>Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer
Book Reviewed by Deepak.
Curfewed Night, a memoir by Kashmiri journalist Basharat Peer, is an attempt to tell the human side of the story. Every now and then, Kashmir and its protracted insurgency make headlines. But most of them talk about the tragedy as if it were mere statistics. While working as a journalist in Delhi in early 2000, Peer tells us, Kashmir was the almost daily death count in the newspapers.
Basharat grew up in the foothills of the Himalayas in the beautiful Valley, reading Shakespeare, Stevenson, Dickens, Kipling and Defoe. He has a fond memory of a blue Willys jeep driving to a village called Seer in southern Kashmir. “It would follow the black, ribbon-like road dividing vast expanses of paddy and mustard fields in a small valley guarded by the mighty Himalayas.” He had adoring parents, cricket playing mates and a familiar milieu. You may think his upbringing was nearly perfect. It was, almost. But the winter of 1990, when the author was just 13, brought war in the valley and his world went topsy-turvy. His idyll was shattered. He writes, “The war of my adolescent had started.”
Kashmir was a princely state under British rule in India. In 1947, when India and Pakistan were separated after the British withdrawal from the subcontinent, Kashmir’s fate was left in limbo. A predominantly Muslim state, it was ruled by a Hindu king, Hari Singh.
Meanwhile, Sheikh Mohammed Abdulla, Kashmir’s most popular leader, sought India’s assistance after tribesmen from the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan invaded Kashmir in October 1947. A fighting ensued but ceased in January 1949 after the United Nations’ intervention. In order to end the conflict UN recommended a referendum to determine which country (India or Pakistan) the Kashmiris belonged to.
But things took an ugly turn in 1953 when India jailed Abdulla, dashing Kashmiris’ hopes of a mature and competent leadership. His release a few years later was unable to bring smiles on the people’s faces as he abandoned the issue of referendum. Over two decades later, Indian government rigged the elections, arrested opposition candidates and unleashed acts of terror. This led to the formation of insurgent groups like Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) whose militants Peer and his friends revered in their adolescent days.
Peer’s fascination with the militants was shattered when his whole family objected to the idea of joining the insurgents. His grandfather, he writes, fixed his watery green eyes on him and asked, “How do you think this old man can deal with your death?” In order to save him from death, he was sent farther and farther from Kashmir, first to Aligarh Muslim University near Delhi, then to the Indian capital in the newspaper offices, from where he often ventured back into Kashmir to report. Like many journalists who at some point are frustrated with the limits of their medium, Peer realized that Kashmir’s stories cannot be fully told in a newspaper or magazine format. Thus, to his parents’ dismay, he gave up the newspaper job and travelled to his war ravaged homeland. As he went about writing a book on Kashmir in his head and a notebook in hand, he was often haunted by the past, at times unable to write and ask the questions he wanted to.
Trained as a journalist (he is a graduate of Columbia University and has worked at Rediff and Tehelka in India), Peer has the poet’s sensibility and the journalist’s eye for detail and the elements of reportage. He writes, “Outside, the curfew night lay in its silence like a man waiting in ambush.” What struck me was its similarity with our experience during the Maoist insurgency.
The book is divided into fifteen chapters. Of them Chapter twelve resonated with me most strongly. It has an anecdote about a mother’s courageous attempt to save her son. A mother runs towards a battleground where the army was going to use her two sons Bilal and Shafti as human bombs. She sees Bilal about to be sent into the militant’s house with a mine in his hands. She throws herself at Bilal, removes the mine from his hands and holds him in her arms. The soldiers let them go.
The book contains several stories of betrayal, survival and courage, disappearance, displacement and destruction. It speaks of deep tragedies. It is as much about the author’s life as about Kashmir and its people. Peer, who may well be the best chronicler of Kashmiri tragedies, however ends the book in a positive note. After all, hope still floats in the Valley.
At one point in the book, he writes: “I was carrying a copy of Homage to Catalonia with me and gave it to him (Ahemed). ‘You will find Kashmir in its pages,’ I said.” War sparks creativity. But Peer often laments the lack of good books on Kashmir.
The case is the same in Nepal where the decade-long insurgency has found very little space in art and literature. Therefore, echoing Peer, I would say: You will find Nepal in the pages of Curfewed Night.