By Reya Mehrotra
One doesn’t need to be a Kashmiri to know the meaning of Agar firdaus bar ru-ye zamin ast Hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast (If there is heaven on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this). The words that sound like music to the ears are Sufi poet Amir Khusrau’s composition. Centuries later, the phrase is attributed to ‘paradise on earth’ Kashmir.
Today, a lingering melancholy prevails over the picturesque valley, fractured identities masking the Kashmiriness of men and women, as an uncertain future looms over Kashmir. When author Farah Bashir sat down to pen her story, she opened many old wounds that withered her blossoming girlhood in Kashmir.
Bashir’s Rumours of Spring, published by HarperCollins, is a plethora of emotions inked and bound together into a book. It reminisces about the lost culture of the ‘heaven city’—the festiveness of local traditions, the bustling city life, the comfort of mundane everyday tasks. The author draws a clear demarcation between life in Kashmir pre and post the 1989 insurgency— the former brings out the spirit of the valley, while the latter clocks life in lockdown. “In Kashmir, being war ready is a prudent way of living,” writes Bashir in her book.
When the nationwide lockdown was imposed last year due to the pandemic, many complained about being stuck indoors, but for Kashmiris, that was the way of life— interrupted education, closed windows, restrictions on movement, closure of shops and businesses. The disputed land had been locked up for years. After three decades of lockdowns and curfews, the scars from personal losses, and loss of freedom and identity remain deeply etched on the flesh of Kashmiris. The fundamental difference between the two lockdowns, Bashir explains, is that one was for saving lives, while the other, under siege and curfew, didn’t guarantee safety.
While recollecting memories of life in 1990s’ Kashmir, however, Bashir does not leave her reader distraught, but instead delights them with the tenderness with which she brings together the Kashmiriness of the locals. Her book is a canvas on which she paints a picture of her hometown, embroidering it with Kashmiri phrases and practices. “After applying seemaband ghyev, Bobeh (her grandmother) tied my hair in a neat, tight plait,” she writes, making readers walk down their own memory lane, recollecting the age-old Indian oiling ritual by grandmothers.
Kashmiri words like wanwun, zombre thool, taeleem, waan pyend and phrases like loal oasum aamut, shaam ha gov, tczeir gov adorn the writing of the Kashmiri author throughout the book. In most cases, she refrains from explaining the phrases in English, keeping the sanctity of the language intact and allowing the reader to comprehend the meaning from the larger picture.
Explaining the title of the book, the author shares, “Rumours of Spring is a phrase borrowed from a poem by Agha Shahid Ali. His poems have been a place of refuge for years when I was making sense of the life lived in the 1990s in Kashmir.” For her, the decade was largely about survival and the one after that, about processing the previous decade.
A safe haven
Crisis and chaos have been the order of the day in Kashmir since decades. It is said that in uncertain times, man turns to religion and spirituality. That explains why a number of Kashmiri folklores, customs and religious traditions find mention in Bashir’s writing. Be careful what you wish for, your wish— good or bad— can come true, recitation of Surah Fheel for protection from one’s enemies, the story of the benign spirit of Pasikdar who punishes the impure, are just some of the many examples of the faith that Kashmiri people exhibit, as faith becomes a safe haven during crisis.
Troubled times are the harbinger of anxiety. For the people of Kashmir, too, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc, are some of the common problems. “In 1993, just before I turned seventeen, I showed symptoms of heightened anxiety,” Bashir writes. She also talks about her habit of self-harm— pulling out chunks of hair from her scalp to ward off anxiety. In another instance, she writes how her distant relative Jaaji was thought to have been possessed and had episodes of outbursts. It was only a matter of time that more such faces started appearing in the streets. “The number of patients outside the psychiatrist clinics increased rapidly. Three years later, a reflection of Jaaji appeared in my mirror when I too was prescribed sedatives and SSRI medications,” the author writes.
Bashir explains, “Women when faced with dire and threatening circumstances can turn against their own bodies by mutilating them. In Xinran’s book The Good Women of China, she explores a similar pattern of a young girl, who in order to escape abuse at the hands of a male relative picks on the wound repeatedly the moment she sees signs of recovery. Pulling my hair was not a process to heal but an escape that eventually turned to be additional trauma.”
Bashir shares that her old habit of pulling her hair resurfaced during the pandemic-induced lockdown last year. “I’d reach out to pull my hair again, but catch it in time, try to control it as best as I could. I would hesitate to step out even after the lockdowns were lifted. It used to take me a lot of effort to step out of the house after the curfew used to ease,” she shares with us.
On being asked why she wrote a book on girlhood in Kashmir, Bashir says that war is seldom recounted from the perspective of ordinary girls and women as there is no heroism in that. For young girls and women, growing up and living in a war zone requires a lot of moral courage, she says. “It’s through their lives that the apparatus of ‘cold violence’ is palpable more than anything else.”
For writers from Kashmir, the political events naturally become a part of their writings because of their lived experiences and trauma. And so, when a Kashmiri author writes, it becomes a crucial piece of information that would perhaps shape history years down the line.
Bashir is now working on a loose adaptation of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, which will be set in Kashmir. Ask her whether normalcy has returned to the valley post the scrapping of Article 370 and it getting the status of a Union Territory, and she says, “The definition of normalcy is unclear and vague to me. For me, to even get to a semblance of peace, it has to journey through truth and justice.”