Book review – Curfewed Night
Prof. G.L. Jalali
Packed with facts and fiction, narrated in a locale of electrified human emotions
TITLE……………………Curfewed Night ; AUTHOR………………….Basharat Peer
DATE OF PUBLICATION…………….2010 ;PAGES………………………………….221
PUBLISHER……..Harper Publications, London
Its racy prose is both lyrical and moving, subject matter most poignant It describes what a heaven it (Kashmir) was and what a hell it is now – all man made.
It is an emotional tale of mans’ love for his land, the pain of leaving home and ultimately the joy of return
In the wake of the ongoing Muslim insurgency in the erstwhile princely Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir that broke out in 1989 a spute of books, dealing with the J&K insurgency, have flooded the world book market. These books were authored mostly by the persons living either outside J&K or some foreign writers. There were a few Kashmir authors who wrote copiously on the Kashmir subject. Mr. Basharat Peer, the author of Curfewed Night (under review) is one such author who has the distinction of writing a revealing book on the ongoing political turmoil in his native land – the scenic valley of Kashmir. His book “Curfewed Night” is the memoir of a young Kashmiri Muslim Journalist who spent his childhood and adolescent years in the strife ridden Kashmiri valley.
Belonging to a well-to-do Muslim Peer (priestly) family, Basharat’s father Mr.GA Peer is a serving bureaucrat (now posted as Commissioner-cum-Education Secretary in J & K state).His mother serves as a school teacher while his grand father is a retired head-master of a Government Secondary School. His upbringing was unlike that of other Muslim boys in his native village, Seer which is on way to valley’s internationally known tourist spot. Gifted with rich imagination and deft of thought, Basharat Peer describes his village environs-open paddy fields, neighboring mountains, rich flora and fauna, village houses with thatched roofs, running and roaring brooks – in an artistic manner couched in a simple, readable and, above all, racy style of his prose reminiscent of any matured and experienced English writer. Still, the young scribe has to go miles ahead. For his style of writing I offer my hearty congratutions to Mr. Basharat Peer.
The book consists of sixteen chapters running over two hundred twenty one pages. Each chapter carries an appropriate heading, capping the details given inside the chapter. Chapters from one to eight describe author’s early life up to the period when he is all set to leave the valley for plains in search of new green pastures and to make a successful career. In the second part the author of the Curfewed Night describes his journey as a reporter of a Delhi based newspaper through length and breadth of Kashmir, meeting a cross-section of the Kashmiris and noting their reaction towards the militancy that engulfed his homeland.
So the book titled Curfewed Night is an anecdotal record of the events seen through the prism of a writer who, overtly or covertly, sympathizes with the militants. It is a chronicle of events keenly observed by a young Muslim journalist who grows up watching this charming valley turning into a hotbed of Muslim insurgency.
Basharat Peer’s narrative takes the reader into 1990s when almost the whole of Kashmir valley was overtaken very badly by Pak-sponsored militancy. The author was only 13 years old boy, reading in a village school when the Indian army was fighting a tough gurrila war with the Pakistan trained militants.
Pakistan had never reconciled with the Indian stand on Kashmir. When General Zia-UI-Haq came to power in a military coup against the democratically elected Bhutto Government, Pakistan started a proxy-war to grab Kashmir. It started indoctrinating Kashmiri Muslim youth, giving them arms training at military camps set up in PoK by Pakistan’s infamous ISl. Thus started the Jihad in Kashmir. It burst forth with vigor in 1990. The civilian government in the valley was almost subverted. That is what Mr. Basharat Peer, the author of the book the Curfewed Night under review, calls “Independence movement”.
Even in his adolescence, he was swept by this “Freedom movement” which was in full bloom. Once it so happened that he had to join a procession of “Freedom Fighters”, he felt himself a part of “something larger’……”Fighting and dying”. Fired with a strong urge to usher in an Isiamic order and to overpower the enemies of their so-called freedom, Basharat’s school friends would cross high-mountain peaks, standing magnificently all along the border with PoK, to receive arms training in alien climes. The rebel in the young school-going boy, Basharat, take the place of a coy- some sibling of a middle-class rural Muslim family and decides to join the much talked about freedom-struggle as Mujahideen. He wants to bid adieu to studies at school.
