Curfewed Night: A Memoir of War in Kashmir, Basharat Peer (2011)

Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night is a moving memoir of an ordinary, middle-class, Muslim Kashmiri who has witnessed the destruction of his homeland. Writing on and from Kashmir has increased in the last few years–Urvashi Butalia’s Speaking Peace, Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator and Anjum Zamarud Habib’s PrisonerĀ No. 100 (reviewed earlier by me) come to mind–but there is still a dearth of first-hand accounts from this region that is difficult to report from and relatively cut-off from the rest of India, psychologically as well as geographically.

Peer recounts his relatively peaceful early childhood in Kashmir, followed by his teenage years which saw Kashmir becoming increasingly militarised, his move to Aligarh, in Uttar Pradesh, to attend university, his time spent working as a journalist in Delhi, and finally his return to Kashmir. Despite his good job in Delhi, Peer felt the overwhelming desire, an obligation, to return to Kashmir and write about what he experienced in the state. As he writes:

“I had shared some stories with a few friends in Delhi, but I could never say everything. I would find myself stopping in the middle of a sentence, rendered inarticulate by memory. The telling, even in the shade of intimacy, was painful. And a sense of shame overcame me every time I walked into a bookstore. People from almost every conflict zone had told their stories: Palestinians, Israelis, Bosnians, Kurds, Tibetans, Lebanese, East Germans, Africans, East Timorese, and many more. I felt the absence of the unwritten books of the Kashmiri experience. The memories and stories of Kashmir that I had carried with me could fade away. I had to find the words to save them from the callous varnish of time. I had to write. And to write, I had to return and revisit the people and places that had haunted me for years.” (page 95)

This belief in the power of words, literature, reportage to help rectify the wrongs is repeated throughout the book. One cannot but help feel that it cannot make much difference to the situation, but that it is still necessary to expose the crimes in the hope that one day, enough people will be horrified by the brutality that some change can be made. Either way, the written and spoken word is all some people can do to try to make a difference.

The most poignant and horrifying tale that Peer tells in Curfewed Night, in my mind, is the story of Syed Abdul Rahman Geelani. A teacher of Arabic at Delhi University, Geelani was wrongly implicated in the attacks on the Indian Parliament in 2001. Despite a strong defense which, from Peer’s account, unequivocally proved that the evidence upon which his charge was based was extremely flawed, Geelani was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was acquitted after appeal, and allowed to return to his teaching job at Delhi University, but one cannot imagine the effect that such a false accusation could have on a person’s life. Many other horrifying stories of torture, mistaken identity and sheer terror are recounted by Peer, imploring the reader to wonder, however naively, what on earth the Indian government thinks they are doing with Kashmir.

Peer finds, however, that the injustices are not all one-sided, and that however horrifically “India” has behaved in Kashmir, the Kashmiri militant separatists have been guilty, too. Peer speaks to one ex-militant who had been imprisoned and tortured, badly damaging his eyesight and ability to conduct a normal life. Once released from jail, the support he receives from the organisation he fought for, the JKLF (Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front) is inadequate. Meanwhile, the leaders of that organisation live in big houses with fancy cars, with no understanding or little compassion for the torture that the men fighting on their behalf have suffered.

It may be one of the biggest cliches around, but Curfewed Night demonstrates, first hand, that in war there are no winners.

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Burnt Shadows, Kamila Shamsie (2009)

In a word: dreadful. In several words: this book was so bad it made me angry. I generally adhere to the rule that life is too short to read bad books, so gave up on this seventy pages in when I first attempted it last year. But then I started this blog, and I felt it was necessary to power on through the bad so that I couldn’t be accused of simply promoting books I liked.

Why should it make me so angry? It was convoluted, obtuse, pretentious, opportunistic, flat, and inhabited by one dimensional characters who were both stereotypes and completely implausible at the same time. On the positive side, Shamsie isn’t a bad writer per se–that is, she constructs fairly nice sentences. And the ending was actually pretty powerful. But that is where the positives run out.

It was the convolution that bothered me most. Burnt Shadows begins in Nagasaki in 1945. Hiroko Tanaka is a very un-Japanese young Japanese woman in love with Konrad Weiss, a very un-German German. The reader could forgive the anachronism of these characters if it was an isolated occurrence, but it isn’t. Hiroko and Konrad plan to marry once the war ends, but, as we all know, Nagasaki was not the place to be in 1945, and Konrad is killed in the bomb. (In one of the tackiest motifs of the entire book, Hiroko’s back is burnt in the blast with the images of three flying cranes, the design on the kimono she is wearing at the time. Many South Asian writers are quick to dismiss exoticising symbols in literature–overwhelming colour, wafting spices, the chaos of the bazaar, etc etc etc, so it is surprising that Shamsie should resort to such a cliched image of Japanese-ness.) As well as Konrad, the rest of Hiroko’s family and friends are killed in the bomb. Remembering Konrad’s talk of a long-lost sister in Delhi, and with nowhere else to go, Hiroko travels to India in 1946. Konrad’s sister and brother-in-law reluctantly take her in. Hiroko develops a bizarre but life-long friendship with the utterly despicable Elizabeth/Ilsa (who I think we are meant to view sympathetically), and falls in love with the employee Sajjad Ashraf, a Delhi Muslim. Without wanting to give away too many plot details, the Partition in 1947 leads Hiroko and Sajjad to Karachi, where they settle. The novel jumps to the 1980s and to Hiroko and Sajjad’s teenage son, an intelligent but naive and confused young man. His naivete takes him to a mujahideen training camp in the north-west of Pakistan, a move that ends in tragedy. Then we jump to New York immediately post-9/11, a place with a paranoid fear of Muslims. The cross-cultural, cross-generational relationships that have developed throughout the book between the Japanese-Pakistani family and the English-American one is put to its ultimate test. I like a good multi-generational, multi-national family saga, but the attempt to create this in Burnt Shadows was horribly convoluted and implausible.

