Saturday, May 13, 2017

Kashmir in two books - Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer and Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years by A.S. Dulat

I've been on a non-fiction mission these past two months, catching up, one might say, on history the only way I know how - through books. I have been reading the most about Kashmir and the territorial conflict between Pakistan and India, written from many points of view and dealing with different times in Kashmir's tumultuous history. 

Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer

It all started with a review of a book I'd recently read. The review mentioned Basharat Peer's Curfewed Night, in some context or the other. Basharat Peer is a journalist from a small city in Jammu and Kashmir, the site of much militant and military violence. Basharat comes from an ordinary family, a government-employed father, with no militant sentiments. And yet he grew up hating India with all his might, fearing the constant army presence near his home. He left Kashmir to study journalism in Delhi, and later, returned to his homeland to tells its tragedies and stories.

I was intrigued by the blurb. I took Curfewed Night along on a trip and devoured it in a five-hour stop at Dubai, in the middle of the night.

"Srinagar is a medieval city dying in a modern war. It is empty streets, locked shops, angry soldiers and boys with stones. It is several thousand military bunkers, four golf courses, and three book-shops. It is wily politicians repeating their lies about war and peace to television cameras and small crowds gathered by the promise of an elusive job or a daily fee of a few hundred rupees. It is stopping at sidewalks and traffic lights when the convoys of rulers and their patrons in armored cars, secured by machine guns, rumble on broken roads. It is staring back or looking away, resigned. Srinagar is never winning and never being defeated."

Throughout the book, Peer tells numerous stories of Kashmiris, Hindu Pandits and militants and separatist poets and pro-India Muslims and everyone in between, and there are so many in between. He talks about not reducing people down to labels, about a Haryanvi soldier who said to him once, "I was a different man before I joined the force and came to Kashmir." Peer insists - talk not about India, and Pakistan, talk about Kashmir.

The writing is poignant but precise, a journalist's hand. (Okay, with some dramatic flourishes.) Curfewed Night is an incredibly humbling book. Blurbs by Khushwant Singh & Pankaj Mishra, among others, describe it as "brutally honest and deeply hurtful," and a book that "challenges our most cherished beliefs." Peer begins the book with stray incidents from his childhood, to give a glimpse of the world he grew up in, happy incidents, fond memories. But each has offhand references that impress upon you just how different your Indian childhood was from his - how his friends could name the gun from the sound they made, how easily influenced they were as kids and dreamt of carrying around Kalashnikovs and wearing cartridge-studded jewellery even before they knew exactly what the militants were, how in every cricket match, they would cheer for whichever country was playing against India, the loudest if it was Pakistan. 

There is a lot to say and it is packed tight in a slim book. The Mint blurb on the back cover says, "it represents the anger and loss of a whole generation." Checking out other reviews, I notice this book has been called 'biased.' I didn't see anything of an unfair agenda-pushing, perhaps only in the insistence of looking at the Kashmiri point of view​, yet nowhere does he say that he means his own separatist view. I don't know who reserves the popular "sympathy" but this book is not a plea for pity. I feel it is a memoir everyone should read. How better to understand history than to start by understanding the people immersed in it, with their biases and other human "failings"?

Buy this book on Amazon! 

Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years by Amarjit Singh Dulat

Written by A.S. Dulat, ex-special director of the Intelligence Bureau and ex-chief of the Research & Analysis Wing, whose main focus of work had been Kashmir, who is considered the go-to man on everything about the Kashmir conflict; Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years was the book I read right after Curfewed Night.

Okay, first of all, A.S. Dulat is eminently unlikable, a callous man with a big ego. Not surprising from a seasoned politician, but it did get in the way of reading this book quickly. It's a useful book for someone like me who doesn't know a lot about the Kashmir conflict, or even otherwise, has big gaps in their knowledge. Dulat sort of gives a summary of what happened in Kashmir in the fifteen or so years that he worked with it, from the 1990s to 2004. Since this was during Vajpayee's first thirteen-day tenure as the Prime Minister following Narasimha Rao and his second time in office for obviously much longer, Dulat may be right to title the book - The Vajpayee Years. 

Dulat characterises Vajpayee as not just another politician or worse, military man, but a Chanakya-figure. An intelligent man who thinks a lot and reveals little. The more significant reason for this title is Dulat's claim that Vajpayee has been the Kashmiri populations's favourite PM yet. Dulat credits him for assigning the intelligence agencies the task of talking continuously with the Kashmiris. Vajpayee was the only one who recognized the importance of dialogue with the Kashmiris to cut the Gordian knot that was the India-Kashmir-Pakistan struggle. And who, in his time, made significant progress in achieving this goal. Dulat spends plenty of time explaining just how. And even so, perhaps twenty percent of the book talks about Vajpayee. 

