Not too many working Indian journalists are in the book-writing habit. At least not in English. Pesky bosses who don’t give leave from work, the effort involved in finding a publisher, the commitment entailed in pursuing a different form of writing, not to speak of the fear of failure, etc, all play a contributing part.
But it’s changing.
The former Indian Express reporter S. Hussain Zaidi wrote Black Friday on the 1993 Bombay blasts; Srinjoy Chowdhury, then of The Telegraph, wrote Flight into Fear on the IC-814 hijacking; The Times of India‘s Manoj Mitta brought home the horrors of 1984 with When a tree shook Delhi.
More recently, Harinder Baweja compiled a volume on the 26/11 seige on Bombay, and so on.
And there is the odd biography like Alam Srinivas‘s Storms in the Sea Wind on the Ambanis.
The former rediff.com and Tehelka journalist Basharat Peer, who did a scathing critique of Indian journalism’s allergy for “serious, well-researched, long-form reportage” for Columba Journalism Review in 2007, has written a book on his home-state, Kashmir.
Shivanand Kanavi, former executive editor of Business India, who wrote Sand to Silicon on India’s digital rise, reviews Peer’s attempt to fill a vital hole in Indian journalism—and finds three gaping holes.
Basharat Peer’s “Curfewed Night” is a welcome first-person account of Kashmir of the last two decades. Peer’s book is lyrical, intense, partisan and cynical in varied proportions at the same time.
A simple linear narrative of events since the 1980s as seen by a Kashmiri boy (the author), Curfewed Night will help in educating the vast mass of Indian people who are distant from Kashmir in every way, who are not activists of the human rights movement, and who are the chief target of the Indian State’s one-sided propaganda about what’s been happening in Kashmir in the last two decades.
The book begins at the beginning that is the author’s childhood. This part is lyrical and at times cute. It could have been the retold story of any articulate, sensitive boy from any Indian village to any urban or exotic audience. Then comes teenage and the romance of the Azadi movement; the blind fury and brutality of the security forces clearly reflecting their hate and an occupationist attitude towards the Kashmiris.
Peer tells the story of the emergence of the struggle of Kashmiri youth, armed and trained across the Line of Control (LoC) by our friendly neighbours and the impact of all this on their friends and families. The author’s own brief inner turmoil to cross or not to cross the LoC, the romance of a sexy AK-47, and the pressure from the family to follow a more traditional middle-class road and, above all, a concern for self-preservation, are all conveyed very convincingly.
Then comes the life of a self-exiled student and later of a young journalist in the 1990s, with a longing to tell the “untold story of Kashmir”; the evolution of the author with exposure to a normal life and ‘freedom from searches’; exhaustion setting in about indigenous militancy with no hope of a quick victory and so on, seems a little rushed.
Peer then gives us an invaluable, authentic picture of the emergence of jihadis from Pakistan equipped with laptops and satellite phones ready to unleash terror, where the random victims are not necessarily military targets, while a hapless population caught in the cross fire continues to grieve over the loss of a generation.
Peer excels when he brings out journalistic gems like the story of the ikhwanis, turncoat militants who became a part of Indian counter-insurgency; chameleon-like careerists who smoothly switch roles between militant, reformed militant and politician, a cryptic hint of the alienation of separatist politicians from the ordinary aggrieved Kashmiris; or the schizophrenia of a swaggering para-military officer who unexpectedly melts in a media room when Peer starts recalling the life he spent in Delhi.
Despite these excellent points, however, there are some rough edges and glaring lacunae as well.
Peer’s style is very uneven and varies between the raw and the sophisticated. It is possible that the account has been written over a long period of time during which the writer himself has evolved. However, that does not absolve the responsibility of the publisher’s editorial team to play their role, which is more than spell checking.
Peer completely omits the Kargil war and is similarly silent about the Indo-Pak peace yatra that started with the Lahore bus trip by Atal Behari Vajpayee and has gone through its yo-yo moments.
These are glaring blemishes to ignore, especially from a trained journalist.
Peer stumbles often in maintaining distance and some circumspection regarding his own emotions and concerns. For example, there is too much shock expressed when a youth who is dandily throwing grenades and sniping armymen gets killed in an encounter.
Surely, Peer did not expect such elements to be given a medal by the army?
I am sure the militant himself was mentally ready for “shahadat”, even though youth are prone to feel temporarily invincible in the early stages of any insurgency. The fact of the matter is in such armed insurgencies there are very few armed men surviving till the end game (say in PLO or IRA).
Peer also exhibits a casual disdain for the changes that are occurring in India in the last two decades and rubbishes them with the label of a discredited “India Shining”, an affliction of many a blinkered anti-establishment writer.
In fact there is every reason to believe that these changes are also occurring at least in Srinagar and Jammu if not in rural J&K, albeit in a small way, and that is affecting the attitude of a section of Kashmiri youth (mostly born post-Gawakadal) who want to move on.
The fact that despite the hysteria of the Amarnath agitation in Jammu and Srinagar, the prime movers of the agitation on both sides viz BJP and PDP did not win either Srinagar or Jammu seats in the general election says something. There are long queues for recruitment into new BPOs opening up in Jammu and Srinagar.
Then again, the recent prolonged strikes in Srinagar post-Shopian and a suicidal destruction of the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris engaged in the tourist trade, tells us not to get carried away too much and that the old is still very much alive.
On the whole, Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night is a welcome addition to conte3mporary history, written with passion and pathos.
It is surprising that we have so few of these in India (at least in the English language). Why don’t we have more such attempts to tell the story of Manipur, Nagaland, Narmada valley, the jungles of Orissa/ Chhattisgarh/ Jharkhand, Dharavi, Emergency, Amritsar ’84, Delhi ’84, Mumbai ’93 or Gujarat 2002 in print or in film?
Why don’t we have our Norma Rae, Erin Brokovich or My heart lies buried at Wounded Knee? An Amu (Delhi 1984) or a Parzania (Gujarat 2002) are not enough.
Hopefully, more writers will follow Peer’s lead.
Photograph: courtesy Outlook magazine