Now to the obtuseness and complete lack of subtlety. Coincidentally I happened to watch My Name is Khan last night, the 2010 Bollywood film featuring Shah Rukh Khan as an autistic Indian Muslim living in the US post-9/11, who, for various reasons, sets about proving to the US that his “name is Khan and [he is] not a terrorist”. There is nothing subtle in the film’s attempts to show that not all Muslims are terrorists, that the US is racist, and that people should be judged by their individual actions and not the stereotypical images of the communities to which they belong. These messages are bashed over the viewer’s head continuously for two and a half hours. But this is a Bollywood film and one expects this complete lack of nuance from this genre–it is a defining characteristic. Burnt Shadows is a replica of this in novel form, but with an intense earnestness, lacking the comedy that makes a Bollywood film watchable. It was 363 pages of being bashed over the head with cliched messages about tolerance, diversity and the societal limits of these.

To add insult to the injury caused by this appalling novel, Shamsie managed to get Salman Rushdie, William Dalrymple, Mohsin Hamid, Nadeem Aslam, Tahmima Anam and Anita Desai–all extremely good writers of wonderful books–to say nice things about Burnt Shadows for the cover. Shamsie comes from a family of writers–her great-aunt was the Indian writer Attia Hosain, author of the Partition novel Sunlight on a Broken Column, and her mother is the reknowned writer Muneeza Shamsie. One really hopes that Kamila Shamsie didn’t get the glowing testimonies from the abovementioned writers because of her literary pedigree.

It has been suggested in recent years that while India has enjoyed a growing international literary reputation due to its English language writing, Pakistan has been left behind, but that it is starting to catch up. Kamila Shamsie is usually cited in such comments as an example, and although I have not read any of her other highly acclaimed and award-winning books, Burnt Shadows is not in the same league as books by Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif or Nadeem Aslam, other Pakistani writers of her generation. I am curious to read some of Shamsie’s other books now, to see whether her good reputation is deserved and this was just a bad one, or whether she might be Pakistan’s most overrated writer.

Killing Days: Prison Memoirs, Joya Mitra (2004)

(Translated from Bangla by Shampa Banerjee)

Is it appropriate to call a prison memoir beautiful? Because I think this one is.

Joya Mitra, a prolific Bangla novelist, poet and translator, was imprisoned as a young woman between 1970-74 because of her involvement with the Naxalite (Maoist) movement in West Bengal. This memoir is not about the politics or the circumstances that put her there. But, unlike Anjum Zamarud Habib’s Prisoner No. 100 (which I reviewed earlier), this omission does not seem like a lack. Habib’s memoir attempted to present the injustices meted to Kashmiris in India without really delving into the necessary politics, whereas Mitra’s memoir is about individual strength and patriarchal injustice, not politics per se.

Compassionate and observant, Killing Days is essentially a series of portraits of Mitra’s fellow prisoners in rural Bengali and Calcutta jails. It explores the sad, tragic, circumstantial and deliberate crimes that put the women in prison, and highlights the injustices of a patriarchal society that forced them there.

The government, existing laws and corrupt prison authorities are noted to be one major cause for the womens’ hardships. For instance, Mitra cites statistics claiming that more political prisoners in independent India have been killed than those imprisoned during the British colonial times (page 95). Laws pertaining to rape (as they existed in the 1970s, when Mitra was incarcerated, as they have changed slightly since) put the onus of proof on the victim, leading to humiliating interrogations where the following types of conversations can be deemed reasonable:

“You claim that this man was forcing himself on you.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Why didn’t you stop him?”
“I tried, he’s stronger than me.”
“Do you know how to sew?”
“Yes.”
“Do you know how to thread a needle?”
“Yes.”
“If someone keeps shaking the needle, is it possible to thread it?” (page 135)

Mitra does not fail to note that women are capable of committing heinous crimes, but the underlying despair and sensitivity of her accounts forces the reader to consider the circumstances that made these women into criminals. She does not let them off the hook, so to speak, but does recognise shades of grey. For example, Malati is described as “A half-wit, with an appearance almost bestial in its distortions.” Regularly returning to jail pregnant, she shows extreme love and tenderness towards her children, making it all the more tragic that she returns to jail for killing them. “She is not totally human after all” Mitra states (page 63), begging the question of how she can continue to return to jail pregnant, time after time. In a different case, Mitra describes a woman convicted of killing her daughter-in-law: “In those days, Bengali brides had not yet joined the ranks of easily inflammable objects. When the body of Sabita Dutta was thrown down from a third floor terrace, public outcry forced the police to take action.” (page 59) The strength and beauty here lies in its understatement. Mitra describes the woman’s attempts to befriend her, “from the mistaken notion that I belong[ed] to her club” (page 58), until she realises that Mitra can see through her:

“she would tell me of her innocent sons who loved their mother to distraction, of their wealth, of the ill-fated girl with distinctly unfeminine looks who seduced her second son–the young bride who jumped off the terrace and committed suicide merely to inconvenience the family. Mrs Dutta stopped speaking to me after I asked her exactly how much beating would be required to kill a “manly” young woman five feet seven inches tall.” (page 58)

But no matter what put the women there, they all end up broken: “The women prisoners move about in the courtyard. They look like shattered pieces of humanity–tired, colourless, shorn of all grace or beauty. Presidency Jail is where the dregs of a metropolis are disposed of.” (page 77)