Farah Bashir’s memoir of growing up in Kashmir in the 1990s is, predictably, what it is supposed to be – a riveting, poignant and visceral account of life in a militarised zone. But it is much more than that.
For Rumours of Spring is not only a narrative of living in the neighbourhood of gunfights, protests, military patrols and crackdowns and the consequent violence, loss and destruction. It is also about how this violence interacts with and impacts the routine daily lives of ordinary humans and how the latter respond to it – what their seasons are like, their days and nights, the food they eat and the conversations they have.
It is the story of a teenaged girl – of her family, friends, neighbours, teachers, acquaintances and people unknown. It is a story of how the conflict casts its shadows on their lives in ways that vary from subtle to horrifying. It is about humans and human relations amidst conflict. It is about women – their daily rituals, traumas and courageous resilience in the face of perpetual anxiety and fear.
End of childhood
The author’s carefree world of girlhood comes crashing down in the summer of 1989 when she and her sister, a decade older, are caught in the grip of sudden violence, followed by a curfew and rumours at home that she is dead. This happens on a day that she fulfilled her long-cherished desire of getting her first haircut at a proper beauty saloon.
Her joy at admiring her blow-dried curls in the mirror are short-lived. As an endless nightmare descends, the act of pulling out hair from her scalp in the dead of the night replaces the excitement of acquiring well-groomed, lustrous locks. A conscious or sub-conscious habit which began that day becomes the routine response for coping with the stress of living in a landscape bursting with grief, fear and anxiety.
As this young girl grows into adulthood amidst traumatic conflict, the painful act of plucking out strands of hair from her scalp are her only means of comfort. With this horrifying image, Farah Bashir takes the reader down her memory lane – narrating vignettes that are both refreshing and heartbreaking.
The narrative takes us on a journey to witness some of the most defining images of Kashmir in the ’90s – dusk to dawn curfews, armed militants, protests and slogans, bullets, teargas, dusty military boots stomping on the streets during routine patrols and inside homes during crackdowns and raids, men herded into a locality and paraded before “mukhbirs” while women huddled inside, left to clear up the mess of houses and belongings turned upside down, coal mixed with grains, piecing together the damaged remains, every time the “crackdown tsunami” struck.
Through incidents and moments, it acquaints us with the anxiety and trepidation of people when members of the family don’t return home on time or get caught in cross-firing and cordons amidst a daily feed of stories of people who were shot dead, “disappeared” or blown to smithereens within moments. That is something many who are familiar with Kashmir already know about. But Rumours of Spring takes us beyond the surface into the inner recesses of people’s lives and their minds when the ways of life are altered and survivors cling to the residue of what is left to stay afloat.
Coping with violence
What the author does is to let us in into her daily mundane life as a young girl, and those of the people around her, allowing the reader to eavesdrop and gradually get a sense of the echoes of fear playing out after a distant shriek, unfamiliar sounds, the ringing of a phone, or the shutting or opening of windows. These are lives that emerge in the darkness for feasts and celebrations of birth, weddings and deaths.
Roads, routes and houses that were once familiar and associated with certain names, people and memories assume a different meaning and texture. Bunkers sprout up in every corner, occupy spaces in some houses and enter the heads of the inhabitants. Fear becomes palpable and contagious amidst the darkness and silence, as life is shaped by different elements of the conflict and its chaotic tributaries.
Helplessness and powerlessness become permanent companions as omnipresent militarisation intrudes into private spaces through military crackdowns, visits by militants and sheer sounds and blinding searchlights that creep in through bolted doors and windows.
An extremely powerful image portrayed by the author is of her aunt, tormented by the incident of her house blown off during an encounter in an adjacent building, who gets up in the dead of every night to open a window and salute the patrolling army on the street below in the hope that they may be convinced of her “loyalty” and spare her brother’s house.
Another is of the author “attesting” with her confident signatures the printed obituaries of people who died of natural causes, with almost a sense of relief over such deaths in a land where violent ends become all-pervasive.
This memoir is not only powerful and evocative, it also fills an important gap in feminist literature on Kashmir. It is important reading for those who wish to understand how women deal with fear, trauma, grief, small desires and daily rigours of life amidst Kashmir’s conflict. It is not just about the haunting and lingering memory of incidents like the one at Kunan Poshpora, dress diktats for women, and acid attacks and enhanced domestic violence by brutalised men, it is also about negotiating daily life through the uncomfortable presence of gun-toting men everywhere, and their gaze that virtually makes young women wish they could be “invisibilised”.
It is about a romance, through postal correspondence, that is cut short because the post office is burnt down. It is about bearing menstrual pains in the dark silence of the night and not daring to get up to look for medicine or go to the bathroom for fear of creating an unusual noise that might invite the attention of security forces out in the streets. It is about feeling the absence of Pandit neighbours and friends, and also about lost folk tales, forgotten laughter and altered cuisines.
In the domain of fears that women are confined within, the book also tells us what keeps them going as they continue with studies, jobs, domestic chores and managing families. Faith in prayers, shrines and rituals like tying knots in veils strengthen their steely resolve. Amidst despair, hope continues to be afloat with rumours of spring.
Despite its subtle narration, some images and stories pierced me to the bone in the most brutal way, even as they evoked my humanist, feminist and maternal instincts. Writing in simple prose, the author magically threads her stories engagingly and poetically, peppering them with wit. It is one of those books that one can’t just put down till you have read the last page.
And yet it is best enjoyed reading slowly – absorbing the import of each chapter and waiting before you read the next – like a piece of dark chocolate that gradually melts in your mouth, leaving a taste that is both bitter and sweet, and yet making you crave for more. A rare book that is chilling and yet uplifts the spirit.
Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal is Executive Editor, Kashmir Times.
Rumours of Spring: A Girlhood in Kashmir, Farah Bashir, HarperCollins India.