Saturday, March 21, 2009

Tales from Islamism's crucible in India

The Pioneer | 11, 2009 | Coffee Break

Lost and found in Kashmir Valley
Kanchan Gupta

Café Turtle, above Full Circle, an old-fashioned book shop with crowded and crammed shelves in New Delhi’s Khan Market, is a great place to meet friends, provided you get a table on the balcony. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when you could enjoy a smoke along with your coffee. That was before Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss forced the Government to make smoking a punishable offence and send cops after habitual offenders. If only such diligence had been applied in cracking down on other offenders, for example Pakistanis who, bored with life in their wretched country, decide to take a short cut to jannat teeming with houris in heat via India, then Mumbai would have been spared a visit by Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab and his fellow butchers. But who’s to tell Mr Ramadoss that it is dreadfully stupid to declare smokers as criminals and frightfully silly to ban smoking in open air spaces of restaurants and cafés, for instance the lawns of the Lodhi and the balcony of Café Turtle?

So, I was alarmed at the prospect of spending at least an hour without lighting up — it’s easy to beat the no-smoking rule on flights by falling asleep as soon as you are sure the plane has taken off without overshooting the runway or plummeting into a housing colony — when I agreed to meet Basharat Peer, author of Curfewed Night, at Café Turtle. Nothing can be worse than drinking cups of coffee without inhaling nicotine drenched smoke. At least for smokers. In the event, it turned out to be a very pleasant afternoon. I had planned for a quick cup of coffee and may be three quarters of an hour of desultory conversation on my way to work. By the time we left the place, I had had two large cups of coffee without lighting up even once and the conversation had lasted for more than two hours. That’s Basharat Peer for you: Charming, witty, brimming with ideas and yet not full of himself as authors of first books that fetch them rave reviews usually are. There’s something about his humility which is both rare and touching. He was not trying to be nice; he is genuinely nice.

Curfewed Night is by no means a profound book that provides a deep insight into what’s happening in Jammu & Kashmir. It is not a clone of other books on the troubled State that are really potted history but whose writers masquerade as know-all scholars. It is a journalist’s account of how separatism and militancy have impacted the lives of the people of Kashmir Valley, not quite a diary of events but an honest, simple rendering of gathered experiences. Shorn of adverbs and adjectives, his prose is sparse yet lyrical; he wields his pen with as much precision as a master surgeon wields his scalpel. Obviously his stint with Foreign Affairs, of which he was an Assistant Editor till recently, has taught him more than a trick or two about how to write prose as it should be written in English: Dry and rare.

Basharat Peer has put together personal stories, weaving a narrative that draws readers from the margins to the centre of the tale. It leaves you wondering whether you were there when all of it was happening: Young Kashmiris, with the same dreams and desires as those of youngsters in any other part of the country, being lured into the world of militant Islam, crossing the Line of Control to be trained in terrorism, and returning to wage a futile war against the state. You want to reach out to the woman who watches her son being forced to hold an exploding bomb. There’s nothing comical about a militant barely out of his teens yearning for a swinging evening in a discotheque or to be part of the happening crowd. You feel one with the tragedy of innocent lives lost; but this is what jihad is all about. Basharat Peer sees Kashmir Valley from the perspective of a Kashmiri returning to his ravaged land after many years. That perspective is unaffected by the sorrow of others who have suffered equally, if not more. For example the Hindus who were forced to flee their ancestral land. Or the Muslims who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, comprehend the harsh language of the separatists and had to pay with their lives.

It’s a stark portrayal, often bleak, of life in Kashmir Valley during the worst phase of separatist violence. But at no point is Basharat Peer judgemental. There are no definite conclusions, no pompous assertions, and no certitudes. It’s delightfully ambiguous, a narrative that meanders, much like the rivers and canals of the Valley, lazily from one story to another. It’s real, but the reality is not emphasised — with his craftsmanship, he doesn’t need to. I asked him about the underlying ambiguity of Curfewed Night. “I can’t be certain... That’s how people are, they are full of contradictions. I too embody contradictions,” he says. The book is about his “strongest memories” of childhood spent in Kashmir Valley, it’s about something that has had a “profound impact” on him. This explains why his observations are so intense. “The slogan of azadi had an impact on my generation of Kashmiris. We thought it could happen. But it didn’t,” Basharat Peer adds after a pause.

He is not impressed by media’s magnification of Islamists baying for blood while waving the flag of jihad. “Television tends to magnify. All of the Valley is not about the Dukhtaran-e-Millat type, clad in burqas. The new generation is not isolated, it is far more politically aware and the overwhelming majority is far more modernised than ever before,” he says, and then offers an interesting explanation for the countervailing force of modernism that is emerging in the Valley: “We went out (like many other young Kashmiris from well-off and accomplished families, he was despatched to study outside the State when trouble broke in the early days of militancy) and actively sought modernisation. We have been exposed to a life vastly different from what it was in the Valley then. Now when we return to the Valley, we carry this (modernism) with us... You can’t imagine how things have changed. Young boys and girls have access to the world through the Internet, they are reading newspapers and magazines of which we had at only heard, if at all, when we were growing up...”

For Basharat Peer, writing Curfewed Night was exhilarating as well as cathartic. “I had to get it out of me to move on.” That’s a nice way of saying goodbye to a part of your life, of growing up and entering a brave new world where the imagined romanticism of azadi is just that and no more, far removed from reality.

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