In Kashmir, being war-ready is a prudent way of living.
Rumours of spring is author Farah Bashir’s memoir, where she takes the reader into the life of a girl living in war-torn Kashmir. During the 1990s, Kashmir was overrun by Islamist extremists, causing much political and social turmoil. The region regularly saw skirmishes between the terrorists and the military, with innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.
The memoir is structured around Farah’s relationship with her grandmother, who she affectionately called Bobeh. It traces their interactions, intermixed with flashbacks from her childhood. In it, she found that daily, mundane tasks, like studying for exams and walking around her house, were riddled with danger.
Farah and her family lived in Kashmir during a time when curfews and crackdowns were commonplace. She recounts numerous instances of troops storming their house, ransacking every room “in search of intruders”. They would turn over turn everything, unconcerned about the destruction they left in their wake.
She and the other children of Kashmir have known nothing of a normal childhood. It was rife with violence. Simple acts like walking to the bus or writing love letters were fraught with difficulty. In some manner, it reminds me of famed story of Persepolis, where all young Marjane wanted was to live the life of a normal teenager. When your childhood ins inscribed in violence, it permeates into all facets of your life.
Evenings, which used to be full of the screams and squeals of children playing chuppa-chuppai, hide-and-seek, or lakad-lakad, were now heavy and full of lull.
As a young child, she found the chaos extremely harrowing. One of her coping mechanisms was to pull her hair out. She recounts sleepless nights with her hair clasped in her fingers, waking up to bald patches and crusted blood across her head.
As a girl, she had to deal with the confusing phase of puberty within the context of conflict. She mentions many nights when “muscle spasms and menstrual cramps were the only certainty”. She had to brave these times in silent agony. She couldn’t leave her bed at night for fear of making an untoward sound and inviting a volley of bullets into her house.
What becomes of homes that have their doors bolted, windows tightly shut, and curtains drawn during the daytime with the families they house inside them desolate? Should we not call them prisons? We should!
I remember one particularly poignant instance when she talks about reading the newspaper. In it, she sees cologne ads, with each model looking happy and composed. She thought about how their lives were so far removed from hers. She said, “I wondered if they knowhow, not more than 1,000 kilometres away, it had become commonplace for ordinary people to survive the fallouts of war: losing limbs in grenade blasts and kin to arrests and bullets, contracting splinters, being caught in crossfires, and seeing their homes turned into battlefields. What kind of advertisements could such everyday routine inspire?”
Farah talks about how the violence seeped into various aspects of their lives. How her memories of Eid will always be marred by recollections of death. How the certain smells and sounds became harbingers of death and violence. Through such vivid imagery, the author transports the readers into her past. It is as engaging as it is horrifying. Reading deeper, we see the use of sounds and spaces to place the reader in her past.
Through the book, one can see how the sounds change. Sounds of children playing outside are replaced with the “dreadful rhythm of jackboots”. Listening to music became a risky endeavour. One crackdown could result in the destruction of their music system. Even walking in her house at night—if she were too loud, neighbouring troops would suspect terrorist activity and riddle the house with bullets.
To wake up to the rays of the sun without having the previous night’s sleep interrupted by screams of the neighbourhood women who’d run after the armed personnel in convoys that took away their husbands and teenage sons in nocturnal raids. To only care about using the right colognes and worry about the right detergent, to not to have to constantly think about the availability of vegetables, milk and medicine during erratic but long periods of curfew… I wondered what life would be like if there was some certainty in our day-to-day affairs. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Felt more like a dream…
In her house, everyone had their “designated corners”, spaces they occupied. But as the violence grew, that changed. Her grandmother, who used to watch the street from one of the windows, is forced to stop after the neighbour is accidentally killed for doing the same thing.
Along the streets, several bunkers popped up. These structures were the most hideous thing, surrounded by sacks of sand with small openings where rifles poked out. Eventually, these became part of addresses and landmarks used to direct people around the town. The courtyard could no longer be sat in, while windows and doors could no longer remain open. Over time, violence altered the relationships in these areas.
Our lives were controlled from elsewhere and the dreams that we dreamt were always at the mercy of someone else, someone occupying us, ruling us.
She illustrated how brutality became the new normal through repeated mentions of the violence she grew to live with. Panicking became the default reaction. When talking about a broken post office, she says, “living in a conflict zone taught us that the broken stayed broken for a long time”. One can imagine what else she must be referring to.
A lot of the literature around war-torn regions is through an analytical lens. This book looks at it differently through the eyes of a young girl trying to make sense of it all. In some ways, it is a reminder that those who really suffer from war are the civilians caught in the middle. They are people who merely long for a normal life, who unfairly are put through so much strife.
The book’s title refers to how, in Kashmir, spring represents plentitude and the heralding of a new future and how that was a mere rumour in her past. The cover design, done by Gavin Morris, is remarkable. The illustration, the clever use of colours, and the simple yet bold font complement the eloquent writing it holds.
I had the privilege of meeting the author and sitting in for a book discussion in college. She was charming and entertained our various questions. Through her book and talk, she walked us through life in a conflict zone. She had a certain strength that is befitting of her tumultuous story. Meeting her was a true honour.
If you found this insightful, please subscribe. It encourages me to produce new content regularly.
Enter your email ID below. You will receive an email asking you to confirm your subscription. Once you confirm, sit back and enjoy content delivered right into your inbox. It’s free!