It has been defined in many myriad ways, in endless variations of experience.
And as the saying goes, in time we hate what we often fear.
For Kashmiri journalist and author Basharat Peer — growing up in the 1980s in Anantnag district as the separatist movement in the state gathered momentum before snowballing into a full-blown conflict — that fear and hatred could lurk anywhere in his neighbourhood, at any moment of time.
As Peer narrates in Curfewed Night, it could be in the cricket field, in the long wait at the bus station for his bureaucrat father to return home for the weekend, or in the darkened hall of a school where he waited with trepidation for the arrival of the state interrogator — was he simply going to be questioned? Tortured? Detained? Or become another piece of statistic in the long list of people who simply vanished after they were picked up by the security apparatus?
That fear could also lie in tales of men such as Farooq Wani, a Kashmiri water supply engineer who was on his way to visit his uncle when security forces opened fire on a group of protesters at Gowkadal bridge: a volley of bullets pierced his body, but Wani lived to tell his tale.
Or in the ordeals of Bashir Lala, a simpleton cousin of Peer, who shivers and sweats and nearly has a cardiac arrest when a group of soldiers approach his grocery store simply to buy some batteries.
Or in the journey back from school in the bus — fearing every moment a landmine explosion or retaliatory fire from the military or both. In several cases, the fear comes true, but Peer survives.
Or in growing used to the reality behind the increasingly empty chairs in school, as conversation among friends veered more towards war, self-determination and “azaadi” (freedom) than literature and chemical science: “Along with killing hundreds of pro-India Muslims … the militants killed hundreds of [Kashmiri Hindu] Pandits on similar grounds or without a reason,” writes Peer.
Born in Kashmir in 1977, Peer recounts in this engrossing narrative why Kashmiris like him find no solace either in what he describes as the armed and stifled protection of India or in the militant indoctrination of Pakistan.
Beginning with the idyllic setting in a valley where the state radio plays songs celebrating the flowers in the meadows and the nightingales on willow branches, Peer’s autobiographical reportage records how life in the state degenerates and tests the ultimate levels of human endurance.
The so-called promise of freedom enamours Peer as much as his cousins, friends and scores of teenagers: “By the summer of 1990, thousands of young Kashmiri men crossed the Line of Control [LoC] for arms training in the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir … Like almost every teenager, I wanted to join them. Fighting and dying for freedom was much desired, like the first kiss on adolescent lips”.
Scenes of poignancy abound: the son of a police officer who served as a bodyguard of Kashmiri leader Shaikh Abdullah, confronts the reality of his son abruptly crossing the LoC to train as a militant in Pakistan. When he returns after a year, the village erupts in joy, but the father’s dilemma remains: “The militant son talked, the retired police officer listened”.
The pain, anger and hatred spills over into sport as well. During his university days in Aligarh, writes Peer, “whenever a cricket match was screened in the television room of our hostel, my Indian Muslim friends cheered, sang, and rooted for the Indian cricket team. The Kashmiris cheered for Sri Lanka or whoever else was on the opposite team.”
While studying at Aligarh Muslim University, Peer begins to connect the outside world to the situation in his home state, finding echoes of Kashmir in the pages of Hemingway, Orwell, Dostoevsky and Turgenev.
His quest for the true history and heritage of his home state also leads him to discover more about the other Kashmir — the Kashmir where the great emperor Ashoka founded Srinagari on the outskirts of modern Srinagar around 250BC and where the fourth World Buddhist Council was held in the 200AD; where the 600-year-old shrine of Nuruddin Rishi, the patron Sufi saint of Kashmir, lies in as much utter neglect as the grave of murdered British historian Robert Thorpe, one of the earliest chroniclers of Kashmiri rebellions and their brutal suppression by the Dogra rulers; where youngsters gather to smoke in the ruins of the abandoned temples filled with cobwebs and pigeons.
As time goes by, history and reality diverge the furthest. The conflict intensifies, with fear and chaos ruling Kashmir.
“Almost every person knew someone who had joined the militants or had been arrested, tortured or beaten by the troops,” writes Peer. “Fathers wished they had daughters instead of sons … Mothers prayed for the safety of their daughters. People dreaded knocks on their doors at night. Men and women who left home for the day’s work were not sure they would return; thousands did not.”
Buried deep beneath the tonnes of analysis, dissertation and rhetoric on the Kashmiri situation, on the rise of militancy, army brutalities, the politics of goodwill visits and trade agreements, beneath all of these lies the voice of the quintessential Kashmiri who begins his day with a steaming kahwa gathered around his loved ones at home, unsure deep in his heart if the same group will meet back the next morning.
Curfewed Night is that voice of authentic Kashmir which tells Indians, Pakistanis and the rest of the world that life like the way it is in the valley: the dreams, desires, aspirations and misgivings of the Kashmiri society in its constant quest to evolve a unique identity.
Peer’s vivid and eloquent account is a stark reminder that while the situation in the valley once admired as paradise on Earth is manipulated as a tool across both sides of the border to divert attention from domestic difficulties or for geopolitical gains, the tragedy of Kashmir continues to unfold in the curfewed silence of the night and the fearsome light of the day.