For all our nation's shortcomings and deficiencies, it is because of our "freedom of expression", that we are able to read a book like 'Curfewed Night' - an account of the "situation" in Kashmir from a son of the land.
Basharat Peer, born in Kashmir and now based in New York, as the cover of the book says, tells the story of Kashmir in a straightforward, honest fashion. Without taking anybody's side, Peer demonstrates how many of us, thanks to our prejudices and refusal to grasp the complete picture, fail to understand the complexity of the situation. Instead, we read about militants getting caught, civilians getting killed, politics being unabashedly played over land day in and day out. We are reconciled and helpless; forced to believe what we are offered. I am not suggesting that we shouldn't, but merely alluding that we take many things for granted.
For that simple reason, Curfewed Night is a must read - to learn more about how war is not distant and how it is very much a reality in a state which we like to forget except when talking about tourism, deaths and cross-border politics and elections.
Starting from his early childhood when "Nobody had killed a man in our area for decades", he moves on to describe the city thus: "Srinagar is a medieval city dying in a modern war. It is empty streets, locked shops, angry soldiers and boys with stones. It is several thousand military bunkers, four golf courses, and three bookshops. It is wily politicians repeating their lies about war and peace to television cameras...It is staring back or looking away, resigned. Srinagar is never winning and never being defeated."
This is prose at its very non-flamboyant best. The focus is on the ordinary lives of the people of the valley, their unfulfilled dreams, their rebellion, their resignation, their grief, loss and despair. The canvas he has chosen to throw light on is vast. By speaking about his association with his ancestral village, about how Kashmir retained center-stage wherever he went, the reader is drawn to see, empathize and understand with the author.
The rise of militancy in the nineties, how it affected ordinary lives, the role played by the Indian state, the brutalities of the army, the tales of "disappeared" people, the intrusion of the military into the everyday life, the alarming frequency of hartals, deaths and funerals, the influence of cable TV - it is a tumultuous existence. Never once is the author accusing or pointing a finger. He seems to search for that element that has wrecked the lives to a state of misery.
In the influence of Bollywood, in the premium placed on education, one catches glimpses of mainstream society. Otherwise, it is shocking to read the book. The book has moments of sheer beauty, naturally given the subject, they are few and far between.
A child asks the author on his return, "You do not have an identity card! Why? Don't you have police or army in Delhi?" This best sums up the incredulity of the child.
Some passages are chilling:
"Children born just before or after the armed rebellion had become far too intimate with war and fear. My cousin, who was born in the early nineties on a day a gun battle was raging outside the hospital, played a game called 'army-militant'".
"Two words had remained omnipresent in my journeys. Whether it was at a feat or a funeral, a visit to a destroyed shrine or a redeemed torture chamber, a story about a stranger or about my own life, a poem or a painting, two words always made their presence felt: militants and soldiers."
The distinction between Kashmiri militants and the Pakistani Islamist militants, the encounters with people who had suffered unimaginable injuries are both a revelation and a lesson.
With fear, the human longing for support and faith intensifies. "God and his saints seemed to have become the psychiatrists with the largest practice in Kashmir; faith was essentially a support system".
"I heard echoes of Kashmir in the pages of Hemingway, Orwell, Dostoevsky and Turgenev, among others. I wondered if one could write like that about Kashmir but kept the thought to myself." - writes the author. Thankfully, he hasn't kept his experiences to himself.
Rich in detail, the book is an education and a rare glimpse into the troubled lives of ordinary people. The news of a gun battle in Kashmir will never be the same again.