Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Curfewed Night: By Basharat Peer – Book Review

I had read this book immediately after it appeared it print in 2008. Recently I happened to re-read it and found that it has lost none of its authenticity or relevance. A work of non-fiction by Basharat Peer, a journalist who now lives in the US, Curfewed Night is the story of Kashmir, Peer’s Kashmir and, my, my, what a tale it is!

The first dozen odd pages tell us the story of Kashmir prior to commencement of the insurgency in January 1990. Peer’s prose is excellent and his description of life in Kashmir reminded me of a collection of Armenian short stories (“We Of The Mountains”) I had read many, many years ago. Life in the valley was simple, sweet and straight forward. It also reminded me of Kerala a little bit, what with farmers holding government jobs – Peer’s father is the headmaster of a government school and his father a civil servant – working nine to five and taking care of their fields and crops after office hours.

Until the troubles erupted in 1990, Peer tells us that Kashmiris weren’t not too political. They supported the Pakistani cricket team when it played India but otherwise, their political affiliation with either side was lukewarm. Even Peer, the son of a Kashmiri civil servant, cheered for Pakistan. Peer doesn’t explain why this should be so. No, Peer doesn’t question Kashmir’s accession to India – he merely tells us that when Pakistani tribesmen supported by the Pakistani army invaded Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh decided to join India and that Sheikh Abdullah, who was a friend of Nehru, supported the Maharaja.

In the beginning, Peer’s narrative is essentially what he himself saw in those turbulent days rather than a holistic one. Peer is very sympathetic to the Kashmiri freedom movement and dreams of joining the militants. Once again, there are no long drawn (ideological) explanations as to why Peer wants Kashmir to be independent rather than be a part of India. Peer tells us that the militants killed many Pandits and those who survived left the Valley. Many classrooms became half empty. Some of Peer’s friends went off to join the militants and never returned. Peer makes it clear that the Pandits’ departure made him sad, but his support for the militants doesn’t abate as a result.

The average Kashmiri’s support for the insurgency is shown to be tempered with pragmatism. Ordinary people do their best to dissuade militants from attacking convoys near their houses out of fear of having to bear the brunt of the army’s retaliation. Just as in Mirza Waheed’s “The Collaborator”, Peer too shows the Indian army and paramilitary forces as overwhelmingly strong and powerful. Peer doesn’t hesitate to tell us of casualties suffered by the militants, but is silent on the number of soldiers or paramilitary men killed. For example, Peer tells us how once JKLF militants attacked an Indian army convoy that passed by their village. All villagers fled to the neighbouring village before the attack began. No, no one even thought of warning the army, though, before fleeing, they did (unsuccessfully) plead with the militants to attack the convoy elsewhere. Peer and his family returned the next day and they found bullets inside their house. We are not told of the outcome of the attack on the convoy – most probably Peer thought it irrelevant to his story.

One of the best things about Peer’s tale is that he manages to bring out the human side of the militants’. Peer tells us how Asif, a militant, gave up fighting.

'One day our commander told us that we had to attack an army convoy. I picked up my Kalashnikov. We were about to leave and I began shivering. I was too scared and death seemed so real. I left soon after that. My commanders were kind enough to let me go.

If you thought that Curfewed Night is all about violence and anger and hatred, you couldn’t be more wrong. Peer does not fail to see humour even when the talk is of fighting and death.

'One morning a young man from our village who worked in Srinagar gave a speech at the mosque. He grabbed the microphone and shouted, ‘Kabiran kabira!’ The slogan meant, ‘Who is the greatest?’ But no one understood. None of us spoke Arabic. He shouted again and there was silence – then the adolescents in the last row, the backbenchers of faith, began to laugh. Embarrassed, the young man explained that in reply to the slogan, we were supposed to shout ‘Allah o Akbar!’ (God is great.) He shouted again, ‘Kabiran kabira!’ He was answered with a hesitant, awkward ‘Allah o Akbar’. For about a year after, we teased him.'

I don’t mind repeating yet again that Peer writes very well. When Peer wants to elaborate how school students and teenagers idolised militants, he says:

‘Militants wore Kamachi shoes and boys wanted Kamachi shoes. Militants replaced the stones in their rings with pistol bullets and boys replaced the stones in their rings with pistol bullets.'

After about sixty pages on militancy in Kashmir, Peer starts telling us of how he moved to Delhi, studied at the Aligarh Muslim University and later Delhi University and then found employment as a journalist. After the shift to Delhi, I started to understand Peer a lot better. Suddenly, he became someone like me, someone I could understand, even relate to, in certain respects.

The attack on the Indian Parliament made life difficult for Peer on account of his Kashmiri origin. Unable to find a Landlord who would agree to have a Kashmiri Muslim tenant, Peer considered leaving Delhi, until a kindly Kashmiri Pandit landlady gave him a roof over his head. Peer devotes a number of pages to the Syed Geelani story pursuant to the attack on the Indian parliament. Geelani was convicted by the trial court under POTA solely on the basis of a semi-coherent two and a half minute phone call made on the day after the attack. Later the Delhi High Court acquitted Geelani, quite rightly in my opinion.

Once Peer decided to tell Kashmir’s story, he went out of his way to meet victims of torture by Indian security forces, displaced Pandits and even Indian soldiers - to find out their point of view. He succeeds admirably with regard to torture victims and Pandits, but I thought his effort with Indian army men was not very impressive.

Curfewed Night is a slim volume, it does not exceed 250 pages, but is crammed with information about Kashmir. There are stories of funerals of militants, of militants switching sides and joining the Kukka Parray, of (failed) attempts by fundamentalists like Asiya Andrabi to impose a Saudi style of Islam in Kashmir and how much it takes to bribe minor bureaucrats and policemen so that relatives of innocent people killed in the violence can get some compensation. Peer also throws in bits of Kashmir’s history here and there and one gets to know of its Buddhist heritage and how it became a part of the Mughal Empire.

The only factual error I could find was when Peer tells his readers that ‘Kashmir was the largest of the approximately five hundred princely states under British sovereignty as of 1947’ Wiki tells me that it was Hyderabad. Kashmir came in at number two. In these matters, I trust Wiki more than Peer.

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