The Carpet Wars, Christopher Kremmer (2002)

I have a particular liking for travel reportage, and Christopher Kremmer’s The Carpet Wars is very enjoyable, though unsatisfying in several important ways.

The subtitle on the image I have posted (“Ten Years in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq”) differs from the one on my copy (“A journey across the Islamic Heartlands”), and I think this demonstrates how much the packaging and meta-textual aspects of a book can affect one’s reading of it. The Carpet Wars is not limited to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq at all, covering Tajikistan, Kashmir, a little bit of Delhi, and Iran as well. These latter places are not insignificant in Kremmer’s narrative, so why leave them out of the subtitle? I suspect the subtitle on this cover image is motivated by an attempt to tap into that lucrative market of books on the Middle East, post-9/11. This warps the real purpose of the book, and obscures the fact that this really is a travel account spanning the Middle East, Central and South Asia.

Keeping with my meta-textual criticisms, I found the title a bit misleading, too. Christopher Kremmer is a carpet collector, and on his various trips to these countries spent much time buying, researching and discussing carpets. Yet I don’t feel that I have finished this book knowing much more about carpets than I did before I started. Kremmer is a print and broadcast journalist, and visited most of these places on work assignments over a long span of time–the carpet business was fitted in whenever he had some personal time. Of course it’s fairly smart to combine work and pleasure, but I felt that the depth of the discussion about carpets was lacking because of the primary purposes of his travels. Basically, I think this would have been a richer book if Kremmer had set out to research carpets alone. Most of the discussion of carpets consists of him talking to sellers in their shops, and though the conversations he has are interesting, they didn’t seem all that different from the kinds of conversations anyone shopping in South Asia enters into as a matter of course. The combination of geo-political commentary, gained through Kremmer’s experience as a journalist, with a specific focus on a cultural symbol in the form of the carpet could have worked, but it didn’t quite. The geo-political aspects tended to dominate, which was a bit of a shame, as there are plenty of other books around doing the same thing.

As a travel account I found it very enjoyable, particularly the chapter on Tajikistan, a country I really know little about. Kremmer’s portrait of the Tajik capital Dushanbe made it sound quite sinister, with a little charm, and I must admit reading it and thinking how I should add Dushanbe to my list of places to avoid (though I do remember reading Simon Winchester’s Calcutta many years ago and being completely put off the city, which is now one of my favourite places in India, testament to the importance of keeping an open mind. And a recent conversation with some cousins who traveled through Tajikistan last year renewed my fledgling interest in the place!). An indication of the lawlessness and political instability of the country was the nickname given to the president Rahmonov: “Mayor of Dushanbe.” Kremmer’s descriptions contain a black, desolate humour, as is befitting of many (ex)Soviet places:

“The Hotel Tajikistan embodied the unique ennui of the socialist service establishment. Finding the particular restaurant serving your particular meal on a particular day was a treasureless hunt. Breakfast was in the basement bar, sometimes. Requiring a coupon, it consisted of yoghurt and sour blinchikis served on a genuine imitation snakeskin tablecloth. Dinner was on the ground floor near the lobby bar; I never found lunch. The horsemeat sausages were vile, the waiters refused to put meals on the room bill and were plagued by a mysterious lack of change, and one morning no one seemed to know where the coffee had gone. Yet there was something remarkably homely about the place, a sort of ‘We’re not trying anymore’ bonhomie. The floor lady happily listened to my execrable Russian, handled my laundry and made endless samovars of chai. The hotel’s rooms had balconies overlooking the snowcapped mountains to the south or, like mine, looked across Lenin Park, in which stood a statue of Vladimir Ilyich, eyes fixed on a future nobody else could see.” (p. 245)

(The conversation with the cousin backed up these descriptions of the food- he actually made it sound far worse!)

However, I think a real test of good travel writing is to read about a place you are familiar with and see whether it holds–Michael Palin’s accounts of New Zealand are completely cringe-worthy, for example; Paul Theroux’s observations of Dunedin are completely at odds with mine. Though I have not been to Kashmir, I have read a lot about it, and I ultimately found Kremmer’s account unsatisfying–it was repetitive of a lot of other writing on Kashmir and didn’t really add many new insights, aside from his experiences at carpet-making factories. I read his descriptions of the Dal Lake houseboats and the impoverishment of their owners in the past couple of decades, and had a strong sense of deja vu, wondering whether I had read this passage elsewhere, in a collection of writings on Kashmir. I don’t think I have, but this says a lot about the chapter, and the book as a whole, I think.

But I don’t mean to sound completely negative. It was an interesting and readable book, the type to read while travelling, perhaps. I have Kremmer’s Inhaling the Mahatma stashed away for this purpose.

