historical perspectives or in arguments with Pakistanis (who claim Kashmir as Partition's unfinished business) that they neglect humanism in their approach. Even a book like Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, co-written by former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief AS Dulat and myself in 2015, which is more sympathetic to Kashmiris than most mainstream writing you'll find, is more a top-down than bottom-up view of the matter.
This is where fiction plays a critical role in understanding the world in more than just a schematic way. I must confess that my own life has comprised phases where I loved and devoured fiction, and phases where I found fiction to be completely wanting, given the intensity of my own professional experience (such as reporting from Kashmir). The Night of Broken Glass is a vivid illustration of the importance of fiction to our comprehension of our world. It is fiction that fellow Indians can't ignore — and if you pick it up, you cannot but love.
Rather's 13 stories are intertwined, with characters reappearing in different stories, much like Kashmir's traditional artisanal work (Maryam, a budding journalist in 'The Pheran' also embroiders pherans). Some stories are set on Srinagar's outskirts, and some on Anantnag's outskirts, near Bijbehara. Their characters are sympathetic because they are simply trying to understand their circumstances, a universal of the human condition. Their problem is that their circumstances are weighed down by an 'occupation force'; and violence is unpredictable — as in 'The Stone Thrower', the story of 15-year-old Amir, who is returning home from school across a bridge when a bullet splits his skull in half.
Well-etched characters are half the job done in good writing and that is the case here. One of my favourite moments came in 'The Pheran', when Maryam, who lives alone with her father, learns that her cousin, who had dropped her home after dinner, was shot dead at a checkpoint on his way back home the previous evening. She is with her lover, but she is so overwhelmed that she wails for her cousin: "Maine mahrazo, maine mahrazo, my bridegroom, my bridegroom!" A reminder that life is always filled with complications of the heart, whoever you are and whatever your circumstances.
Lest you think it is totally unsympathetic to India's uniformed personnel, there's 'The Nightmares of Major S'. This armyman has no doubt let his animal side get the better of him — perhaps that is unavoidable, given the 'occupation' that he mans — and the price he pays is experienced in inescapably vivid detail during his sleepless nights. Or 'The Rebel's Return', which tells the story of Ilham who has been killed in custody by Inspector Masoodi, but whose ghost returns to live in the Inspector's basement, and provides a companion to the Inspector's son, who grows up to be an inspector himself.
It is these stories, and books like Basharat Peer's memoir (and his script for Haider) or Mirza Waheed's novels or Sajad Malik's graphic novel, that take you beyond the dry news debates into the hearts of the Kashmiri people, living the past 30 years in the most beautiful open prison in the world. Things have worsened for Kashmiris since 2014, with our lapdog media and other partisans managing to paint Kashmir as a population of traitors. It is only literature, Rather reminds us with his collection of absolute gems, that will save us all.
Aditya Sinha's latest book, The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace, co-written with AS Dulat and Asad Durrani, is available now. He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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