Silent and seething

06 Nov 2016

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Claire Chambers teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of Britain Through Muslim Eyes: Literary Representations, 1780-1988.
Claire Chambers teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of Britain Through Muslim Eyes: Literary Representations, 1780-1988.

Kashmir is the beautiful region of South Asia about which the Mughal emperor Jahangir wrote: “If on earth there is a garden of bliss, it is this, it is this, it is this”. The area’s strategic importance as well as its splendour proved a bone of contention between Pakistan and India from Partition onwards. As the maharaja of Kashmir, Hindu ruler Hari Singh was allowed to choose which country he wanted the Muslim-majority state to belong to. After some prevarication, and threatened by the incursions of a group of Pakhtun looters, he plumped for India. Pakistan administers about a third of the land, known as Azad (or ‘Free’) Kashmir. India administers the rest — which happens to be the most visually stunning part. In 1948, United Nations Security Council Resolution 47 called for a plebiscite on Jammu and Kashmir’s future, a call that has been repeated several times over the years. This plebiscite on Kashmiri independence was never held, and three wars and many skirmishes have been fought between India and Pakistan.

In 1988, Indian author Amitav Ghosh published his novel The Shadow Lines, an elegiac reflection on the social bonds severed in Europe by WWII, and in the subcontinent by Partition. Critics often overlook that the riot in Dhaka that kills the narrator’s uncle Tridib comes as a consequence of the real-world temporary loss of the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) sacred hair from the Hazratbal Mosque in Kashmir in 1963. The narrator meditates on the exceptionally resilient connections that cause people to come out on the streets in East Bengal in response to an event over 2,500 kilometres away. He concludes, somewhat paradoxically, that the episode proves the continuing connections within the Indian subcontinent in spite of Partition: “Dhaka and Calcutta [Kolkata] were [never] more closely bound to each other than after they had drawn their lines”. As such, in The Shadow Lines Ghosh exaggerates Kashmiriyat and the Hindu-Muslim syncretism that does exist, while playing down Indian occupation.Ghosh’s optimism about Kashmir as the central point of an inclusive circle encompassing other South Asian cities such as Dhaka and Kolkata is shown by contemporaneous events to be misplaced. It was around 1988, the same year as his novel’s release, that concerted strikes and insurgency began in Kashmir, following an unfairly steep electricity price hike and, more significantly, a disputed election. The Indian regime ramped up human rights abuses against ordinary citizens as well as against those guerrillas starting to mobilise in the valley. As Basharat Peer puts it in his extraordinary narrative non-fiction piece for Granta entitled ‘Kashmir’s Forever War’, “[c]ivilians continue to be killed and described as terrorists”. In the ensuing slaughterous years, it should also be said that Pakistan, Kashmiri separatists and especially the Islamist groups have not come off morally unscathed. Tariq Ali rightly calls the Islamists and the Indian army the “neither-nor” of Kashmiri politics.


In South Asian writing, the earthly paradise often acquires a hellish appearance when juxtaposed with reality


Agha Shahid Ali, in his poetry collection The Country without a Post Office (1997), similarly brings together Kashmiri images such as saffron, paisley, and paradisiacal gardens that derive from various religious and secular traditions. However, unlike Ghosh, Ali does not balk at recognising Islam, especially its mystical component, as the most influential of the valley’s many cultural strands. For example, in the poem ‘I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight’, Ali takes as his epigraph these lines from W.B. Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’: “Wherever green is worn, a terrible beauty is born”. Here he brings together green as the colour associated with the Emerald Isle and Islam, to suggest a point of comparison between the Irish and Kashmiri conflicts in the aftermath of British imperialism.

The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed is set in Kashmir during the early 1990s. The war has finally reached the isolated village of Nowgam, close to the Pakistan border. One by one, four out of five teenage friends cross this frontier and join the insurgency. The story is narrated by the unnamed fifth boy, son of a headman, who is left behind near the Line of Control with only his memories of cricket matches, music, and budding romances for company. The headman has forbidden his family to leave, so the son has little choice but to become the titular ‘collaborator’. Employed by the Indian army, he collects valuables from the bodies of so-called militants, dreading the day he will encounter the corpse of a friend. As the narrator watches his malevolent employer drinking heavily and behaving badly, he thinks, “I’m beginning to get used to this. That’s worrying”. Readers watch the narrator gradually shift from revulsion at the cadavers to communing with them, finally no longer noticing them as he becomes hardened to the horrors. This novel makes demands on its readers, again recalling Yeats: “a terrible beauty is born”.


The story is narrated by the unnamed fifth boy, son of a headman, who is left behind near the Line of Control with only his memories of cricket matches, music, and budding romances for company. ... Employed by the Indian army, he collects valuables from the bodies of so-called militants, dreading the day he will encounter the corpse of a friend. As the narrator watches his malevolent employer drinking heavily and behaving badly, he thinks, “I’m beginning to get used to this. That’s worrying”.


Peer wrote the memoir Curfewed Nights and the screenplay for Haider, Bollywood director Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kashmir-located Hamlet, as well as ‘Kashmir’s Forever War’. In the essay, Peer goes to meet the family of Manzoor Bhat, the Kashmiri who in 2008 fought alongside a Pakistani in the Indian Parliament attacks. Peer is curious to learn what caused this young man to leave his successful career as a painter and decorator to join Lashkar-e-Taiba. He learns that Bhat was radicalised when a peaceful protest he was on was attacked by Indian forces, resulting in a bloodbath. Peer goes on to encounter relatives of other slain Kashmiris, including a man dubbed the region’s “oldest militant” by the Indian press. No wonder, then, that Peer paints a picture of Kashmir in the first decade of the 21st century as “silent and seething, crouching like a wildcat”.

As I have so far delineated an exclusively masculine world of representations of Kashmir, I close by turning to Sudha Koul’s memoir The Tiger Ladies (2000). Koul begins her text with a matrilineal invocation of her Kashmiri grandmother, Dhanna, who churns buttermilk and smokes a hookah in an earlier, tranquil period. Koul reflects that amidst the trauma of Partition, it was the “shared life in the valley” that sustained Kashmiris from various religious backgrounds. “We revel,” she writes, “in one another’s mysteries and legends and resort to them when required, which is frequently.” She recounts meeting fellow Kashmiri pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, when he watches a play at her school in the early 1960s, accompanied by his daughter Indira and her two sons. The autobiography ends with the author, now exiled in New Jersey, reflecting on Kashmiris’ hopes for political resolution to the conflict. There are elusive moments of peace, but before long there is always a riot or kidnapping, “and reality stares us again in the face”.

One day this cycle of peace and violence, which Koul compares to the inane rotation of a dog’s tail, must come to an end. Through the will of its people, Kashmir shall again come close to the earthly paradise imagined by Jahangir. How much more bloodshed it will take, in an already saturated region, remains a matter for conjecture.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 6th, 2016