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 Prisoner 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.

Prisoner No. 100: An Account of My Nights and Days in an Indian Prison, Anjum Zamarud Habib (2011)

(Translated from Urdu by Sahba Husain)

Now that the summer holidays are over, and I’m back at work, my reading’s getting a bit heavier.

Prisoner No. 100 is an account of the five years that the author, Anjum Zamarud Habib–a Kashmiri Muslim woman–spent in Delhi’s notorious Tihar jail in the early to mid 2000s. She was arrested under the controversial POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act), an act that was actually repealed, though not retrospectively, while Habib was being kept in prison. During most of her five years she was kept there without charge, being denied bail again and again, supposedly due to the seriousness of the crime she was accused of–providing money to Kashmiri terrorist organisations. Habib’s account suggests that she was framed, and evidence against her fabricated by the police.

This is a brave book by fearless Delhi-based feminist publisher, Zubaan. Little has been written about women in Kashmir, particularly the ways in which Kashmiri women are implicated in and affected by the ongoing troubles and freedom movement in that state. Books like this are an important way for people far removed from the reality of Kashmir to understand the injustices that ordinary people face, and the heavy handedness that is meted out to Kashmiris on the slightest, faintest suspicion of an “anti-Indian” crime. In Prisoner No. 100, Habib repeatedly comments upon the hatred that the other prisoners and the prison authorities directed towards her. Nobody is treated well in Tihar, but Habib is particularly shunned because of the fact of being Kashmiri. She says of the other prisoners:

“Their hearts were full of poison for Muslims, particularly Kashmiri Muslims. They had managed to alienate all other Muslim prisoners from me and prevented them from talking to me or meeting me” (p. 20)

A section that particularly highlights the need for books such as this is when Habib recalls the visitors and organisations that came to study the women in Tihar:

“NGOs visited the jail regularly as did students who came here for research on the living and working conditions of prisoners. This was quite common. But their research did not in any manner benefit the prisoners. The research scholars looked for ‘subjects’ and there were plenty of them here along with many ‘stories’. Many women prisoners shared their stories with an open heart, perhaps with a hope that this exposure would help them out of this hell. Many believed that the NGOs would help the women in their release while others felt that their plea would reach the corridors of power. But none of this happened. Students/scholars certainly managed to publish their thesis or reports but forgot about us, their subjects.” (pp. 133-4)

Though a single book cannot necessarily change this type of behaviour or attitude, an increasing awareness of Kashmiri womens’ predicament can only be built through publishers like Zubaan making every effort to publish books such as this.

Having said this, I felt that this book was seriously lacking in social, political or historical context. Most of the two hundred plus pages consist of descriptions of Habib’s day-to-day life in Tihar: her frequent illnesses, her visits to court, the denial of her bail applications, the visits from her family, the quarrels between prisoners, and the abuse and exploitation inflicted by the guards. In the translator’s preface, Sahba Husain part apologises for, part justifies this prose style:

“The reader might find the reference to Anjum’s frequent illnesses or the account of her numerous visits to the court repetitive but it also provides a glimpse of the harsh reality of a prisoner’s life inside the jail. The book is not only her personal account but a testament of the utter debasement of humanity as well as the steely resolve of the prisoners to see the light of day outside the walls of the prison.” (p. xvi)

While a description of the dire conditions of this Indian prison is important in itself, a narrative very similar to this one could have been written by any educated ex-prisoner. I am not saying that Habib’s Kashmiri identity is not present, because it is–particularly when she notes the discrimination she faces–but I think a lot more could have been done to note exactly why she was thrown in prison, particularly the politics that led to it, and what she did once she left. The reader knows that POTA is a draconian law, but we are not told its history or its broader implications and ramifications. Perhaps this would have been too dangerous for Habib or for Zubaan. The Indian government does not consistently or strictly censor works of literature, but a more politicised Prisoner No. 100 might have encountered resistance.

Considering the dearth of material on women in the Kashmir struggle, this is a welcome book, despite its lack of much-needed, and -wanted, context.

“Indian Feminist Publishing and Political Creative Writing”

Anyone who has access to the International Feminist Journal of Politics (13.1 2011) through a university subscription can check out my review of the following four books:

Suad Amiry’s Menopausal Palestine: Women at the Edge (New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2010)

Feryal Ali Gauhar’s No Space for Further Burials (New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2007)

Easterine Iralu’s A Terrible Matriarchy (New Delhi: Zubaan, 2007)

Chandrakanta’s A Street in Srinagar (New Delhi: Zubaan, 2010)