Rumours of Spring: Farah Bashir's memoir is a stirring account of an unquiet adolescence spent in Kashmir

Bashir's debut work of literature also documents the changing political landscape of her home-state that turned into a militarised zone almost overnight, leaving her with inexplicable anxieties about everyday life.

Arshia Dhar April 28, 2021 09:31:47 IST
Rumours of Spring: Farah Bashir's memoir is a stirring account of an unquiet adolescence spent in Kashmir

Farah Bashir debuts as a writer with her memoir 'Rumours of Spring: A Girlhood in Kashmir'

Reading Farah Bashir's debut book, her memoir titled Rumours of Spring: A Girlhood in Kashmir often brought back memories of my first encounter with Anne Franke's The Diary of a Young Girl nearly two decades ago. Sure, Bashir wasn't cooped up in a bunker for two years waiting to breathe free under the open sky, but her adolescence is no less a story of captivity at a home that turned into a battlefield nearly overnight.

The communications consultant — formerly a photojournalist with news agency Reuters — presently based in Delhi catches up with me one evening over Zoom. She walks down some thorny lanes of memory — of listening to pop music on banned radio stations, studying for exams and searching for friends who would suddenly go missing — and takes me through what triggered this plaintive and powerful retelling of a girlhood spent in the shadows of violence and despair.

Your memoir begins with two deaths — one of your Bobeh or grandmother, another of your distant cousin on the eve of Eid. Why did you choose to open your book with such difficult memories? Was it a conscious decision or did it occur naturally to the narrative?

So the first chapter that I wrote for the memoir is also the last chapter, which is about death as well. Then I kept documenting memories after memories — like the first 25 came very naturally. They were really on top of my mind and I could write them down; then there were some very difficult ones that I had to dig deeper into, navigate, talk about and work on. For these, I had to talk to relatives in order to reconfirm those memories and only after that I started writing those.

In the first two drafts, the book did not have any proper structure — it was just a bunch of memories through the years, which sort of worked okay with the publisher. But then, when I had some distance from the book, what I realised was that I hadn't written anything after my grandmother's death. It was almost as if everything that happened in those four years was important. So to make it easier for the readers, I toyed with the structure, went back and forth several times. I thought if I should go year-wise, but then I realised that some memories are more important and they happened earlier in my childhood.

Because I hadn't written much after my grandmother's death, I structured the book in such a way that there is one main incident, and this is a creative liberty I took and a creative device I used. I also read this book by Suad Amiry, a Palestinian writer, titled Sharon and My Mother-in-Law, which is about her being stuck in curfew for 40 days. A friend asked me to read it after my first two drafts saying that Amiry's book sounded very similar to mine. But it was 40 days for her — it was just one event. So that is how I decided to structure my book, because otherwise it would become challenging for the reader to follow.

So, like you said, your book travels through a significant period in your life — from 1989 to '94, and these years that you spent in Srinagar, as your memoir illustrates, were laced with the anxieties and horrors of death, torture, disappearances and disruptions to life. How does one cope with such traumas or even call spaces facing such severe political violence home, when, more often than not, it has caused them suffering? Aren't these connotations contradictory to what 'home' truly stands for, which is a bubble of comfort and safety?

See, there is no other reference for home. There were these sudden changes in my and our lives that happened in an hour's time, and it of course had a political background. In Kashmir's last 150 years of history, you had three main events — 1846, which is when the Treaty of Amritsar was signed by the British, and Kashmiris were sold along with their lands to the Dogras. Then there was the uprising against the Dogra regime in 1931. And then, of course, things keep happening, governments keep changing — so there were curfews happening even when I was younger, that is before 1990.

But in 1990, there was a major event, even though by then we were used to curfews and our land being politically charged all the time. But what happened in 1990 was that life started changing on an hourly basis; forget on a daily basis, it was really on an hourly basis. You went out and you didn't know if you would come back alive; you didn't know if other people would come back alive home. But really, there was no other reference for home. So it has been disturbed, politically charged, and the political dispute has remained unresolved. We have never seen complete serenity or peace.

However, in 1990, everything changed drastically. But, like I said, there was no other reference for home.