Peer’s parents heard about their sons firm resolve to join JKLF, the then premier militant outfit, fighting for valley’s independence. His parents intervened and succeeded in preventing young Basharat from joining the militant outfit. “He can join after finishing his studies,” they said to their overzealous son. Rebellion, his father said repeatedly, were led by educated men. The young boy had to yield to the wishes of his parents. He draws a pen picture of the situation appering in February 1990 in the valley, particularly in Srinagar. The author says, “By February 1990 Kashmir was in the midst of a full-blown rebellion against India. Every evening we heard the news of more protests and deaths. Protests followed killings, and killings followed protests. News came from Srinagar that hundreds of thousands of people had marched to pray for independence at the shrine of the patron saint of Kashmir, Nooruddin Rishi. All over the state similar marches to the shrines of Surfi saints were launched. I joined a procession to the shrine of a much revered Zain Shah Sahib at Aishmuqam near my school”(page 17). It is worth mentioning that Saint Zain Shah was originally a Kashmiri Brahman converted to Islam in 15th century,. When Kashmir was ruled by some fanatic Muslim rulers, including the infamous idol breaker Sikender Butshekan. As admitted by the author of the Curfewed Night, it was a full-fledged revolt against India, provoked and abetted by Pakistan in collabration with the Sunni Musllim Community. So, the so-called political movement was no less short of a religious movement aimed at seceding Kashmir from India on the “basis of two-nation theory, the sheet-anchor of the bloody Partition of the Indian subcontinent. It is on account of this premises that former President of Pakistan,Ghulam Ishaq Khan called the Kashmir issue “unfinished agenda of Partition”. To call the ongoing Jehad as Independence Movement by Mr.Basharat Peer, the author of the Curfewed Night, is sheer travesty of truth and the distortion of historical facts
His remarks about the former Governor of Kashmir, Jagmohan are unwarranted and condemnable in the light of facts. ‘The night of January 20, 1990 was long and sad. Before dinner, my family gathered as usual around the radio for the evening news on BBC World Service. Two days earlier, Jagmohan, an Indian bureaucrat infamous for his hatred for Muslims, had been appointed the governor of Jammu and Kashmir. He gave orders to crush the incipient rebellion……”(page15). To this question the author will find a suitable answer in the “My Frozen Turbulance’ written by Jagmohan two decades ago. He says when he had assumed the charge as the Governor of J & K state, the strife-torn state was “slipping away from India” as a result of conspiracy hatched and worked out by Pakistan’s infamous ISI, named “Operation Topac”. As a patriot and well-wisher of the peace-loving Kashmiri’s he had no option but to bring the deteriorating situation under control. It goes to the credit of Mr. Jagmohan that he retrieved the valley for the Indian-nation and let the flag of secularism flying aloft on the ramparts of the Red Fort. Had he remained as the Governor of J&K state for some time more the history of the strife-torn state would have been decidedly different and there would have been no Kashmir issue. Unfortunately, some anti-national elements, emboldened by false media propaganda by Pakistan against Jagmohan, this visionary and ace-administrator was unceremoniously removed as Governor of the state. I, as reviewer of Mr. Basharat Peer’s book Curfewed Night, am not holding brief for the former Governor Jagmohan, but stating facts for the information of the author of the book who appears to rely upon what former militants and their sympathizers have stated in their interviews with the author of the book.
