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A MUTED CULTURE IN KASHMIR THROUGH THE LENS OF FARAH BASHIR


Kapila Vatsyayan in her essay, Fluidity and dynamics of tradition, writes on the perception of ‘self’ from the perspective of the ‘other’. Her context is in reference to the post - colonial era where certain british concepts on law, education, and culture shaped our own view on ourselves with respect to heritage and antiquities. But the same argument can be taken in reference to Kashmir and its people with multi cultural identities and not just one. The literary text I am highlighting in this context is “Rumors of spring: A girlhood in Kashmir” by Farah Bashir. Post insurgency, there seems to be this forced internalization of the perception of the “Other” by the troops who control most of the valley and terrain. The forceful imposition of their doubt that each house must be hiding a militant creates panic, destruction of mental health and a lifelong apathy for self in terms of multiple identities surrounding a particular individual who for me in a tier 1 city like Bangalore might just seem as an ordinary Kashmiri. But she is a woman too, perhaps a teenage girl, a student who wants to pursue Persian literature or she might be an elderly asthamatic lady requiring special care and fresh air devoid of tear gasses and shrapnels causing havoc everyday. The traditions that have altered in this multi cultural identity are numerous, as is the richness of the few that haven’t.


Farah Bashir begins her memoir with the passing of her grandmother whom she fondly remembers as Bobeh. But like many other things that needed postponement or complete annihilation after 1990, funerals and weddings too met with a similar fate and uncertainty because of the routine and imminent dusk to dawn curfew or surprising crackdowns. In this essay, I will call the reader’s attention to a few of those in relation to the double reed flute metaphor Kapila Vatsyayan elicits time and again in her own writings. According to her, a tradition is never static but always flowing in different vertical strata horizontally. It is also a confluence of multiple cultures and traditions that forms a prayag which unifies a sangam and creates one yet many. In relation to this idea, she highlights how in a double reed flute, one reed is the immutable part that is ever flowing unchanged and the other, dynamic and influenced with the change in politics and economics. But to commensurate this to Kashmir, not only the immutable part of the traditions such as visiting dargahs and shrines, celebrating Eid and Mohurrum, or conducting day and night weddings with mouth watering wazwan or leading a procession of solemn funeral, has been altered, but also the dynamic tune such as emerging modernity, education, watching films in theater, playing music after dusk, conducting traditional businesses has been time and again stifled or banned completely. The former being due to the laws of the state, and the latter credited to the militancy and insurgents or sometimes a mixture of both.


Nothing in the valley is any more distinct or unique to its root. Both celebrations and grief in Farah Bashir’s memoir are wrapped under the same shawl and given a similar shade of color. If a visitor like Rajje Maas can finally conceive a son after making frequent visits to the baba reshi’s shrine, she can also lose him in blink of an eye to the troops after sixteen years and no place or office could help her find her disappeared son. If a young Farah’s excitement to churn out a romance with a boy she had come to meet in her sister Hina’s place could lead to love letter exchanges (although delayed), it could also result in burning and demolishing of a post office that was their messenger. The sting in her eyes from the tear gas fumes were also a reminder of the times when her mother with two helpers used to grind Kashmiri chillies that was last performed in the spring of 1989. If grains and coals for winter could be abundantly stored for a few of the harshest and cruel months, the sacks could also be ripped open by the troops during a crackdown and months of hard work could be reduced to a ransack. A visit to her aunt Nelofar’s serene house in front of a lake could be a day’s recluse but nights were marred with curtain piercing harsh light emanating from night patrolling invading morality and privacy. If a fearless, witty, poetic aunt like Nelofar reciting poems and couplets of Ghalib could be reduced to an anxious wife waiting helplessly for a husband who remained abducted for three whole days, anything under the sky can be substituted.

Old tradition sometimes gave way to developing new traditions: like from wearing an amulet (taaviz) to clutching it tightly wherever one went because of an inherent fear; from visiting shrines to tying multiple knots in one’s dupatta in order to pray against a misfortune; from having bright lights on after dusk to not leave any light on lest they attract undue attention from the troops or the militants; from holding an extravagant weddings to a truncated guest list, the list can go on and on.


One such important instance wherein a person’s whole demeanor changed, was of Koal, the deaf and mute daily helper in Farah’s house who could only utter the sound, ‘Maaley’ upon his arrival. Once he ventured out without his ID card because no one bothered to make him one. Walking without it meant, walking on a minefield. When Koal was caught without it, the troops thrashed him with rifle butts. Hearing his loud Maaley, his sister came running to free him, placing her dupatta in the uniformed men’s feet (such was also the culture), pleading to free him. Since that episode, he never uttered any sound again. On Bobeh’s passing away too, he mourned silently. The way people mourned changed after insurgency. The silent had become more silent.

During pregnancy, women usually stay at their mother’s homes for at least two months leading up to the due date. But here, in Farah’s sister Hina’s case, the dilemma for the mother and the father was whether to keep a tradition alive or risk losing two lives.

But then there are a few rituals that haven’t gone through that kind of change. Although night curfew and nocturnal raids were common, senior female members in a wedding still took charge of the bride’s room that had jewelry and gifts for her in-laws and senior male members acted as witnesses at the nikah and dealt with the technicalities of the marriage contract from finalizing alimony and deciding thaan (gifts) to the specific timing for the ceremony. Readying and decorating the bride still remained a custom from braiding her hair with ribbons and colorful threads with ornate tassels, to distributing colorful ribbons among girls of marriageable age before the henna ceremony began. Reciting surahs during a funeral was still practiced and pallbearers still offered their strong shoulders to carry the coffin. Exorcists or priests, were still consulted and called for to relieve women’s so called hysteria and mental health (although infrequently as conveyance grew to become a problem because of repeated bandhs and clashes).


There are haunting statistics of the flute being completely broken and thrashed wherein neither reeds could produce any tune. The author recalls a number of instances where more and more faces resembling her aunt Jaaji (who had a mental health disorder) began emerging in the streets, and the number of patients outside psychiatrist clinics increased rapidly. Three years later, a reflection of Jaaji appeared in her own mirror when the author (Farah Bashir) too was prescribed sedatives and SSRI medications. Her father’s assistant Ramzaan Kaak who was the most trusted family friend cracked a popular joke pertaining to those times. He defined PTSD as perennial traumatic stress disorder. Perhaps this joke still pertains to the reality in Kashmir in present times as well.


This continual back and forth battle between the state machinery and the militants or separatists insurgents has led them (the common people of Kashmir of all subcultural identity) to become an object of their own viewing and not as subjects of living. There is doubt and suspicion among each other, about one another. What is true? What is false? Who is the real accused? What is the exact crime? Just as Kapila Vatsyayan relates the above mention ways of viewing oneself to the post colonial times, I am asking in context to Kashmir a similar kind of question, that if in a foreseeable future, normalcy (like in the 70s and the 80s) return to the valley, then can Kashmiri people pick up the broken fragments of the illumined mirror to gather and reconstruct their lost antiquity into a virtual reality, just like we as the rest of the country did after colonial rule ended, reconstructing “Indianness”?

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