The chapter in your book titled 'Memory of the Scalp' is the one with which I could relate to the most, considering I too deal with anxiety by scratching my skin, like you would pluck out your hair. You also cursorily touch upon the shame you felt when someone discovered this "habit" you had developed. Was writing on these vulnerabilities difficult, or was it therapeutic? And if I may ask, do you still struggle with any of these anxieties and habits any more?

I only stopped pulling my hair out when I started writing, because both my hands would be busy every day. The habit stayed with me for 28 years. I went to psychologists, doctors; there was a psychologist who told me that I should wear mittens at home or cover my hair with a scarf. On hearing that, I was like do you think I cannot take those off? Am I a small baby?

But the thing is, it started in a state of panic, and even now — and let me tell you that it is a miracle that my hair grew back — even if I have forgotten (the habit), any time there is anything that is exciting or disturbing or saddening, my first response is to touch my hair. Then I have to remind myself that this is not the process. But before I began writing properly — and I started writing when I was 14 or 15; pieced together whatever little poems I could manage — this routine was really like latching on to something familiar and comfortable. This act very perversely gave me a lot of comfort. I started focussing on personal pain, because I could not deal with the pain from outside as a child, and neither did I have a language to articulate it. So this really was a language of anxiety and fear, and a lot of people were like we have never seen this happen before. No one in my family was pulling their hair out, so they asked — "Yeh kya manhoosiyat hai? What are you even doing?"

People pull their hair out when there is a bad omen and when you feel something bad is going to befall you. I just did not know how to articulate my anxieties.

And when it comes to how I felt about writing it — I actually didn't feel terrified. There is this book called The Good Women of China written by author Xinran, and in the first few chapters, she talks about this girl who is molested or abused by her stepfather, and she does something — I can't remember it very well — that makes her land in a hospital. And the longer she is away from that external pain that her stepfather inflicts on her, she feels happy and safe there. Then, when it's time for her to get discharged from the hospital, she starts picking on her wound on her arm, which becomes infected and turns into an even bigger wound. She really wants to focus on that personal pain that keeps her away from her external pain.

I realised there are girls across the world who have this language of pain, and who express this pain in strange ways, and most of the times by harming themselves. As women and girls from South Asia, no matter how evolved and progressive our households may be, or how educated our parents might be, it is the larger superstructure of the society that is patriarchal, which does not really encourage girls to talk about these things, because shaadi kaun karega phir tumse?  We will be thought of as mad. So we find little ways to invade our own selves so as to run away from these external pains.

When it comes to the time period your book covers, did you not want to expand its scope beyond the years involving your grandmother and her subsequent death? Did you not want to include years before or after that incident?

There were a couple of chapters that I had written but later took them out, because Kashmir saw the National Conference coming back after elections happened in 1995 again, thereby completely changing the political landscape of Kashmir once again.

So '89 to '94 was a time when mainstream political parties were completely out of the picture; it was largely the governor who was in charge. In '95, there was another political development, which was the formation of the counter-insurgency cell or Ikhwan, and I am covering this phase in a different book which I am working on now.

By this time, we had learned to navigate life in war. We had learned how to go to tuitions, how to appear for exams without being disappointed about the fact ke exam ke results nahi aaye. 1995 onwards, you knew this is your home and it is going to be like this, and nothing is going to change. But I had to focus on my life as well.

When Rubaiya Sayeed was kidnapped (in December 1989) and later released, there was a lot of uncertainty because anything could happen. People would say ke azaadi mil jayegi, because the sentiments were so strong. However, in 1995, you see a complete shift with NC and Ikhwan coming back, so now, as a woman, how do you deal with another layer of complexity? That is something I am exploring in my next text.

Is this work also going to examine this period through a personal lens?

It is going to be a fictional account, and I am going to look into the life of a family. It is going to be a loose adaptation of Little Women. I think that book is so relevant for us.

We get a glimpse of your initiation into journalism right at the end of the book, where, as a young girl going through the newspapers and sifting through job listings, you wonder what kind of work would fit you best. Anyone from a politically volatile place shares a fraught relationship with the media and newsrooms — so what urged you to become a journalist? Did the frequent misrepresentation and sensationalisation of the valley have anything to do with this decision?

I am not at that point. I studied at Kashmir University for a year before I went to Singapore to study. I had applied for both mass communication and English literature — everywhere I got through English literature probably because I knew it better than any other subject. But I knew for sure that my family would not allow me to get into journalism, so I did not even bother asking, because there was no way they would let me go out and cover news. It was way too risky at that point.

