When Kashmiris Lost The Comfort Of HomeBloombergQuintOpinion
Songs disappeared, folk tales dried up, the posture of people changed, and the rhythmic echo of boots from the evening patrol pierced the thickest crewel curtains and sealed windows. That winter, Kashmir changed.
“The marching seeped into our silences, punctuated our conversations with pauses, which in turn, jumbled our thoughts and our language,” writes Farah Bashir in her new book Rumours of Spring. Her deeply personal memoir of growing up in the Kashmir of 1989-94 is told through the death of her beloved grandmother Bobeh and the loss of home.
This past year even the most privileged of us have gotten a taste of what it feels like to be trapped at home with danger lurking outside. But our homes remain a refuge, a place where we can find new ways to grow, heal. Bashir’s book takes us to a time in Kashmir’s history when the sanctuary of home was eviscerated overnight. Three decades later, Kashmiris still don’t have the right to be in control of their most private spaces.
A man with a cane sits next to timber at a store in Srinagar. (Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg)
As the Kashmiri Pandit community was forced to flee the erstwhile state in 1990, an armed insurgency against the state peaked and the military settled in for what would be its longest occupation in independent India. Around that time, the Central Reserve Police Force opened fire on hundreds of unarmed protesters in what became known as the Gaw Kadal massacre, among the worst in India’s history.
The comfort and safety of home evaporated not just for those who fled but for everyone who was left behind.
“Apne gharoon se bahar nikaliyey. Koi aadmi ghar pe na paaya jaaye,” loudspeakers announced routinely. Come outside of your houses. No man should be found inside his house. Homes were ransacked in frequent, impromptu crackdowns, or simply taken over by the paramilitary.
Though Bashir’s narrative is intimate—she annotates actual historic events in notes at the end of the book—terror snakes through the pages like the blue smoke of tear gas through the crevices and tightly-shut windows of Kashmiri homes. An open window could get you killed.
Bright lights were replaced with zero-watt bulbs and people stopped speaking loudly. Weddings that once went on through the night, now happened only in the day.
“Before 1989, nights were for celebrations and days for funerals. Then curfew took over all our nights, and both mourning and celebrations moved to the days,” Bashir writes.
Her father described the local newspapers that came home as “mortuaries laid out on broadsheets”. English dailies based outside Kashmir, on the other hand, carried full-page glossy advertisements of blissful families. Bashir says she marvelled about that world. “I wondered if it knew how, not more than 1,000 kilometres away, it had become commonplace for ordinary people to survive the fallouts of war: losing limbs in grenade blasts and kin to arrests and bullets…seeing their homes turn into battlefields.” That question remains valid three decades later.
Even love letters were cause for worry, who knows what bad news they might hold. “I want to pick the petals of a flower,” Bashir wrote to Vaseem, with whom she had a brief teenage romance in 1992. “…I could pick petals and play that stupid game they show in films—he loves me, he loves me not. I could change that to—will they impose curfew: Maybe, maybe not.”
By then, Bashir’s five-storey home was a prison, trapping its inhabitants in a listless cycle of anxiety, grief, and fear.
The attic, once the most frequented spots of “the tallest house in the neighbourhood”, was now dangerous because its height attracted bullets. Its walls became “pockmarked as the clay on the bricks flaked off from stray bullets,” she writes. “It was as if a giant sieve was spread all over it.”
Vendors and traders gather in Srinagar. (Photographer: Sumit Dayal/Bloomberg)
When Bashir remarked to an aunt that her home was “peaceful” and “cocooned”, her aunt looked at her disbelievingly: “Don’t you remember most of the dead on Gaw Kadal were from here?…Right there across the bund is where most of them lived….”
Inside homes, the genesis of Kashmir’s mental health pandemic was unfolding. By 2016, 45 percent of the population was mentally distressed, according to a report by Doctors Without Borders.
Bashir was hit too. Until 1989, tending to her granddaughter’s hair was one of Bobeh’s favourite activities. But after night curfews began, Bashir began pulling out clumps of her hair from the roots to distract herself and stay calm. To hide the condition of her raw scalp, she stopped allowing family members to touch her hair.
Farah Bashir. (Photograph: Shahbaz Khan)
Her relationship with food changed too. In 1993, she went for months barely eating anything. Potatoes and lamb, now cooked on curfew days, were no longer comfort food. The aroma of her favourite bread, once irresistible, now “blended with the sound of jackboots”, she says, making her appetite disappear.
On the Eid of 1989, 12-year-old Bashir stepped out for her first salon visit and got caught in a curfew. When news of a little girl’s death spread, her family thought it was Bashir. That day spinach chicken had been cooked. “Palak kookier started smelling of death,” Bashir writes.
Bashir’s aunt Nelofer often recited a couplet by Sufi poet Urfi, which Bashir translates: “Such is the climate of Kashmir/it will regrow the feathers of a burnt bird.” Nelofer said she preferred it to the oft heard, “If there is Paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.
A pedestrian walks along a path next to a causeway in Srinagar. (Photographer: Sumit Dayal/Bloomberg)
Nelofer’s “mini paradise” of a home on the banks of the Nigeen lake was affected too. On a visit there, Bashir was woken up in the night with a loud buzzing sound that echoed over the lake. Motorboats were on their night patrol. Halogen lights flashed into their bedrooms. “It felt like someone held a full moon right in front of our face,” Bashir says.
Two generations of children learned to be petrified of sound and light. Bashir dedicates her book to them.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.