A big chunk, nearly half the book, deals with the Abdullah family. Dulat particularly stresses on the senior Sheikh Abdullah, Sher-e-Kashmir as he was called, and his son Farooq Abdullah, the on-and-off CM of J&K. A long chapter towards the end is dedicated to how Vajpayee and his principal secretary supposedly betrayed Farooq by promising and failing to make him Vice President. Whereas he openly idolizes Vajpayee, Dulat tries very hard to exonerate Farooq of the flak he received from his critics over the years. 

Dulat switches back and forth in time a lot, so it is actually not easy to get a straightforward timeline of events from the book, which is what I was looking for. (Foreshadowing has no place in non-fiction, and Dulat needs to learn about footnotes.) He talks about various kidnapping cases including Jammu and Kashmir CM Mufti's daughter's kidnapping, about the hijacking of, among others, Indian Airlines flight IC-814, breezes over the effects of 9/11 on India-Pak, and describes his conversations and "friendships" with a number of Kashmiri militants and separatists. Of course, sworn to secrecy in his position, there is no big revelation (other than Dulat's utterly odious personality) but there are quite a few surprises. 

What is most interesting to see is how the Indian intelligence agencies work, both the Intelligence Bureau and our spy agency, the Research & Analysis Wing. Dulat, who has headed both in his time, is perfect to talk about either. My takeaway from Basharat Peer's Curfewed Night was the need to engage with and understand the ordinary Kashmiri, which Peer says is not done by the Indian government. Dulat's book brought out the impracticability of Peer's solution.

For all his time conversing with Kashmiris, for all his expertise, Dulat has no empathy, and mocks those who show any (i.e.: Rajesh Pilot, who according to Dulat has the rare patience "to listen to the Kashmiri bitching") Dulat is simply doing his job, and his job requires him to be pro-India, to simply "humour" the Kashmiri sentiment. Every time he makes sweeping observations of the Kashmiri psyche (a Kashmiri never looks you in the eye, a Kashmiri can't tell the truth, Kashmiris exaggerate everything) he negates his own aim to understand them. He is single-mindedly pro-India, and goes so far as to breeze casually over serious allegations which put the country in a negative light. These include the government bribing the militants, and certain officers in the army using their extensive power in Kashmir to torture or rape civilians, along with the authorities' reluctance in dealing with such cases. When Dulat proposes what he thinks is the only solution to Kashmir - hard-nosed common sense - it seems like another brushing under the carpet of bigger considerations.

There is a sort of 'Chalta hai,' 'Kya karein' tone when he talks about India's mistakes, which is despicable, but seriously, kya karein? Reviews on Goodreads say that this book offers insight into possible solutions for the Kashmir conflict. What it does show very well is what has been tried so far. And it tells us how immensely complicated the issue is, how difficult it is to find a singular solution. Even a book about Kashmir, which claims to put the Kashmiri interests center-stage ends up doing quite the opposite. Dulat quotes someone (can't remember or find) saying that Kashmir is like a courtesan surrounded by vile spectators who are enjoying her dance, laughing at her.

It's an interesting phrase that Vajpayee apparently used to describe Kashmir, the Gordian knot. Cutting the Gordian knot means finding a bold and creative solution to an impossible problem. But there's a myth attached to it. According to Greek mythology, when the peasant Gordius became the ruler of Phrygia, he tied his chariot to a pole with a tight knot and dedicated it to Zeus, the king of the gods. Gordius's knot seemed impossible to untie. It was predicted that whoever unraveled the knot would be the future King of Asia. Many tried, and many failed. Finally, Alexander the Great arrived in Phrygia. He was a man of action. After a few tries, Alexander was overcome with impatience. In one swift move, his took out his sword and simply cut off the knot. He then set out to conquer Asia, leaving defeat and bloodshed in his wake. So, in a way, the phrase does make sense. Kashmir is indeed our Gordian knot, and we are cutting it to shreds.

Buy this book on Amazon!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

On ageing in fantasy and reading The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin

(Oh, sweet fantasy, how I have missed you.)

"She did feel it. A dark hand had let go its lifelong hold upon her heart. But she did not feel joy, as she had in the mountains. She put her head down in her arms and cried, and her cheeks were salt and wet. She cried for the waste of her years in bondage to a useless evil. She wept in pain, because she was free. What she had begun to learn was the weight of liberty. Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveller may never reach the end of it."