But news always fascinated me because it was something one grew up with, and one always wanted to represent themselves and tell stories. So subconsciously I wanted to be a journalist. First I wanted to be a doctor, and then I wanted to be a journalist.

In Singapore, I kept trying (to get a job) at various organisations, and then Reuters happened. Even though it was a desk job, I was with the global desk so we had news from all over the world — from Obama's campaign to Yuvraj Singh's six sixes. So that period really helped me read a lot; I went through the archives and read a lot of history. It was a good period, which completely changed my outlook towards everything.

Did your time at Reuters have any impact on the way you perceived your lived experiences in retrospect?

I am talking of a time when there was the US invasion of Iraq, and we used to get news of how entire squares in cities would get completely blown up. This is when I really started looking at other conflicts in the world and the importance of how we have suffered equally back home, and how it's important to tell those stories as well. But I did not have the language, I did not have my voice and did not know how to go about it. However, like I said, that period initiated a huge shift within me.

Perhaps if I hadn't joined Reuters, I would've continued writing, because writing is something I have been doing constantly since the age of 14. I might have just worked on that on the side but I was always witnessing how the world was looking at other conflicts, even if they weren't doing anything about it. So it gave me some sense of hope, that we have a chance and we need to tell our stories and talk about it.

I remember there was this photograph that I had once taken, which I had to send to some clients. It was an image of a woman on a shikara, which I sent to all the big clients — so BBC, CNN, The New York Times — and I filed it. My editor saw it and said that it's not a very pretty picture, and that nobody was going to look at all these sad faces and feel good about it, because I think the feature was about tourism. What the editor said stayed with me, but I thought that this is the reality; that is how people are there.

I think these incidents stayed in my subconscious, and I started writing for myself more and more as a result.

Rumours of Spring Farah Bashirs memoir is a stirring account of an unquiet adolescence spent in Kashmir

Image courtesy: HarperCollins India

Going back to your book — the chapter on dreams sheds light on the syncretic nature of the society you were brought up in. It also has the looming cloud of the Pandit exodus that you hint at in your dream. However, it is this syncretism that has gone entirely missing from the mainstream imagination and conversations on Kashmir. While this change in narrative has been a result of geopolitical events, it has also been contrived, to a great extent, by the political forces at play in the region. As a result of this 'misrepresentation', for the want of a better word, what have Kashmiris and their legacies lost in the larger sense?

See, I grew up in downtown Srinagar, which housed a mix of Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims, so I grew up with them. From my teachers to my neighbour who was studying medicine, to the guy whose shop was on the bridge where he sold spices, etc., it was a healthy mix of people. Then suddenly you take them out, and it was a loss that I, as a child, could not really understand.

Then, when I went to Singapore, I started seeking out more Kashmiri Pandit friends. The ones who are Muslims, they are friends too, but the Pandits I have stayed close friends with — we became friends about 17-18 years ago and we are still very thick.

It was definitely a loss, because even as a child, I had lost so much — whether it was cousins, friends, their fathers and parents to bullets, but this was a different kind of loss, which my generation saw. One day, you're living with them and you are in their houses and they in yours, and the next day they disappear. Muslims also disappeared by dying because they were getting killed.

Again, in school, the conflict impacted my studies. In the first two-three years, there was a fluctuation in my performance — sometimes I would do really well, sometimes my grades were very low. There was also this girl with whom I was always competing in academics — you know, we'd miss each other by a point or a percent. Her name was Renuka Bazaz; I have not been able to locate her on Facebook or anywhere else. I think at a later stage I must have lost interest.

Now, when I look back, I think what could've been one of the reasons for losing interest? I guess I was completely disoriented. Who do I compete with now, I must've thought. It was a loss that my generation doesn't really know how to articulate. This loss was born after they left because we haven't really seen them ever since. So, I don't know what their feelings towards us are. You hear and read about it, and you know it is a reality but it's also absent from our mainstreams and everyday realities.

But this is a part of the other losses we have experienced, and I don't know if I have recovered or if I need to work more on that. You gather from social media that there is polarisation, and it's sad. When we meet personally, there might be grievances and grudges, but there is also that love that has been there for centuries.

