A breath of fresh Kashmiri air

Column for Hardnews, Delhi, Feb 2009

PERSONAL POLITICAL

basharat-peer-t2f-6-w-mural

Basharat Peer at T2F. Photo: Jamal Ashiqain

Beena Sarwar

Basharat Peer’s ‘Curfewed Nights’ brings home the myriad nuances and human-ness of ‘the Kashmir issue’ – the main reason why, we are told, Pakistan and India can’t exist in peace.

Despite the hostilities, it speaks for the changing times that Peer was able to recently visit Pakistan, staying with Saad Haroon, a satirist he had met in New York (got the visa because a Pakistani diplomat liked his book). Friends hooked him up with Sabeen Mahmud who runs The Second Floor, T2F, the internet café-cum-community space in Karachi where you can hang out over music or a board game, browse the bookshelves or imbibe the art work and mural on the brick walls. Despite the short notice, the place was packed – with mostly young people, like Peer, Mahmud, and Haroon themselves. The event provided a rare opportunity for meaningful interaction without the public posturing, ‘national’ positions and one-upmanship that the mainstream media reflects and reinforces, overwhelming the shades of grey.

Waiting for the author, I got engrossed in the first chapter. The first few pages outlining his idyllic boyhood in a village in Anantnag reveal a culture steeped in religion, but gentle and tolerant. “Everything changed in 1990,” he explained, taking his seat in a corner of the room. “That was the turning point. It is the year against which we measure every subsequent moment.”

Ironically, Peer landed in Pakistan on Feb 5, designated ‘Kashmir Day’ by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. No subsequent government could remove this unnecessary national holiday that costs the exchequer millions of rupees annually. My daughter is happy that it’s a school holiday. Kashmiris remain in ignorant bliss about this magnanimity. “I didn’t even know there was such a day,” admitted Peer. “None of my friends know.”

He dispelled the myth nurtured by the Pakistani establishment that Kashmiris are grateful for the foreign intervention. The foreign fighters injected into the region have no affinity with the Kashmiris. “They have no language in common, they have different worldviews, and their approach to religion is very different. Villagers have an ambiguous approach to foreign militants. They bury their bodies out of respect for the dead, but don’t carry them on their shoulders in processions like they do for the local boys.”

Kashmiris most certainly “would not want a government like some people want Swat to have,” he added (nor would most of us in Pakistan).

Refreshingly honest and thoughtful, Peer is among the 74 per cent of Kashmiris who are under 40. His first visit to Pakistan, he said, has been an eye-opener. “For a long time, Pakistan for me was Imran Khan. It was an abstraction, a collection of images. I couldn’t have imagined it was like this, or that there were so many multiple worlds in Karachi. I had no real sense of what Pakistan was.”

In turn, many of us were stunned by the story he related about the reaction in Kashmir when Gen. Zia got Z.A. Bhutto hanged in 1979. “People were so angry they burnt the houses of 500 Jamat-e-Islami members all over Kashmir valley. They even burnt copies of (JI founder) Maulana Maududi’s book and copies of the Quran. When my grandfather tried to stop them, they said that it was the ‘Jamati Quran’.”

One of the passages he read out was a moving one about reuniting with Kashmiri Pundit friends at a refugee camp. Obviously something he feels strongly about, the issue figures prominently in his book. Keenly observed and vividly related, his writing made me literally ‘see’ Kashmir as never before.

Peer stresses the high premium placed on education in the Valley. “Even the poorest girls in my village go to school. Srinagar’s Lal Chowk is a sea of women from 1 to 3.30 pm, hundreds of women and girls from schools in the area, dominating the most significant public space in Kashmir.”

Some asked if he felt a greater need to prove his loyalty to India as an Indian Muslim? “I am a Kashmiri Muslim, not an Indian Muslim,” he responded. “I have a disputed status… I published this book in India. I’ve worked for several Indian publications, but never felt discriminated against because of religion. I could write about and publish anything. It may not always get the best display, but all reporters crib about that. Yes, there is a problem finding housing in Delhi if you are Muslim, but aren’t housing issues universal? Would a Pathan find it easy to get a house in a Mohajir area?”

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