An insider’s narrative of loss
AUTHOR TO AUTHOR
INFLUENCED BY JAMES BALDWIN, BASHARAT PEER SAYS HE USES PERSONAL EXPERIENCES AND STORIES TO TALK ABOUT LARGER POLITICAL ISSUES. HERE ARE SOME EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW WITH MUHAMMAD HANIF
Basharat Peer, author of the recently-published Curfewed Night, answers questions on Kashmir today and the influences and impulses that went into the making of the book, and what living as an exile and engaging with Kashmir means. Mohammed Hanif is an award-winning Pakistani novelist, whose A Case of Exploding Mangoes was nominated for the Man Booker Longlist, 2008.
How did you decide on this format? In our part of the world memoirs are usually written by retired bureaucrats but you have used this form to tell a very compelling, very contemporary story. What were your inspirations?
The format came from the every day experience of sharing stories of Kashmir with friends and acquaintances. Even very nationalist Indian acquaintances of mine responded better to stories. And stories of people such as East Germans under the Stasis, Bosnians under Serbian siege, Palestinians under Israeli occupation, Jewish writers dealing with the Holocaust, and closer home Manto and Intezaar Hussain, among others, writing on the Partition made me understand the world better than other forms of writing. But singularly, the great African-American writer James Baldwin was the most profound influence. I read and reread his essays and novels. His collection of personal essays, Notes of a Native Son, is one of my most loved books. Baldwin’s use of personal stories to talk about the larger political questions made the final decision for me.
You worked as a journalist and covered Kashmir as well. What was the experience like? We hear that when it comes to Kashmir coverage a lot of Indian media tends to become patriotic. Did you have any incidents of censorship? Were you ever accused or suspected of not being objective?
The beginnings were difficult. I found it very hard to listen to and process the painful stories one encountered. It is still hard, but it was and remains important to report from Kashmir. Indian media does tend to be patriotic when it comes to Kashmir. You see that in the framing of the stories and the discourse. I personally didn’t face censorship. I was too young and low key a reporter for anyone to give a damn about me. But many other, better known and senior journalists have had trouble with censorship. The former BBC World Service correspondent in Srinagar, Yusuf Jameel, was almost killed for his reporting. Many other reporters got threats and around 10 journalists have been killed in Kashmir. Yet, I did realise after a few years work as a reporter that to tell the stories I really want to, I have to get my freedom from the daily or weekly newspaper/magazine format and work on a book.
How was the process of writing this book different from your work as a journalist? Did you have input from your publishers/ agents etc?
News writing is a joy compared to a book. You spend a few days or a week on something, file it and move on. The book took over my life completely for more than four years. It became an obsession and a struggle to get the tone, the details, the writing, the politics, and the stories right. I rewrote the entire manuscript several times. Personally, it was very painful to examine and confront the past, to attempt to recreate it word by word. I realised that events that occurred 15 years earlier had not ceased to occur. I relived a lot of rather grim parts of my life in the writing of the book.
There are a lot of harrowing stories from people who have been tortured, raped, lost their families. Have any of these people read the book? What do they make of it?
Yes, some of those have read the book. So far the reactions have been very positive. Some of them cannot read English but I am going to visit them with copies of the book. I had written about a friend living in Shopian, a very difficult town in southern Kashmir and described the fear he and his family have to live with. He read what I had written about him. He was silent for a bit, then shook my hand, and hugged me. The best part of the response to the book has been a series of phone calls and emails from young Kashmiris saying, “It is my story.”
As a Pakistani reader I was very curious about what Kashmiris made of Pakistani militants. Towards the end of the book you do try to track them down and there is the hilarious incident about Pakistani boy with a Salman Khan haircut. Was there really no sympathy for them amongst the Kashmiris? How could they have operated so freely and for such a long time if they didn’t have local supporters?
Pakistani militants were seen as exactly that: Pakistani militants. They were not seen as our own, not a part of “us”. Yes, they did get local support and sympathy because they were fighting the Indian forces, which were and are hated in Kashmir. Very few Kashmiris would embrace the worldview and ideas of State that their handlers and ideologues in Pakistan have.
I have met other Kashmiris of your generation who grew up during the conflict but managed to get an education and made careers instead of joining the movement. And then there were thousands from the same generation as you describe in your book who became militants. Can you explain how people made that choice? Was it determined by their class background or was it just random?
Boys from every class of society became militants. Ishfaq Majid, the first commander of JKLF came from an upper middle class Srinagar family. Yasin Malik, Hameed Sheikh, and Javed Mir, the other three commanders came from working class backgrounds. So class did play a role. The middle and upper middle class families had the resources to shield their children from the worst and push them out of the valley to various parts of the world for education. I have friends who studied anywhere from Moscow and London to Tehran and Chennai. A lot of those boys are very engaged with Kashmir despite having left as teenagers. There was and is a consciousness of multiple forms of engagement with Kashmir. Picking up a gun was certainly the most radical one. Who was slapped by a soldier and whose father was insulted was an equally strong factor in joining a militant group.
As a Pakistani I am always surprised when I hear that a significant number of Kashmiris still want to join Pakistan. Don’t these people read newspapers? They must have some idea about what’s going on in Pakistan.
It takes a lot to make someone want to join Pakistan or to make Pakistan look like a good option. The Indian government deserves great praise and credit for pulling that off.
There are some wonderful anecdotes about cricket and how a lot of Kashmiris support Pakistani team. Will that change if a couple of Kashmiri boys made it to the Indian eleven? Who do you support?
The last cricket match I watched was in the mid-1990s. I have lost all interest in cricket and am indifferent to both Indian and Pakistani teams. Neither is my team. Maybe a few Kashmiri boys in the Indian team will change something. I am sceptical. Haven’t met a Kashmiri Muslim yet who feels that the symbols of Indian nationalism are his own.
If a plebiscite was held today what do you think a majority would opt for?
If the option of an independent Kashmir is included, the majority will go for it.
A word about the Kashmir elections this month?
I don’t see the elections as a vote for or against Indian rule in Kashmir. Getting a new Chief Minister will not change the basic nature of the relationship between Kashmir and India or take Kashmir towards any political resolution. There are local reasons like sanitation, electricity, building of a road or a school that do make some people vote. Also democracy can’t be limited to a photograph of a queue of voters outside a polling booth in a village once in six years, especially when on the same day large swathes of Kashmir are turned into a prison by thousands of soldiers to prevent people for coming out in a demonstration.
Do you see any qualitative difference between the recent large scale protests in Kashmir and the ones we have seen in the past? Have Kashmiris finally rejected the armed struggle?
Kashmiris have thought a lot about the political use of violence over the last two decades. Too many people have been killed and not much has been achieved. There is a definite feeling that unarmed protesters on the streets of Srinagar might help Kashmir better than the militant way.
What are you most pleased with in this book? And what do you think you could have done differently?
Don’t have the perspective to answer that yet. I am trying to find out.
Any plans for translating this into Kashmiri/Hindi/ Urdu or other languages?
Yes. Would have loved to do the Urdu and Kashmiri versions myself but don’t have the time. I am looking for good translators in various South Asian languages.
What are you working on now?
The second book will not be about Kashmir. I am right now thinking through a few potential non-fiction book ideas and a novel as well.
(The Literary Review)
Lastupdate on : Tue, 23 Nov 2010 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Tue, 23 Nov 2010 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Wed, 24 Nov 2010 00:00:00 IST
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