It’s hard to explain the ways in which Farah Bashir’s book Rumours of Spring feels special. It’s an engaging new memoir by a woman who has grown up amid war, bloodshed and those tumultuous years of Kashmir that consumed so many lives and tore so many families apart.
Bashir writes from the perspective of an adolescent girl who is appalled at the suffering – both material and emotional – that has visited her people. Even though Bashir is raised in a relatively well-off family in a Srinagar neighbourhood, she is not just a mere spectator of conflict which has ravaged Kashmir for 30 years. She has experienced it. She is its victim.
This past fortnight, former governor of J&K Jagmohan Malhotra, who would call the shots in the Valley during the most volatile months of early 1990s, died. His demise provoked a flurry of commentary. And his book, My Frozen Turbulence, was once again in the public spotlight. Like every other narrative set by state functionaries, Malhotra’s book also conjures the same projections: people crazed into fanaticism by their religious beliefs, militancy as unprovoked aggression against the state, good Kashmiris who are naturally Indian versus bad Kashmiris who buy into Pakistani propaganda.
These characterisations have since crystallised and become enduring motifs of mainstream Indian discourse. Until, of course, Kashmiris decided to write. Bashir’s book strikes the reader with remarkable freshness, like a draught of cold wind blowing against a sweaty face.
Her story is not her alone but of dozens of people she has been associated with and whose lives were enmeshed in the political conflict and turned upside down. It includes her grandmother, Bobeh, who appears to be the moving spirit behind the book, and whose asthma is worsened by repeated exposure to acrid teargas exhausts; Rajj Mas, a professional funeral bather whose son is abducted by the Indian forces, and has never shown up since; Vaseem, who is Bashir’s first love interest and to whom she would write letters via mail until the post office in Srinagar catches fire. In a turmoil-ridden Kashmir Valley, no one restores the charred and dysfunctional mail box as a result of which they both lose contact. There are more characters.
There’s a whole chapter dedicated to the curfewed nights when Bashir experiences menstruation cramps but doesn’t dare to procure palliatives from another room as she is reluctant to invite attention of the troops posted outside because the “curfew has its own way of slipping indoors”.
Rumours of Spring is an evocative work that introduces readers to peculiarities of Kashmiri tradition that are at once both quotidian and exceptional. We learn that Kashmiris are quite forthright about their political choices, their adherence to the idea of Azadi. And this is not because they’re religious extremists. Kashmiris’ lives are shot through with the remarkable complexities. We read of people who probe the other people’s hands for a missing bone to see if they are Khwaja Khazir, a fabled fairy Godfather; of people who are aware of the responsibility to feed animals because “nezabaen sunnd tchu bozan Khodah”. We learn that the jantich hoor is not the voluptuous heavenly virgin in whose pursuit lustful Muslim men offer their lives. Instead, it’s a metaphor with which Kashmiri sons describe their deceased mothers in veneration.
We also learn of Kashmiri families who perform Hajj pilgrimage and do not return with Wahabi ideology but large music systems; of women memorising Shahnameh, the Persian epic poem, of Kashmiris who keep their spaces clean so that they don’t offend Pasikdar, a tutelary spirit that dwells inside every Kashmiri Muslim household. That’s why Kashmiris tend to grow more resentful when Indian soldiers walk into their rooms wearing jackboots during crackdowns and soil their bedding.
All this is described with an Austenian knack for storytelling and through scenes taking place inside households amid the dreary setting of 1990s’ Kashmir. Rumours of Spring’s poignant prose animates the lives of Kashmiri people and reinstates their human element, lost to pernicious discourses trafficked in the Indian media. This is the first time we get to read about the conflict as narrated from a woman’s point of view. In that sense, Bashir fills in the crucial missing piece.
This week, The Wire caught up with Bashir for an interview.
When did you decide you are going to write a book?
I began journaling at 14. In the early 1990s, our schools opened sporadically, our diaries were unused. Then I started filling them page after page. Initially, when I began, life was changing on an hourly basis but much of it remained the same, especially prolonged curfews. Sometimes, it could be a detail about a funeral, sometimes about a carrom game.
A few years later, I started writing amateur poetry. Once I tried writing an elegy and three days later my grandmother, Bobeh, died. In the same week, I consigned all the 88 poems I had written to flames. But the habit of documenting detail remained whether it was observing body language, accents or peculiar personality traits.
Finally, between 2005 and 2008, when I used to work with the Global Pictures Desk, Reuters in Singapore, from having edited news from Iraq, Palestine; many memories returned. I used that period to read extensively on Kashmir to make sense of what we had lived through after the armed insurgency erupted. While working, I remember sending a picture of a brooding girl, sitting atop a shikara, to Times Square. It invited a comment from one of the editors that it looked too grim to be sent where it’d be flashed a few thousand times its original size. Of course, it didn’t look pretty or exotic, and I didn’t have an answer for him at that moment.
