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Curfewed Night- A Memoir of Life, Love and War

Stories; some inspire, some scare, some move; all of them are a literary version of life. And then there are some so painfully honest that our feeble conscience, in its conveniently sheltered milieu, would rather choose to live in denial. Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night is one such extraordinary memoir of growing up in the trouble-torn valley of Kashmir, which poets once referred to as paradise on earth, and what the world today recognizes with conflict and struggle.
Following the violent partition in 1947, Kashmir signed the agreement of accession with India which ensured greater autonomy for the region, and recognized a plebiscite for Kashmir to decide which country they wanted to belong to. Gradually, this autonomy disappeared. The arrest of Kashmir’s Prime Minister by the Indian government, repealing of the provision of plebiscite, curtailment of Kashmiri’s democratic rights among other political developments, lead to bottling up of resentment against the Indian rule among the people of Kashmir Valley, which in turn erupted in the form of armed militancy. The Indian government reacted by enforcing the infamous Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which has lead to several human rights violations in Kashmir Valley.
Basharat Peer documents many unheard stories from the Kashmir valley, which are unique in that these are stories of the Kashmiri common folk whose lives are dictated by this violence.
In this book there are stories of simple people who could once draw pleasures from simple things, like enjoying a cup of tea while sitting on an ordinary stool in a small pigeonhole-like shop, but have now lost that life with the war clouds still hovering and armies stationed at the cold borders.
The book opens with an insightful quote by the American novelist James Baldwin, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” Curfewed Night accentuates this mutual entrapment through the ever-engaging art of story-telling. Stories are overlapped with emotions, which is why we connect to them. The author makes the stories sound real and appealing by choosing this genre instead of a dreary third person narrative. This is what distinguishes it from factual accounts like reports or articles.
Peer narrates moments of a cricket match between India and Pakistan in Sharjah in 1986, where Pakistan needs three runs to win, and India’s Chetan Sharma is about to bowl the last ball of the match to Javed Miandad. Sharma bowls a full toss, the shrewd batsman strikes a six, winning the game for Pakistan and the Kashmir valley celebrates- the famous Indian litmus test of patriotism!
As a story-teller Basharat Peer tries to process what he and the people around him lived through during the violence in Kashmir and make sense out of it. As a little boy Basharat grew up reading Shakespeare, concerning himself about riding a bicycle, dancing to the tunes of Bollywood music! It seems like a very relatable childhood with an overprotective mother, a concerned father and a strict grandfather with his typical ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ principle. But there’s also something that makes his childhood different from ours.
We’re introduced to what the author refers to as “the war of his adolescence”, the violence that turns the Kashmir Valley into one of the most heavily militarized places on the planet, and ruins thousands of lives. The ordinary childhood comes to an end, growing up becomes synonymous with frisking, army checkpoints and police raids.
It’s somewhat interesting to read about how the young Kashmiri boys react to this. The militants become role models; their uniform becomes fashion. He writes of friends crossing the Line of Control to “train in Pakistan for azaadi”, and few returning as adolescent militants romancing with their Kalashnikovs. Peer writes, “like almost every boy, I wanted to join them. Fighting and dying for freedom was as desired as the first kiss on adolescent lips.” Many parents, including Peer’s, sent their children away to finish their education far away from the valley. The young Basharat came to an agreement with his father that he would wait a few years before deciding whether or not to join the separatist group, JKLF, and in the meantime he would study. Basharat goes away to study with his father’s words still echoing in his head. Rebellions, he said, were led by educated men. Years later he fails to remember who told him about aazadi.
The amusing and rebellious Kashmir he left as a teenager, the paradise that inspired great literary works, was now a scorched land, with exhausted and uncertain people. He realizes that the stories about Kashmir had changed from that of its enchanting beauty to those of abuse of power and authority, brutality and sufferings. As a character in the book puts it, “There are no good stories in Kashmir. There are only difficult, ambiguous and unresolved stories.”
As a reader one can notice a journalistic approach in Peer’s writing, however, while narrating the stories, the author doesn’t shy away from his own emotions, and it is this overlapping of emotions which gives it an authentic touch. For instance, he sits at a bus-stop waiting for the bus to take him to Kunan Poshpora, the village where Indian soldiers gang raped 20 women in 1990. But when the bus arrives he just goes on sitting, listening to the sound of the revving engine, and watching the bus drive away. “I think about the places I failed to write about, the places I postponed visiting because I feared it would be painful.” The author’s admission of his inability to write about some places and some people accentuates how anyone can be overpowered by the basic human emotion of sympathy. Here pain or brutality is not subject to research, it’s simply felt.
He realizes that it is a war that hasn’t yet ended, though it has changed shape considerably in the last few years. Peer says, “every aspect of the lives of the Kashmiris is so intensified and precarious that they don’t know what tomorrow would be like.” He has tried to capture a part of every life; that of the Kashmiri Pandits for whom home is a memory, fading as years go by; of the Kashmiris who bravely lived through brutality and suffering; and even about the much-hated military personnel one of whom he mentions saying “I was a different man before joining the force.” He travels through the valley of Kashmir and writes of his identity becoming a matter of dispute, of schools being turned into army camps and of incidents of unspeakable torture, ostracism and pain.
In the end Basharat crosses the LOC. He writes: “The line of control did not run through 576 kilometers of militarized mountains. It ran through everything a Kashmiri, an Indian and a Pakistani said, wrote, and did. It ran through whispers of lovers and it ran through our grief, our anger, our tears, and our silence.
The book simply tells that there are many oppressing entities trying to overpower each other but in reality they end up defeating humanity. We read about the missing people, half-widows and the number of those detained or set free in newspapers and magazines every now and then but there is lot more beyond those numbers. As a journalist, the author realizes that the story of a prisoner does not end when he is set free, instead a second phase of his life begins. Although there is a context of Kashmir, but at the end of the day it’s simply one person telling the other that something wrong happened, people suffered and it was sad. Devoid of a judgment, it is the very amalgamation of literature and reporting/reportage that makes it a rather distinct property of literature.

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