I could feel the weight of betrayal and loss, remorse and sadness, after watching The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Ken Loach’s 2006 film. Set in the times of the Irish war of independence and the Irish civil war in the early 20th century, it is about boys and men who fight for independence from the United Kingdom. Ten years later I felt somewhat similarly gripped by an initial sense of emptiness and sadness while reading Lost in Terror by Nayeema Mahjoor. This novel about the hard lives of the girls and women of Kashmir places their gruelling struggle within the history of the militant uprising in Kashmir against the oppressive Indian state in the late 20th century. However, as one reads on, that initial sense of loss is replaced by a reluctant optimism.
The optimism is borne out of the endurance and tenacity of the women characters in this narrative, but the wariness comes from the seemingly insurmountable challenges faced by both women and the freedom movement of Kashmir in the present day and age. Speaking of what women face in a conservative society like hers, the main character and the first-person narrator of this novel says: “The fight against the orthodox and irrational social norms was harder than the fight against government rule.”
The men fighting for liberation were, at times, more terrifying for their women than the oppressive forces of the state, especially as the age-old nationalist movement for autonomy and rights is systematically turned into a religious movement. As we see in other troubled Muslim societies, puritanical Islam is at times only, and most liberally, applied to the womenfolk.
The writer mentions a number of social campaigns and political events that transposed Kashmiri nationalism into Islamic revivalism, supported by organisations such as the Jamaat-i-Islami and Hizbul Mujahideen. Unfortunately, this provides the Indian state more ammunition to undermine the Kashmir issue internationally, by bracketing it with more recent radical movements. This is where a parallel can be drawn between Palestine and Kashmir.
The multi-faith Palestinian nationalist movement led by the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which comprised a wide range of progressive and secular factions and groups, is now significantly — if not entirely — replaced by faith-based organisations such as Hamas. This has clearly worked to Israel’s advantage.
Mahjoor begins from 1988 and captures the trials and tribulations of her people for over a decade. She highlights the indignity and dishonour, fear and helplessness, torture and violence, and rape and murder that Kashmiris were subjected to, irrespective of their faith, caste, class or gender. Without ignoring the contradictions and sources of tension between different communities, Mahjoor makes the suffering of Pandits or other Hindu women and men as much a part of the narrative. But the focus remains on Kashmiri Muslim women. At times she reads like a passionate memoirist, particularly when she finds herself unable to employ a creative distance when describing the sorrows of fellow women caused by the violent deaths of their husbands or sons, or the grave humiliation they face at the hands of both the security forces and the religious vigilantes. In a few places, I was reminded of Of Blood and Fire, Jahanara Imam’s diary about the happenings in Dhaka in 1971.
There is something unique about us South Asians. First, we not only justify, but rejoice in hate, war, death and destruction. Later, we feel self-pity and write requiems to heal the collective pain we inflict upon each other. Lost in Terror is the story of Kashmir, in turmoil for decades and oppressed for centuries, where suffering is immense and there seems to be no end in sight. But similar experiences of hate, war, death and destruction in 1947 in Punjab, Delhi, Bihar and Bengal; in 1971 in East Bengal; and, periodically since 1947 in Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Gujarat in India and in Balochistan, Sindh, FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan continue unabated.
The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad. His collection of essays Crimson Papers: Reflections on Struggle, Suffering, and Creativity in Pakistan was recently published by Oxford University Press
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 16th, 2017