His reference to the Gowkadal firings and killings needs to be discussed in the light of volatile propaganda. On page 15,the author say’s “One protest march began from a southern Srinagar area where my parents now live, passed the city centre, Lal Chowk, and marched through the nearby Maisuma towards the shrine of a revered Sufi Saint of a few miles ahead. Protesters were crossing the dilapidated wooden Gawkadal Bridge in Maisuma when the Indian paramilitary, the Central Reserve Police Force, opened fire. More than fifty people were killed. It was the first massacre in the Kashmir valley. As the news sank in, we all wept…? It was no doubt, a great tragedy. There was reliable intelligence reports that some mischievous elements in the protest march were bent upon raking up communal riots by setting ablaze on way Hindu houses in nearby Kashmiri Pandit localities, including Ganpatyar, Habba Kadal etc. That might have been the reason for the Indian Security Forces to take such a strong action. On hearing about such happenings, the heart of every Kashmiri – Hindu or Muslim- is bound to bleed and ache, let alone that of the author of the book under review.
One thing, as pointed out by a critic, goes to the credit of the author of the book Curfewed Night, is an extraordinary memories that does a great deal to bring the Kashmir conflict out of the realm of political rhetoric between India and Pakistan and the lives of Kashmiri’s. Again, Mr. Basharat Peer refers to his unsuccessful visit to Kunnan Poshpara Village in Kupwara district of North Kashmir were the security forces were alleged to have raped a number of village Women. It was just a propaganda stunt by Pakistan. A probe into the alleged rape incidents by the state authorities brought the fact to limelight that these charges leveled against the Indian army were totally false and fabricated. I wonder how an impartial news-reporter was led away by this propaganda stunt. His emotional out burst on these fabricated crimes committed by the security forces can be gauged from his own description ! “He sits at a bus-stop watching for the bus to take him to Kunnan Poshpora, but when it arrives he just goes on sitting, listening to the sound of reviving engine, and watching the bus drive away. For all the stories of suffering he seeks out, there is one he cannot bring himself to look at too closely.”
The author has no word to say about the Chattisinghpora and the Wandhama carnages committed by the militants on non-Muslim villagers. In Chattisinghpora village, situated close to Bashart Peer’s native village in Anantnag distinct, over thirty- Sikhs were brutally killed, while twentyfive Kashmiri Pandits in Wandhama village in Ganderbal Tehsil were gunned down mercilessly and their houses set on fire. A thirteen year old Kashmiri Pandit boy was the lone survivor in this village where almost fifty Pandit families lived prior to this brutal massacre of innocent Kashmiri Pandit Villagers. Their burnt houses still remain a living eye-witness to the atrocities perpetrated on the Kashmiri Pandit Community.
There is just one stray reference to the forced mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the land of their birth. The author went to attend his village school one fine morning. He found no Kashmiri Pandit teacher present in the school as all of them had fled the valley. Of course, he felt very sad and puzzled. ‘The murders sent a wave of fear through the community and more than a hundred thousand Pandits left Kashmiri after March, 1990. The affluent moved to houses in Jammu, Delhi and various Indian cities. But a vast majority could find shelter only in the squalor of refugee camps and rented rooms in Jammu and Delhi’ (page 184).
The author refers to the secular and harmonious atmosphere prevailing In the valley prior to 1989. ‘The practice of Islam in Kashmir borrowed elements from the Hindu and the Buddhist past, the Hindus in turn were influenced by Muslim practices. In my childhood nobody raised an eyebrow if Hindu women went to a Muslim shrine to seek the blessings of a saint. The religious divide was visible only on the days India and Pakistan played cricket. Muslims supported the Pakistani Cricket and the Pandits were for India. My father’s best friend was and remains a Pandit; my mother had long friendships with Pandit women who taught in the same school”( chapter 15, page184).
The chapter titled “Papa-II”deals with the author’s interviews with some militants. The details givien by these militants about some of these interrogation centres are horrible and blood-curdling ancedots. The discription of these horrible stories invoke the sympathizes of the reader, no matter how callous-minded the reader may be. If true, one cannot but condemn these inhuman acts committed by the army investigators. But there stands a question mark: are these real acts of the India’s disciplined army? However, there may be exceptions here and there. Perhaps it is aimed to tarnish the image of our security forces.