In hindsight, it felt like that that was the moment in which I wanted, in my own way, to draw the world’s attention to what Kashmiris as a people had been and were enduring. I started writing in 2008 when I left Reuters. I discarded two manuscripts, but the resolve kept getting stronger especially in 2010 and 2016. The killings of teenage boys made me investigate the memory of an adolescent girl who had lived in a war and survived, as she had watched dignity and humanity erode steadily.
Can you describe why, in your opinion, it was important to tell the story of Kashmir from a woman’s perspective?
As a teenage girl, growing up in a conflict-stricken territory happened to be a dual struggle: to make sense of the militarisation of domestic spaces and to learn new social etiquette – informed by war – to navigate life. It was crucial to record what a teenage girl went through in one of the most important events in Kashmir’s contemporary history in the last 150 years (the previous two being Amritsar Treaty and the 1931 uprising). A girlhood and adolescence, which is both familiar and universal and yet turned into a searing, heightened experience by the anxiety and fear of war.
You have touched on sensitive issues such as menstruation, girls falling in love, threading the upper lip in early teenage years, navigating gunfight scenes, crackdowns and check points. It seems like your story is railing against narratives about “effete Kashmiri Muslim women” who stay stoically silent in face of large patriarchal familial and social contexts.
Women’s lives are a part of social history that cannot be ignored. The ordinary and mundane exists in lives despite conflict or wars. It would have been difficult to write about the basics of adolescence by omitting essential details of a teenage girl’s life: falling in love, menstruation, puberty related changes, which are rather natural. By omitting a significant part of a gender, however undesirable or unspeakable, what’s the point of objective writing? It creates a space which our societies sometimes bar from existing.
Since literature is comparative, we also have the example of Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad, from the late 1950s and early 1960s traditional Iran, who wrote of women’s desires (for which she was both reviled and revered). In Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun, the author exposes its readers to sexual politics of women.
There is a book by Xue Xinran, Good Women of China, that documents how women turn against themselves when exposed to threatening circumstances. In some cases, women also develop an adverse relationship with their bodies. Some mutilate, some disfigure, and some are apathetic.
To get to the depths of a society, lives of ordinary women have to be examined in entirety to grasp what militarisation did and does to a people. In territorial conflicts, women are dual recipients of violence. Their bodies are used to shame and subjugate people which damage their psyches. These losses are unaccounted for with colossal consequences. They alter societies and expose our unpreparedness.
Are you still haunted by some of the events described in the book? Like the gruelling circumstances in which your sister delivered the baby boy or how Indian troops would ransack your basement, ripping open sacks full of rations?
It manifests in similar and newer ways. In the pandemic, I have had a recurring dream of sleeping in a room which happens to be at a point of cross-firing. While writing the memoir, I had the recurring dream of a photograph taken after unarmed protestors were fired upon in Bijbehara in 1993. I still have a strange relationship with food, the genesis of which I have explained in the chapter ‘The Dread of Dastarkhwaan’. The one thing I do dread is relapsing into the habit of hair-pulling at the advent of a stressful situation. Mostly, I catch it now, but sometimes it still skips me, even three decades later.
What’s your opinion about how the Kashmir conflict has been described in the mainstream media?
Reductive, largely, with a few exceptions once in a while. Feeding the social consciousness with binaries and repeating the same narrative to dehumanise a people, discredit a movement, eventually damaging to the political narrative.
How did you train yourself to write? Tell me about your interest in books and literature and how you decided to become an author.
It dates back to pre-adolescence. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott was a part of our curriculum when I was around ten or 11 years old, but I remember returning to it once every winter for many years after that. It became a source of the familiar, comfort and sisterhood. Stories somehow helped make sense of the world when nothing was making sense for a young girl in the early 1990s. After studying English Literature at the university, reading literature stayed with me as if I had never graduated. I read and re-read, and make notes.
It’s not like other jobs where you ‘decide’ to become a lawyer or a doctor. You try and write and if you feel content with the story, you put it out there. I kept trying to write for over a decade. Writing is about commitment and perseverance where one is expectant of failure or one’s work never seeing the light of the day. It is about feeling compelled by an inextinguishable passion to tell the stories you want to tell. In my case, the significant change that occurred was to dedicate a few years to reading and re-reading what women (with the exception of a few men Hisham Matar, Raja Shehadeh and Mirza Waheed) had written. To name a few: Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer, Yiyun Li, Xinran, Elena Ferrante, Han Kang, Kamila Shamsie, Ahdaf Soueif, Wioletta Greg, Alexandra Fuller and Suad Amiry. My recent engagement has been reading texts and watching their adaptations. Beloved by Toni Morrison and the devastating Push by Sapphire are the most recent ones. I am working on a group portrait of women spanning across a decade.
Shakir Mir is a Srinagar-based journalist.