It is undeniable that Kashmiri resistance movement has been weakened by its (mis)association with puritanical Islamist ideology, unbearable – and some inadequately documented – human costs, violence against minorities, women and imagined/projected other. It needs rare courage to report from ground zero, to direct gaze to the problematic within, to avoid mincing words and call spade a spade. To attempt to write without imposed or imagined blinkers and threats, to write back to the Empire of oppression and violence, to speak on taboo issues and take strong positions outside the comfort zone of hypocrisy or neutrality is what a writer-journalist can aim at and to succeed to a significant extent in this endeavour is indeed an achievement. This success story deserves our attention this week.
A Kashmiri woman stranding between tradition and modernity, Kashmir and London, and caught up in transition that requires dealing with tensions of class and gender and calls for severe moral questioning of key choices is the subject of the novel that reads almost like a memoir and thinly disguised autobiography. It speaks a language of its own – passionate, dreamy, rebellious and affirmative – and poses difficult questions that every informed and vulnerable Kashmiri would ask now to resistance leadership, to religious and intellectual elite and to himself/herself. Although it doesn't go too deep into the issue of discourse formation about terror, state oppression and azadi and mostly evades the question of the moral vs. political that awkwardly and embarrassingly poses itself, and sometimes seems to rehearse or rest content with hearsay or street gossip and relegates to background or inadequately cognizes certain contradictions in now popular positions on violence, democracy and conflict management and inevitably pays the cost of certain "distortion" by its almost exclusive focus on particular ideological formation (pursuing a career in a globalized world and asserting a particular class and gender identity in the face of complex forces and other marginalized choices), it succeeds in putting the tragic case of terrorized women of Kashmir caught up in a whirlpool of contradictory pulls and pressures admirably well. In largely male dominated Kashmir fiction that has lately been a presence to contend with, her Kashmirbeen does present a panoramic view and captures even some hardly visible sore spots for the first time. Eschewing newer – and more confusing – narrative techniques in more influential craft of postmodern novel, her old fashioned historical fiction reverberates powerfully in collective consciousness of Kashmir, especially Kashmiri women. Lost in Terror is a provocative and disturbingly painful reading but in the end it succeeds in being cathartic as well.
Dedicated to "those women who lost everything – from their dignity to their relations – but never lost hope for a better tomorrow" it juxtaposes some inspiring and some heart rending stories most of us have witnessed and seeks to show resilient Kashmiri women outbraving the violence within and without, the violence that is State sponsored and self sponsored or "other" sponsored or sold with popular ideologies disguised as religion and nationalism. Its subject is militancy and savage reactions to suppress it and pathological responses (selling it, sanctifying it, framing it in religious or regional lenses) and forces it unwittingly unleashed. It judges Kashmir after late 1980s through the eyes of a woman who wants to be herself. It exposes unholy alliance of capital, State, violence and patriarchy. Its heroine is a modern Kashmiri woman who aspires for freedom but finds the costs – human cost – and "other sorrows" too much for her. She doesn't lose hope and moves on and makes her mark in the world. She is Nayeema Mehjoor.
Literature describes life as if heart mattered and its premise is, as Tolstoy put it, "put reason into life and life is gone." There is an ideological or political angle to issues and there is a human angle as well and literature is generally or classically interested in this human angle and defies easy pigeonholing in certain political or dominant narrative. Mehjoor has converted news about Kashmir into the news that would stay (a classic definition of literature that distinguishes it from journalism) though one feels less sure about success of transformation into her new incarnation of reporter of Kashmiri soul in all its depths and multiple, even seemingly contradictory, manifestations.
It is tale, told in first person, almost like a running commentary on every significant event in early militancy as far as it has impacted on a sensitive, informed, vocal, ambitious, idealistic azadi loving protagonist who is, almost like Dr Pangloss in Candide, made to taste the seamy side of militant struggle and the State that engenders and counters it that is nihilistic in its cool calculated technological rationality that uses people as means and thus denies their freedom and dignity, marks them, judges them, humiliates them and even kills them. Although it has much predictable and familiar stuff for Kashmiri readers, it educates and in the end uplifts – we relive a tragedy in a manner that ultimately ennobles the protagonist and the reader. Resilience despite betrayals by kith and ken and people with guns and unnoticed moral costs in the task of "winning hearts and minds" for the heartless State denying the basic aspiration of the protagonist, is what makes it a tragic tale. The protagonist is frustrated, framed and appropriated although she thinks she has an agency of her own. Facing the terror machine launched by the State and the militants, the protagonist doesn't lose heart though fails to fully overcome bitterness that it has occasioned. Her mad heart outbraves many a tough moment and scripts her own history although the title of the book seems to deny heroic transformation and redemption (dedication to hope, however, makes it clear). The human spirit has the last word – and is not lost even in concentration camps or Papa2 – even if the time is out of joint. That is what great art bears witness to.
