By Basharat Peer
Random House India. 2008. 243 pages. Paperback. Rs. 295.
I’ve been a journalist since June 1976. Yes, that’s midway through the hated Emergency in India, when I joined Indian Express, Madras/ Chennai, as a rookie. I’ve read reams of reportage and editorials and other media output on Kashmir. But I have to confess that I really did not understand what had happened in Kashmir since 1989 until I read this book by Basharat Peer.
I won’t even try to summarize ‘Curfewed Night.’ It’s an act of love, a splendid interweave of history, reportage and memoir that moved me intensely the first time I read it in 2010. I can understand with clarity and empathy why a whole generation of protesters has come into being in Kashmir.
Confessions first. I had never been to Kashmir until 2008, on our way back from a trek in the Markha Valley in Ladakh. Six of us drove towards Jammu in a SUV through the dark night past Kargil, Drass and other places that created a mind buzz from past reportage. I couldn’t sleep. So, I kept my eyes on the luminous moon overhead.
The jammed mountain roads teemed with army trucks, filled with men in camouflage fatigues. En route, we were repeatedly stopped to ask if we had seen an escapee from the army, a Sikh soldier. At one point, we had to disembark, while army personnel frisked us and emptied out our luggage.
On the way to Srinagar, we didn’t go to Dal Lake. We stopped at a roadside dhaba for aloo parathas and chai for breakfast. Our eyes took in soldiers in uniform, their guns pointed at some invisible enemy, in idyllic wheat, mustard and rice fields.
In Srinagar, armoured personnel carriers rambled through the streets in daylight. Young men, supposedly on daily errands, were stopped and searched on the streets. It was definitely a city in siege, mentally, physically and emotionally.
I’ve been a journalist, but never a reporter. So, I’ve never been in a minefield or a war zone. The closest to that experience was probably during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965, while I was at school in Jaipur. Sirens went off from time to time. Our windows were blacked out with paper and paint. During air raid drills, we had to run out of class or our hostels, and jump into the closest trench. If we had time, we were told to grab hold of a small bag each with our bare necessities. It was both exciting and scary at 10 or 11.
Act 2. Then came the war to liberate Bangladesh when I was a teenager at college in Kolkata in 1971. I recall that Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Arora and his wife, friends of my parents, had come to dinner at our home, along with others, in November 1971. In December, Indian troops marched into East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh. Over 2 million civilians died. Over 400,000 women were raped by the Pakistan armed forces. I was horrified, more distressed by the day over man’s inhumanity to humankind. I was a pacifist even then.
Act 3. In the mid-1980s, while at Indian Express, I was talked into interviewing Gavin Young, who reported for the Sunday Times in London, by our editor Saeed Naqvi. He insisted that I would find Young intelligent and engaging because he had covered 14 wars across the globe, including the Vietnam war for over a decade. I’ll never forget what Young he told me: that wars are not about soldiers and generals, politicians or power; they are about little people in unknown places who are impacted by it all. (Young was, after all, a witness to the surrender of Pakistani Lt. Gen. Niazi to Gen. Arora in a bunker in former East Pakistan).
His home-truth rang sharply through my being as I read Peer’s human documentary in words. He made me think of the mythical ‘objectivity’ that is supposed to be the mean in journalism. After all Peer did report for Tehelka, which I respect. But how can you possibly be objective about your family, your closest friends, a land that means the world to you? Basharat Peer brings Kashmir today alive with confidence, emotion ~ and a quiet, yet poetic, touch. That’s an amazing feat, to my eyes.
At just 32 when the book was published in 2008, Peer couched his reportage with flair and great emotional intelligence. Such as the impact of the interrogation camp at Papa-2, or the shattering impact of ‘disappeared persons,’ or how the redressal mechanism is totally corrupted, or the disappearance of Kashmiri Pandits and where they are now.
Take this excerpt about the book’s raison d’etre:
“I shared some stories with a few friends in New Delhi, but I could never say everything. I would find myself stopping in the middle of a sentence, choked, rendered inarticulate by memory. The telling, even in the shade of intimacy, was painful. There was also a sense of shame that overcame me very time I walked into a bookstore. People from almost every conflict zone had told their stories: Palestinians, Israelis, Bosnians, Kurds, Tibetans, Lebanese, East Germans, Africans, East Timorese, and many more. I felt the absence of our own telling, the unwritten books about the Kashmiri experience, from the bookshelves, as vividly as the absence of a beloved ~ the empty chair staring at you across the table in a coffee shop, the vacant seat in a theatre playing a movie she would have laughed through, the email with an idiosyncratic title that did not arrive in the inbox. The memories and stories of Kashmir that I carried with me like my VIP suitcase could fade away. I had to find the words to save memory from the callous varnish of time. I knew I had to write. And to write, I had to return and revisit the people and places that had haunted me for years…”
This is the story of Peer’s life. But it is equally about the lives of the 70,000 young men who have lost their lives in the ongoing battle in Kashmir. For bereft of hope, without access to quality education or good jobs, a youthful generation has chosen to model its resistance on the stone-throwing youths of the second Palestinian intifada, not on the Pakistani militias who trained them to use guns.
Curfewed Night was on the New Yorker list of the year’s 100 best books. Granta editor John Freeman picked it among the five best debut books of the year. It won the Vodaphone Crossword non-fiction award 2008.
Why? For multiple reasons. Peer has access to the men who move about only at night. He tunes in to those who fight against the might of the Indian state. But most deeply, he is the voice of real Kashmiri people, like the old man who, mourning his murdered family, said to Peer: “Go back and tell them what has happened here.”
Peer has done just that. He reveals the insider truths of Kashmir of the recent past with an incandescent brilliance that is tragic, poignant, and impossible to forget. If you’ve been as puzzled as I was about the true story of this tragic state, this is the one book I would reach for. It lights the way to understanding.