One such centre was shut and later on occupied by a top-ranking Oxford Educated Kashmiri bureaucrat as stated by the author of Curfewed Night, Says the author, “Before moving in, the Oxford-Educated Officer called priests of all religions to pray there and exorcise the ghosts”(page 133, chapter 11).
The author has almost sidelined describing the gruesome killings of some eminent Kashmiri Pandit leaders, Lawyers, Doctors, Journalists, Business men, Teachers and Scholars. Can the Kashmiris particularly Kashmiri Pandits forget brutal killings of Pandit Sarwanand Premi and his son, whose eyes were gorged with an iron rod and the bodies cut to pieces or Sarla, a school teacher in a Kupwara school, sawed to death in a sawmill. Militants are equally responsible for turning the happy valley into hell. Without describing these killings, the author has not taken his narrative to a successful conclusion.
However, author’s search for his “lost teacher”-Pandit Chaman Lai Kantroo- evokes our admiration for this budding Kashmiri Muslim author. He desperately makes a search for his childhood Kashmiri Pandit friends. He visits Awtar’s hut in Jammu where he meets his father’s adopted Hindu sister Gouri wife of Awtar, Jee. “Is he Ammul’s son?” says Gouri. “Ammul was my father’s childhood name which hardly any one outside the family knew. My eyes were wet,” narrates Basharat Peer (page 183). He met his childhood friend, Vinod, by chance in Srinagar where he worked as Area Manager of a Pharmaceutical Company. After a long search he met his Master Jee Chaman Lai Kantroo, in a rented room in Amphela in Jammu. “A step stair led to the rooftop. Behind a curtain of clothes hanging on a nylon rope was a garret. “Come in, Basharat,” Mr Kantroo called out. I looked at him ; he had aged. His checks had sunk deep, his hair was almost white; his eyes were deep down, but seemed to have lost their verve.”(page190). His teacher gave him a book of poems composed by him. The cover of the book read “Eternal Sin”. His partings were surcharged with emotions on either side-from his old student Basharat and his teacher Pandit C.L. Kantroo.
He describes valley’s corrupt bureaucracy. Even bureaucrats demand huge bribes for sanctioning monetary relief. “The files do not move by itself from one table to another. Out of the relief money of one lakh, the applicant has to spend 25 per cent to thirty thousand rupees. Otherwise he will waste years visiting offices. And once he pays that, we ensure that his name in the compensation job list goes up and things move fast.”(page 164). He gives a pen picture of the devastated Rughnath Mandir in the interior of Srinagar city and the abandoned Martand temple at Mattan sans (missing) Shiva idol. At the end of the Curfewed Night the author crosses the Line of Control at Uri which now “functions as a defecto border between two parts of Kashmir” He comments, “The Loc did not run through 576 kilometer of militarized mountains. It ran through the reels of Bollywood coming to life in dark theatres; it ran through the conversations in Coffee shops and TV screens showing cricket matches. It ran through whispers of lovers. And it ran through our grief, our anger, our tears and our silence”. (Page 220-221). It ends with the people awaiting eagerly for the bus coming from the other side of our valley. “I watched thousands of men, women and children stand and along the soldier-laden road, welcoming the ones who had stepped across the Iine.”(page221).
I wish Basharat Peer writing his new book, describing the return of 4 lakh displaced Kashmiri Pandits to their land of birth and their Muslim brethren according them warm hearted welcome in the true spirit of “Kashmeriat” of which the author of the Curfewed Night is a strong votary Amen !
In the end I agree that the “Curfewed Night is an emotional tale of man’s (author’s) love for his land, the pain of leaving home and ultimately the joy of return”. Its racy prose is both lyrical and moving, subject matter most poignant. It describes what a heaven once it was, and what a hell it now is – all man-made! Buck up Basharat Sahib-that is my message to you!
*(The author is prolific writer and editor Samachar Post)