If one insists on reading it politically, its "message" is simple and now common sense. The beautiful dream of azadi that moves and haunts Kashmir has been turned into a nightmare thanks to violence on almost every front by almost all important actors or "stakeholders." And as more material or concrete problems are to be engaged with by the characters, the political goes into the background. It is unfortunate, as has been pointed out by that in our times our destiny is expressed mainly in political terms as if man, in his emotional and spiritual depths, doesn't transcend history and politics. Deep down we love life and live by virtue of relationships and not politics although the later can poison everything in these troubled times.
One misses deeper engagement with or deployment of myth and symbolism. The writer who is, by definition, essentially or ideally a poet or a "thinker" is haunted by the journalist who reports and disposes the issues off, almost juristically, in the allotted time. One is impressed by language and style that is as effective in communication as her popular radio presentations in saerbeen and sheherbeen.
Short chapters, some of which can be independently read as well, are weaved with some exquisite meditative stuff here and there and a few insightful and candid essays such as "veil."
A few snippets from the book:
Commenting about Saira who choose to leave the valley after attacks on women in burqa compaign : "If she had seen Shiasta's mutilated body or known Fareeda's nightmares she would not have dared to leave her house, job or motherland behind. Rather, she would have become resilient like the rest of us women."
Shaista, believed to be an informer, was murdered and "The war for liberation was sacred,s o it had the sanction of God to kill anybody if declared guilty of anti-movement activities" read a line in one of the leading newspapers, under Shiasta's photo. And here is the comment by the protagonist: "The freedom movement was doomed on the day an innocent girl was tortured to death. It was buried on the day the gunmen blew up into pieces a clueless passer-by labeled a spy…The cause perished on the day it got shrouded under a religious cloak."
Sisyphean punishment for Sadia following disappearance of her son Aziz and her transformation into Sadimech is thus described: "Leaving the house at dawn had become her daily routine, and to find Aziz had become her sole purpose in life."
The book talks about social and familial pathologies that were only worsened and not created during militancy. The protogonist tortured and terrorized evokes not only middle class women but almost every Kashmiri women's predicament. " Asad was one of those people who hadn't learnt to say to his relatives, no matter how demanding or imposing they were …I was forced to leave home in order to make home for uncle's family. How I felt didn't matter to Asad at all."
How Ikhwanies who concentrated in certain locality made life hell for women " Most of the girls were confined to their houses due to increasing incidents of teasing, extortion, bullying and even sexual abuse…Girls from this area, earlier considered amongst the finest in the valley, were now being turned down by suitors for marriage."
Here and there, we find illuminating observations. For instance, about a miraculous reunion of lost son with his mother to whom people attributed divine power. "Everybody believed in her divine power, but I believed in the divine power of a mother."
About masochism of a sort: "Fortunately or unfortunately, the violence developed some resilience in me. I kept waiting for another crackdown, another beating, more humiliation and another dead body."
Commenting about the newspaper report that 50% Kashmiri women were suffering from mental ailments including depression, that this report "didn't mention those women who had become statues, those who had turned into a stone from the inside. These women never laughed or wept, sighed or whispered.
To become a stone had helped them in a way, for they hardly felt pain any more, despite the relentless killings." (Isn't it the case that most Kashmiris preserve sanity and life through this way today in 2016?)
Finally, despondency that threatens even the heroes: "Why am I alive, why don't I die. So many people die every day in Kashmir, why am I not among them?"
Attempting to represent (one wishes one could, truly, speak for the other, unsuccessful unsung, more homely souls or "subaltern") those mute Kashmiris who identify with the resistance movement – or who can't be weaned away from it – but can't buy the nihilistic logic of violence with which it has been informed by its ideologues and greeted by the State, Nayeema Mehjoor' timely work concludes with a tribute to the "tiger ladies of my motherland – their love, endurance, pain and pride." A fitting conclusion. Terror consumes bodies and wounds souls but to be human is to resist and endure. Kashmiri women zindabad.
A Kashmiri woman stranding between tradition and modernity, Kashmir and London, and caught up in transition that requires dealing with tensions of class and gender and calls for severe moral questioning of key choices is the subject of the novel that reads almost like a memoir and thinly disguised autobiography.