My mother was here with me (in Delhi) last year, and she had to fly back (to Srinagar) urgently. She left a packet of walnuts with me because she has a friend here and had asked me to deliver it to her. But soon after that we were under lockdown and I was telling her that I need to deliver your walnuts, and it is the second Shivratri now since you handed them to me. So that is what I am talking about — that affection, which is still alive in the homes. But what you see on social media and online can often have an agenda.

I was, in fact, coming to the subject of lockdowns. One cannot miss the irony of how after the complete shutdown of Kashmir since August 2019 following the revocation of Article 370, the entire country seemed to have gotten a feel of the reality the state has been dealing with for decades now, but under severely different circumstances, of course. How did this pandemic-induced lockdown play out for you?

When the insurgency happened in 1990, I was around 12 or 13 years old, and in those few years, curfews were the only reality we saw. So as it is, I am not a very outdoorsy person, and those years really shaped me. I have to be dragged to work [laughs]. I really did not have to adjust because psychologically, I kept thinking that okay, I will be here and I will be safe as I was literally going back to that routine that I was used to as a 12-year-old girl. I actually thought that life has now come full circle. This is something I need to work on and realise that I am no longer that 12-year-old.

If I may say so, rather perversely, it felt very natural to me. Even now, when the lockdown is over, I don't step out unless absolutely necessary — that too in two or three weeks. I don't go out at all.

Memories formed in your formative years really mould you into who you are and who you become, and they inform you. So yes, it has been quite strange. I have a couple of friends who are my age, and they have shared similar experiences as well — they too say it feels very natural and that is not a good thing to say.

So being a journalist — which is a job that requires you to step out frequently — has this tendency to stay indoors not come in the way of you doing or enjoying your job?

I am no longer a journalist; I was a journalist with Reuters. And back then I was a sub-editor so I was largely tied to the desk. I am not very comfortable going out and doing that, because it is something I haven't learned. As a child, I learned how curfews were like a collective imprisonment and I would have to stay indoors, so I am very comfortable at home. Going out still creates some sense of anxiety, and I still have to make an effort to do it.

I was a photojournalist too in Singapore, yes, but nothing really happens in Singapore. Over there, you would choose a subject and then maybe go out in the day and take a couple of photos, but it is nothing compared to journalism in conflict zones or actually anywhere else where you need to step out and work as a field journalist.

As a Kashmiri woman who has grown up amidst so much conflict, all the while seeking peace and normalcy amidst it, how do you think this violence affects you as a woman? How do you think women inherit these legacies and memories of violence differently from men?

I feel women in conflict zones and especially in societies where there is that kind of militarisation that one sees in Kashmir, they can become the dual recipients of violence and abuse. It can be both direct and indirect. There is this feeling that anything can happen to you at any time, and that's a separate fear experienced only by women. You are walking on the road, your heart is in your mouth, and you always feel like anything can happen to you any minute.

Second is, when the men of the society, especially patriarchal societies, are emasculated — that is a different kind of pressure that is produced inside homes that women also have to bear. So, it is quite unimaginable as to how these women still wake up in the morning and brave it, and are ready for absolutely anything throughout the day, whether they are out on the streets facing militarisation, or when they come home to violence.

There is a chapter in my book titled 'Of Men, Mice and Violence', which talks about this neighbour who used to beat his wife up because he wasn't able to deal with how he was getting beaten up outside. Some women just live with it, while some others can't deal with it. A few of us have been extremely lucky that we sort of managed to get by with just medication for a short while.

I have been a student of psychology, and I used to go to the Kashmir Psychiatric Asylum for field work — I haven't seen that kind of schizophrenia or read about it where people would have split personalities that would shift in 20 seconds. You usually take days, weeks or months to switch from one alter to another. It was unbelievable.

I used to come back home from field work and it used to take me three days to process what I had seen. And this was happening in 1998-99, so by then the conflict and war had been going on for eight or nine years already.

Some of these women weren't okay with even going home because of mental health taboos, and how their families wouldn't accept them back. So you realise what your space in society is, and how vulnerable you really are. As women, therefore, you really are dual recipients of trauma — it is not just about we are going to break you, arrest you and kill you, but we can also be used to get back at men in society. Therefore, we are used directly and indirectly.

