Rumours of Spring: A Girlhood in Kashmir
By Farah Bashir
Farah Bashir’s debut memoir, Rumours of Spring: A Girlhood in Kashmir, is partly dedicated to “the children of Kashmir, who know nothing of a normal childhood” and chronicles the times of growing up in India-occupied Kashmir of the 1980s and ’90s.
It is divided into six sections and the titles trace out different times of the day: ‘Evening’, ‘Night’, ‘Early Hours’, ‘Dawn’, ‘Morning’ and ‘Afterlife’. The beginning is irregular; the author commences her book with ‘Evening’ instead of the normal start of the day and shows that this is a tale of enveloping darkness.
The last section, ‘Afterlife’, signals that this is the story of life that lasts for a short span and, if it persists, it does so in the realms of the unreal, or memories.
Detailing life through the eyes of an adolescent Kashmiri girl, the book brings into focus not only the stories of her own family members, but also of various neighbours and friends who lived through the difficult and constantly curfewed time in the region.
A memoir about growing up in India-occupied Kashmir in the 1980s and ’90s shows how the pursuit of a normal life becomes an impossibility in a politically troubled area
An ominous refrain running throughout is how everything sweet about life changed drastically in 1990 — Bashir leaves this information unsaid, but one major event at the time was the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, which disrupted civilian life in Kashmir.
Bashir’s language is often simple and direct, yet the book is a difficult read. This is because of its weighty content and the way this is conveyed. A recurring technique employed in the narrative is the traversing of a halcyon time, only to interrupt the memory midway with effects of conflict zone brutality.
For instance, the narrator recalls how Bobeh, her grandmother, would apply her “magic potion” of seemaab [mercury] to Bashir’s hair in a long, loving ritual to keep it clean. However, the same chapter next reveals how “all the care ended in the winter of 1990.”
At this time, the narrator developed the habit of pulling her hair as she tried to confront the growing unrest, the ratatat of gunfire, the sound of screams: “If I ever heard a knock, a wail or gunshots, I would hurriedly and mercilessly jerk out one strand after another.”
Her nervous reaction lasted for a long, long time and Bashir recalls how she would sometimes wear a scarf wrapped around her head to cover the resulting bald patches. Other effects on a child living in a conflict zone include the narrator’s heightened anxiety and palpitations, which were later diagnosed as symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The constant visiting of serene memories which are violently disturbed creates an unforgettable experience for the reader. Bashir relates how, because of the constant curfews and horror, her father’s very posture changed. Earlier he would be relaxed, “almost like a royal” as he read the newspaper, but after 1990 he became uneasy, restless and started crouching. He also gave up listening to music altogether.
Bobeh’s meditative “wanwun” — an indigenous style of singing — which she always used to practise as she went about her chores, disappeared somewhere in the assault on the Valley. The narrator herself used to draw, but all her sketches changed to those of “guns, barbed wire, helmets.”
Bashir makes mention of one Ramzan Kaak, who used to work for her family. He was a strong man, but since the night he was assaulted by “troops”, he seemed to have “shrunk.” The narrator’s benign mother, affected by the disturbing situation, took to cursing each time the phone rang after 1989.
Even physical spaces were affected — Bashir relates how the family’s living room changed from a place where everyone gathered to enjoy each other’s company, into a room where the lights had to be always kept dimmed or switched off to avoid attracting undue attention from troops patrolling the streets. Anything could become an excuse for searching homes for supposed weapons or hidden militants.
The memoir’s relentless detailing of these miniscule, as well as major, lifestyle changes shows how the pursuit of a normal life becomes an impossibility in a politically troubled area. And yet, despite the endless atrocities that took place, there were instances of beauty that the human spirit maintains, to which Bashir’s writing attests.
She mentions furtive afternoons spent in a dingy storeroom where she dreamed of becoming a popstar while dancing to Nazia Hassan’s popular song ‘Boom Boom’. There is talk of young love, and an exchange of secret letters that takes place for a while between her and a boy named Vaseem, who had “very fine lashes.”
However, the overall mood quickly returns to dismal facts and these flashes of beauty are never long-lasting. The post office from where she sent letters to Vaseem randomly caught fire and burned down. Being in a disruptive conflict zone, it did not get repaired till over a year later. The spirit suffered in the endless devastation and love dwindled and died.
Much the same happened with Bashir’s excitement over graduating from high school. Exams were postponed and rescheduled so many times that the desire to achieve her dreams suffered, until she simply stopped caring for the gifts that had been promised to her if she received a distinction. She writes: “living in a conflict zone had taught us that the broken stayed broken for a long time.”
Bashir narrates how the Valley’s people suffered perpetual raids, curfews and threats, and were under relentless suspicion for hiding militants. There were army bunkers everywhere in the city and long periods of utter fear as the residents were trapped in lockdowns.
At times of protests, gunfire and tear gas were used against the people. The tear gas would reach inside the homes and cause breathing difficulties for everyone. It was especially savage for those who suffered from asthma, such as Bobeh, or for toddlers who didn’t understand how to deal with the agonising distress.
The entire narrative of Rumours of Spring is built around coming back to the day that Bashir’s beloved Bobeh dies. The constant return to this occurrence marks its significance for the writer and frames the story around the theme of death and irreparable, touching loss. It signals not just the passing of a life, but of an entire era and the part that was beautiful in her childhood.
Sometimes, the sight of English newspapers and the advertisements in them featuring normal, untroubled life made the young Bashir imagine what on earth that would be like. In contrast, Kashmir’s local newspapers were flooded with news of death and devastation.
Life in her hometown — Bashir doesn’t specify it in her book, but in interviews mentions that the memoir is set in Srinagar — had also been vibrant once. The author tells of regular schooldays, a popular nightclub, daytime celebrations, cinemas and more. But later, as Bashir puts it: “our lives were controlled from elsewhere” and it was not in the Kashmiri people’s hands to take charge of what happened in their own existence.
Rumours of Spring is akin to a Kashmiri girl’s version of The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, and is occupied with intense and honest probing into the goings-on in a young life that, defiantly in the face of the direst of circumstances, continues to grow.
It inevitably raises some crucial questions, as the dedication at the beginning calls out: what is the life of a Kashmiri girl like today? And what is the world doing about it?
The reviewer is a poet and educator. She can be reached at Fatimaijaz4@gmail.com
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 29th, 2022