Kashmir's Brave Face

Kashmir's Brave Face
Farah Bashir was born and raised in Kashmir. She was a former photojournalist with Reuters and currently works as a communications consultant. Rumours of Spring is her debut book. She recalls a troubled adolescence in conflict-ridden Kashmir of the 1990s. A narrative on the death and funeral preparations for Bobeh, the protagonist’s beloved grandmother, the book is sprinkled with numerous flashbacks where she recounts growing up in Srinagar when militancy was at its peak. The chapters of Rumours of Spring follow Bobeh’s funeral — Evening, Night, Early Hours, Dawn, Morning, Afterlife — and each chapter sheds light on various aspects of Bashir’s life.

Kashmir, and particularly Srinagar, is often seen through the lens of political affairs, chaos, conflict and violence. Bashir softens the violence in a touching way, allowing you to reflect on the kind of life a girl must have led, growing up in persistent curfew, featured by sounds of gunfire and convoys, and the unending talk of death. She chronicles the Himalayan region’s deadliest period of the early 1990s, when human rights groups were killed during riots and military crackdowns. It is an exceptional look from a Kashmiri Muslim woman’s point of view, as Bashir documents the effects of war on her teenage body. From love letters and acid attacks to assassinations, her book bears witness to an oft-forgotten conflict.

She was exchanging love letters with a young man but was heartlessly interrupted and never continued when the post office is burnt down; also attempted to escape the Islamic dress code by wearing a high ponytail and lowering her socks ends when a friend has acid thrown on her as she was wearing jeans; she strives to make herself invisible and less attractive by wearing a scarf, plucking out her hair, not washing her face for days, in order to not attract unwanted attention. The author herself suffers from period cramps and does not get up for medicine in case any sound attracts dangers for the family. An asthmatic neighbour tries to get a breather by opening a tightly shut window but is instantly killed by a stray bullet. Farah’s father began sitting in a crouching position as if he was always in a hurry. Her mother began finishing all the kitchen work by five in the evening so no noise from their house reached the armed troops outside.

The daily pleasures of life are truncated: the joy of eating freshly baked bread is lost when the aroma is intermingled with jackboots. Children are not seen playing hopscotch or hide-and-seek in the evening; instead, “these days it was common to see children enact scenes of an ‘encounter’ between the troops and the militants or be busy making toy guns out of wooden planks and discarded wires.”

Farah also struggles to steal some happy moments, carrying the imported music system to a forgotten storeroom, and spending secret afternoons dancing to Nazia Hassan’s ‘Disco Deewane’. The highlight of the escapades were some of the previews of the rich, traditional heritage of Kashmir — from pherans, kangas, kahwa, and nun chai to cultural foods served at festive or tragic occasions, and rituals such as storing grain for the year and drying vegetables to eat during the severe winters. Bashir defines the apprehensions of women living close to the troops, the Kunan Poshpora incident, the fear of walking alone on roads, getting caught in a crossfire, and more.

In August 2019, the Indian government scrapped Article 370 of the country’s constitution, which allowed a certain level of autonomy for Kashmir. So the quaint but striking valley went into lockdown for months and then the pandemic made everything a lot worse. In this disastrous phase, Kashmir remains one of the most militarized zones in the world.

All in all, Rumours of Spring is a must-read for anyone who wants to delve into daily life in Kashmir, as seen through a Kashmiri girl and language. The writing is vivid and nostalgic. One gets to learn a lot of Kashmiri anecdotes, aphorisms, and phrases wrought unto them by the intensification of the conflict since 1990. It talks about the lexicon which became all too common post-1990 in the reports purveyed in the newspapers and the news channels like naamaloom afraad (unidentified men), bandook bardar (gunmen), halaaq (death), halaaqat (in danger), firing, etc. The turns of phrase of the author are marvellous. In 1993, she had, like many other Kashmiris, been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

It is a story that can find resonance across the whole of Kashmir, without any exception. It is the sense of utter helplessness, of all yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows blurring into a cold and dark winter, where one finds an honest attempt at telling the world what it means to grow up in Kashmir, with a hope that the telling will finally bring about some understanding, some healing.