From the point at which you end your book till today, do you see any change in the quality of lives led by the women of Kashmir, or a difference in the way they are perceived by the world?

I have noticed, and I think I also may have written about it in some article before, that when you see extreme fear, it also catapults you into fearlessness. I do see a lot of women now just going out there on to the streets and doing their thing. We have a lot of female photojournalists who are covering protests, encounters, and all of this was unthinkable in 1994, which is where I end my book.

I am talking about a time that is 12-13 years after the insurgency, when women were trying to go out and work but they were still not safe on the streets. But now you see women taking charge; they are telling stories and doing what they want to do. Some take up sports, some take up journalism, so they are reclaiming public spaces, which was absent in my generation at least.

Before me, my cousins and my mum had access to those public spaces — they would go to cinemas from college and have picnics. My mum and my aunts would actually go camping from school, that is what they would tell me. But we saw none of that, like picnics were completely gone — after the seventh or eighth class, we did not have school picnics.

So now, you see more women in such public spaces, in cafes, and creating content on social media and taking initiatives to represent themselves. I think it is a healthier space in that regard, but that is again restricted to a certain class. There is a class which is suffering probably much more than before. You see a certain class showing a lot of grit and determination but there is another class, who were probably not that well off at the beginning of the conflict and may have sunk further. So conflict has impacted everyone differently; while some are more visible now, others have been completely invisibilised.

As a Kashmiri, do you feel any resentment towards the administration and its consistent apathy and failure to allow Kashmir's people the space for self determination, or towards the rest of India for largely treating the state as a land of exotic tourism on good days, and hotbed of terrorism on bad ones, and nothing more?

I have no resentment, so to speak. I grew up a very naïve girl. For the longest time I used to be like there is so much happening here, how come the world does not pay any attention to us. So at one point I decided to look up what were the other things happening on the global stage. In 1989, there were the Tiananmen Square protests happening, so I was like okay, that is a big event, so no one was paying attention to us.

In '89, there was the fall of the Berlin Wall, so again a massive thing happening in Europe and no one cared about Kashmir. Then the Dalai Lama wins the Nobel Prize so I was like, obviously no one cares about us. You see, I was a very young and naive girl. But, to be honest, I have no expectations from the administration.

It is more about how this unresolved dispute is reduced to binaries — as a this or that. When you look at Indian tourists, they say, "Oh, they just want to be with Pakistan". It is made very simplistic. A lot of people have their own baggage and they don't want to spend enough energy or time understanding all the complexities, or learning about what all was promised to us, our political betrayals. So in that case, if one is articulate, one just takes it upon oneself to talk about it, so that if we don't have the numbers to fight back, at least our voices will be documented in history. And that way our histories won't be reduced to simplistic binaries, and we won't be seen as just some bedrock of terrorism. It is about the inalienable rights of self determination, and the wish of the people to live with dignity. It is as simple as that.

I keep telling my friends that it is very easy to take sides on Kashmir by calling us traitors, by demonising and dehumanising us. In that sense, in the current political or social climate, people might not be paying attention, but I think you can't ignore history for too long.

Finally, for how long had you been planning this book, and what were the biggest challenges you faced while writing it?

I have been writing since 2010, which is when under the National Conference's regime about 120 boys were killed. Before that, I was actually reading My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, and I absolutely loved the details on their culture and their way of life. This book, Rumours of Spring, also talks about a way of life that doesn't exist in Kashmir anymore.

There are so many rituals and traditions, which have completely changed. So it is about honouring that memory and identity from that bygone time. In that sense, it is not just a memoir but it is also documenting social history. So one is that.

Second is, when I read My Name is Red, I wanted to write and I was writing, but I discarded two manuscripts till 2017. However, it was only when I started reading a lot of African-American literature by women that I found something that resonated with me a lot. It is only after reading Nadine Gordimer's books that I sort of found that urgency, force and voice within me that I had been looking for. It compelled me to write.

The first eight chapters came very easily, and then I had a nervous breakdown — I just couldn't touch the book because I was accessing deeper traumas. My mum had to take me to the doctor because she could not bear to see me literally collapsing. Then I realised that this is it, I have really hit rock bottom, and maybe I am on the right track, and perhaps now I am ready to touch those traumas again and document them. So I did not stop after 2017, and the first draft took me about 18 months to write.

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