Having taken a long hiatus from this blog, it's weird to jump back into book-blogging, but a lot has happened that I want to write about, and a lot of reading has filled me with reviewer-ly inspiration. Before I begin, I have yet to read the final installment of the Earthsea books, the one titled The Other Wind, and I would appreciate staying spoiler-free. The Earthsea Cycle is a series of four (actually, six) books set in an alternate universe called Earthsea. It consists of a vast archipelago and the boundless sea surrounding it, is culturally quite unlike our world and is filled with magic.

Each of the four main books is a coming-of-age tale and the creation story of its hero. The first book is entitled The Wizard of Earthsea and it tells us about the tumultuous childhood of one of the greatest wizards of all time, a boy named Ged. The second book follows Ged on an adventure which introduces us to Le Guin's second hero, a woman named Tenar. In what is perhaps the greatest fantasy book I have read, Le Guin brings out the darker sides of magic and the role women and witches play in fantasy through the character of Tenar. The third book is a prince's journey, a story which deals with death, the history of war and chivalry. And the fourth book, a rather more mature tale, follows a young abused child and is an examination of feminism and patriarchy. The Earthsea books taken together are brilliant for many reasons - the extent of racial diversity, an entire cast of coloured characters is the most significantly noticeable. Over the course of the series, Le Guin also consciously makes feminism one of the prominent themes, scrutinizes gender roles and identities, and creates brilliant women characters. But my favourite thing in her books is something I had mentioned in initial musings in a Goodreads review - how gracefully all her characters age. Woven into all the books in the Earthsea cycle is the theme of age. 

Ageing is something I find sorely missing in fantasy tales. Nearly all of my favourite fantasy comprises coming of age stories - be it series like Harry Potter, the Bartimaeus trilogy, His Dark Materials, and even standalone books like Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. However, very few of them follow the main characters through into their adulthood. Some take a big leap into the future, like the Harry Potter series, but fail to show the many little middles which make up a life. We have immortality, and with it, characters opting out of immortality in order to live their short lives, but we don't see them in action. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer series ends not with a wizened old slayer, but a sprightly twenty-something with a whole future ahead of her. In the Chronicles of Narnia, the older children just disappear. Even Peter Pan, which is about (not) growing up, doesn't really do more than bring out the contrasts between youth and adulthood. 

Fantasy tends to deal with the big facts of life - birth, death, love, evil; it's quite surprising then that it neglects to write about growing old. But the process is important. It's a fact of matter. People age. Wizards grow old, as do witches, and the growth changes them, like it changes us. The boy is not the wobbly old man he grew up into, and though knowing the boy will help you understand the man, there is so much more to him. It is when you're growing up that life reveals to you just how wily it can be; which maybe why teenagers are so difficult, and the twenties are depressing times. 

People around me are always telling me how they don't recognize themselves anymore, or how choices made three years ago fail to make sense now. Or how you'd never imagined growing up that you'd end up this way but it's so obvious now that you are. I wish more stories evoked that feeling, and brought out the sheer normalcy of change. And the change only accelerates with time. I'm nothing like the girl who started this blog six years ago, I'm unimaginably altered. I lose interest in many book characters because they have failed to alter in that way, because they seem a little too similar. I mean, is reality always as neat as Rowling writes it. Does a boy good at Herbology become a professor of Herbology? And all those high school couples make it, and all their children are good friends, and life is wrapped up in glitter-paper with a big fat pink bow on it. 

It often wonder about all the young adult heroes from stories I have liked, whatever happened to Lyra Belaqua after the events of His Dark Materials? Can I have a new book with her all grown up? And one with her as an old woman too? I can think of only one other example of such an ageing main character, and that is Christopher Chant from the Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones. Yet no one has done it quite so substantially as Le Guin. I feel this theme might have been explored a lot more with superheroes. (Edit: I found a song and a kind of review of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns in the first two seconds of Googling, so there ought to be more.) In the Earthsea books, life, real bloody fleshy life, happens between two books. In every consecutive book, Ged has grown years older. And through the series, we learn about the years between the books only through how different he has become.

It's a hook, a big beautiful hook. Once you get a taste of her style, wanting to find out what the characters will be like later becomes a very good reason to read the next book in the series. I went on an Earthsea spree, buying Kindle editions to save delivery time, though I don't actually own a Kindle, and hence had to read on the cloud reader. Couple the maturity of her writing (the pet themes of sex and feminism, identity and bravery) with her vivid wordsmithery, add into the mix this trick, and you have a very clever set of books. Do read the series, especially if you love fantasy, but even otherwise.