August 18, 2019


As I write this column, a sense of agitation and urgency threatens to overpower my emotions. Recently, the Indian army further moved into Kashmir, tourists were evacuated, schools and colleges shut, communications cut and the entire region put into lockdown. Then, India’s government announced it was revoking Article 370 of the Indian constitution, under which India-held Jammu and Kashmir had held special status since 1947.

As a Pakistani, I’m still struggling to understand what the end of Kashmir’s nominal autonomy will signify for Kashmiris, for Pak-India relations and for the prospects of war. I wrote in my novel Before She Sleeps about a fictional nuclear war between Pakistan and India, which devastates the region and kills millions. The thought of what Kashmiris have suffered for decades, and not knowing what they’re experiencing right now, is even more chilling than the prospect of all-out war.

Reportage has its place, but literature in the voices of those directly affected tells us how it is to live under occupation. In the absence of direct news reports, my first instinct is to turn to the literature that has come from Kashmir in order to understand.

Kashmiri literature is closely engaged with tragedy. It combines literary aesthetics with politics to show how human beings grapple with oppression and tyranny. In reading it, you are able to make connections between the Kashmir struggle and struggles elsewhere — such as Palestine — where a similarly beleaguered population fights against an overwhelmingly hostile occupying force.

We don’t often think of literature as able to make much difference in times of conflict and violence. But writers have always contended with and contested power by being truthful about the human condition. We don’t often think of fiction as telling the truth. But that is exactly what the best fiction does.

The following list of works by Kashmiris and about Kashmir is by no means comprehensive. Consider it a starting point to gain context and insight into a region that we, as Pakistanis, only know through politics and propaganda. These books are written in English — a necessary decision by the authors to make their work more accessible to a global audience, and to tell the story of Kashmir and its people as widely as possible.

The Country Without a Post Office — Agha Shahid Ali

This Kashmiri American poet deserves first place on this list for his poetry collection, originally titled Kashmir Without a Post Office. Ali wrote lyrically and emotionally about his lost homeland, using the 1990 violence — when Kashmir went without postal services for seven months — to frame the title poem of this astounding collection. He inspired a new generation of Kashmiri writers to take up pens, not guns, in describing what happens to the heart when the homeland breaks.

The Collaborator — Mirza Waheed

A nameless boy growing up in “the forgotten last village before the border” in the 1990s, when the land burned and the confrontation between Kashmiris and the occupying forces became violent beyond measure, is sent by the Indian military to collect fallen militants’ identity cards. Waheed’s debut novel is a masterful portrayal of violence, war, humanity, isolation and grief.

The Garden of Solitude — Siddartha Gigoo

The Kashmiri Pandits driven away from Kashmir have stories, too, and Gigoo tells one that is important to hear: the other side. Sridar is a young Pandit boy whose family must leave the Kashmir Valley for Jammu. This forced migration and exile afflicts families and their future generations with loss and alienation that can be compared to what Sindhi Hindus felt when they left Sindh during Partition.

The Half Mother — Shahnaz Bashir

War affects women more adversely and disproportionately than men, as research has shown. Who better to tell the story of Kashmiri women in conflict than Bashir? She narrates the story of Shafiqa, whose two sons become militants and whose daughter is stripped naked and paraded by Indian troops in Natipura village, while Haleema’s teenage son is subjected to forced disappearance. The 1990 uprising gives birth to half widows and half mothers, who don’t know if their dear ones are alive or dead.

An Isolated Incident — Soniah Kamal

Another book describing the impact of occupation on Kashmir’s most vulnerable. Protagonist Zari Zoon endures a horrific gang rape and the murder of her family by unknown men. She moves first to Pakistan, then the United States, to heal her wounds. But she can never escape her trauma, memories of her family and longing for her homeland.

Curfewed Night: A Frontline Memoir of Life, Love and War in Kashmir — Basharat Peer

Journalist and commentator Peer was only 13 during 1990’s violent insurgency. His adolescence was shaped by this war. In this part-reportage, part-memoir, he describes wanting to join the militancy as a teenager and travelling to school in fear of gunfire and landmines. He was sent away to study, but later returned as a journalist to bear witness to the damage and suffering inflicted upon Kashmiris.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness — Arundhati Roy

The Booker Prize winner attempts to tell “a shattered story” in this ambitious novel. Kashmiri separatist Musa is connected to Anjum the hijra and Malayali architect Tilomatta through narrative threads that capture India’s unity amid vast diversity. The Kashmiri struggle and the Indian army’s brutality affects all three disparate characters in political and personal ways.

Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir — Malik Sajad

The most unusual book on this list is political cartoonist Sajad’s graphic novel. Sajad grew up in Srinagar and depicts Kashmiri citizens as the endangered hangul deer, in a poignant memoir reminiscent of Art Spiegelman’s wildly successful Maus. Through his art and words, Sajad shows that Kashmir does not follow the blueprint for other freedom struggles; it is a unique situation derived from specific circumstances that the world must learn about.

The columnist is a Karachi-based author of seven books

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 18th, 2019