Basharat Peer was born in 1977, in Seer village in the southern corner of Anantnag district of Kashmir. His childhood, as he describes it in his book, Curfewed Night, was idyllic. To be sure, Kashmiris at the time were still opposed to Indian rule. But this dislike had not turned militant yet. In the late 1980s, though, when Basharat was in boarding school, violent struggle for an independent Kashmir pervaded every aspect of life. Young men offered themselves to fight for the cause. The Indian military, intent on crushing the movement, set up bunkers in Basharat’s boarding school. Basharat himself toyed with the idea of joining the militants before he was dissuaded by his family. Pakistan stepped up its support. Kashmiri men walked across the Line of Control (LoC), got trained, and came back to fight against Indian rule. Many men viewed this journey across the LoC as a matter of pride – a duty, a calling. As Yusuf, one of Basharat’s friends, says in Curfewed Night:
“ [Going to Pakistan] is like a certificate, a degree that you are a real militant! Otherwise people wouldn’t take you seriously.”The Indian army brutally suppressed the separatists and set up torture chambers -- Papa II on Gupkar Road, Srinagar's own Green Zone, was the most terrifying -- in which lives were irreparably damaged. In the fight between soldiers and militants, thousands of people lost their lives. Soldiers shot down innocent protesters – the cruelest perhaps the Gawkadal Bridge Massacre – and raped women. Radical Islamic groups became stronger even as Kashmir’s Sufi traditions suffered. Those of us who are not Kashmiris know of the conflict from newspaper reports and television. But it has remained rather abstract – this blast or that blast, number of people dead, where it happened and so on. In Curfewed Night, Basharat provides a view – a deeply personal one – from the inside.
And what a disturbing view it is.
Basharat nearly lost his parents in 2001 to a mine blast, specifically meant to kill his father; one of his cousins suddenly decided to become a militant, crossed the LoC, returned, and was later killed; his Hindu Pandit friends escaped Kashmir for the safety of Jammu and other Indian cities. Basharat himself left Kashmir after finishing school. He went on to become a journalist in Delhi, and wanted badly to write about Kashmir.
Curfewed Night is a result of that yearning. From the courtyards of families who have lost their sons to the conflict, to the empty streets of Srinagar, to Sufi and Hindu shrines: Basharat carefully chronicles the embattled landscape of Kashmir in richly descriptive prose. As Chandrahas writes in his essay, Curfewed Night is “so good because it moves skillfully between close-ups of people and the long view of history, and because it describes the scars not only on the physical but also the psychological landscape of Kashmir. He treats his subjects with sensitivity and sympathy, and they respond graciously in turn.” Despite the book’s charged material – the accounts of the humiliations Indian soldiers impose on Kashmiris and the deeply personal nature of the topic – Basharat’s writing is not of the accusatory kind.
My copy of the book is full of notes – I’ve never learned so much about Kashmir, its people and what they have to go through as I have in this book. Let me give a few examples.
1. Kashmiris dread the sight of an Indian soldier. It was only on his first trip away from home that Basharat realized the fear of Indian soldiers is restricted to the state’s borders. While traveling out of Kashmir in a train,
“…two soldiers entered my compartment. Like me, the soldiers had made a twelve hour journey through the high mountains to the railway station in Jammu. Ahead of us was a fourteen hour train ride to New Delhi. The soldiers smiled and dropped their bags in the aisle. ‘Will you please make room for us?’ one of them asked a middle-aged man reading a newsmagazine. ‘We are going home after a year in Kashmir and don’t have any reservations.’ The man was unmoved. The soldier repeated his request, and as I squirmed in my seat, another passenger pointed at the floor of the dirty aisle and said, ‘You may sit there.’ I was stunned. Grandfather and I looked at each other. Unlike people in Kashmir, our north Indian fellow passengers had no reason to be scared of the soldiers: they ordered them around and the soldiers obeyed.”2. And a return to Kashmir always means being searched, or “frisked” by soldiers – a strangely familiar routine.
We were at Banihal tunnel, which had been bored through the mountain by Swiss engineers in 1953, crossing which you see the valley of Kashmir. Two soldiers boarded the bus and began checking our luggage; the passengers walked in a queue towards a bunker serving as a security checkpost. One by one the passengers entered the checkpost, their hands raised above their shoulders. The soldiers stared at our identity cards and frisked us. There was a strange familiarity with this ritual. It was oppressive and intimate at the same time. In some perverse way, it did signal reaching home.3. Have you ever seen lights being used in auto-rickshaws at night in India? I’ve never traveled in one with a bulb – and if there was one, I’ve never seen it used. But lights in auto-rickshaws are important in Srinagar:
“From the city centre, Lal Chowk, I boarded an auto-rickshaw. The driver switched on a bulb that cast a bright yellow light over both the driver and the passenger. You always switched on that light so soldiers could see you.”4. Finally, an old marriage custom in Kashmir – the groom leaving for the bride’s place – was done after sunset, but this is no longer the case. Here’s why:
“Women and girls formed a circle, held hands and sang. They moved back and forth, tapped their feet on the ground, shook their heads, raised and lowered their voices. It was an old custom practiced before the groom left for the bride’s house; grooms left for the bride’s place after the sunset and returned after a late dinner. Kashmiris had discarded that centuries-old tradition the evening of May 16, 1990, when Indian paramilitaries fired upon a marriage party and raped the bride.”