Zone of strife

Print edition : January 19, 2018
The book ably documents the combat zone that is the daily life of Kashmir’s women and children.

BEHOLD, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children is a remarkable book constructed almost entirely through narratives. It comes alive in story after story told by the women and children of Kashmir. It is a record of history, it is learning for the future and, possibly, it was cathartic for many of the women who spoke to the author, Freny Manecksha. She is an independent journalist and had formerly worked with The Times of India and The Indian Express. She has reported extensively from Kashmir on human rights and development issues, and her book reflects her years of experience and involvement with the subject.

Because the region has been so gripped by upheaval and political machinations, it would have been easy for Freny Manecksha to slip into the trend of solutions and judgments. Instead, her book is an unpretentious presentation of facts as lived by generations who have grown up knowing that the day-to-day turmoil they encounter is wrong but yet know no other way of life. The average Kashmiri’s fight is a slippery one since it involves issues of statehood, nationality, religious identity and other such weighty matters that should not have to be confronted on a daily basis. The result is defiance, frustration, chaos and disorientation.

Freny Manecksha presents a strong point of view— that of the Kashmiri women who live with “the presence of strangers holding guns and grenades, in their own fields and orchards”, the women who contend “not only with the physical presence of the military but also the process of militarisation”, or the women who say: “I will go to any corner of the world to get justice; I will die fighting.” The author’s voice is clear: she is with these women.

Freny Manecksha explains the title of the book in the preface: “Most of all, I saw women who refused to remain victims; who, despite the trauma they lived through, had the faith and courage to echo the songs of the 16th century Kashmiri Muslim poetess Habba Khatun:

‘The one who dazzles—have you seen that one?

Upon him look!

A sleepless stream in

search of him I run,

A restless brook.

In far off woods, a

lonely pine, I stood

Till he appeared,

My woodcutter, and

came to cut the wood.

His fire I feared,

Yet though he burn my

logs, behold, I shine,

My ashes wine.’”

It is in the context of this “lol” that this book must be read. (A “lol”, roughly the equivalent of the English “lyric”, is poetry that expresses one brief thought. Habba Khatun introduced this form to Kashmiri poetry.) Bereavement, loss and trauma pervade the stories, and yet, there is little to do but bear it all. Kashmiris are like refugees in their own land—their culture torn from them, their history morphing because of political conveniences and the future shrouded. Their choices are few. Perhaps those who can leave do so. But the majority cannot. And in any case, to leave would be to bear the loss of being torn from one’s roots. And so, clinging to old cultures they are forced to develop new ones.

Traditionally, as the keepers of culture, women have the responsibility of ensuring continuity, a hard task when many of them have grown up in a zone of strife. They are witness to loss at various levels: their daily environment, their personal safety, the abduction and death of their men, their art, their recreation… the list encompasses all the small and big things of life from the destruction of the yaarbals, or washing ghats, where women would gather to clean laundry and exchange news, or the vanishing badamwaris, or groves, where families would picnic.

Then there are the women who have taken on the fight and are facing the consequences. Freny Manecksha talks of Munawara Sultan, whose husband was shot at close range four months after their marriage while Munawara was carrying their child. The story is a common one in Kashmir. There is a mine blast or similar violence, Border Security Force (BSF) or Army personnel are killed, the area is cordoned off, local male citizens are made to line up for an identification parade watched all the while by troops and mukhbirs, or informers, who sit hidden inside a vehicle. Some men are picked out and are then either never seen again or their bodies are found and they are branded militants.

Munawara said: “To my mind, my husband made one fatal mistake. He had spotted a tap and bucket, and began offering water to men who had been waiting in a line since 4 a.m. without food or drink. This led to an altercation with the jawans who objected to his ‘crime’ of offering people water.” He was taken away in front of hundreds of eyewitnesses, and four hours later they heard three gunshots. A while later her husband’s body was brought to the police station with bullet wounds. “It wasn’t one person who died that day in this family, but three,” she told Freny Manecksha.

‘Saga of untruths’

It was a fortnight before Munawara was able to file a first information report and that was possible only because of the intervention of a chief judicial magistrate. In the meanwhile the BSF had lodged a case saying Munawara’s husband had attacked a search party and been killed in retaliatory firing. “A saga of untruths” followed, and from 1983 when her husband was shot until 2006 when the State Human Rights Commission stated that her husband had been killed in custody, Munawara continued to fight a “case that remains stuck in a cruel impasse”.

This daily grind of frustration is something Freny Manecksha shines a blinding light on. In an attempt to analyse and portray this she writes: “The French philosopher Michel Foucault states: Since memory is a very important factor in struggle (really, in fact, struggles develop a kind of conscious moving forward on history), if one controls people’s memory, one controls their dynamism. And one also controls their experience, their knowledge of the previous struggles. Kashmir seems to have absorbed the significance of this observation—as I found when I visited Shopian. The town… stands testimony to the ways in which Kashmir has resisted all attempts to alter or erase its experiences.”

While writing about the infamous case in which two young women, Asiya and Neelofar, were found dead in the Rambiar river, Freny Manecksha describes the seething frustration of the women of Shopian. They knew, but could not prove, that the girls had been raped and murdered. The women feel a tremendous sense of kinship with the girls and express it by something as simple as their memory of seeing one of the victims at a tailor’s shop. This simple, very domestic image of the dead girl collecting her clothes from a tailor just days before she was killed somehow strengthens the rage the women feel at the injustice of the deaths. They express it by organising demonstrations and participating in protests, but as one of them told the author: “Justice is yet to be done.”

Collective psyche

With decades of such examples, it is inevitable that conflict will pervade Kashmir’s collective psyche. It is expressed in different ways by different people. The poet Arshad Mushtaq in his “That’s why I threw stones” wrote: “When they left Lal Ded naked, on the banks of the Rambiar, When they killed Yousuf before Zooni’s eyes, That’s when I threw stones”—a reference to the Shopian murders. Then there are the rap singers M.C. Kash and Shayan Nabi, the author Shahnaz Bashir, the film-maker Iffat Fatima, the journalist Shazia Yousuf and the artist Malik Sajad. There are also the designers Mahum Shabir and Suhail Mir whose shawls depict barbed wire and Kalashnikovs instead of the traditional chinar leaves and flowers.

The book tells Kashmir’s stories through children as well. Unable to take her three sons with her from one detention camp to another as she searched for her husband, Tahira placed her three boys in separate orphanages. “When they returned to stay with her, they were bitter and angry, unable to make sense of why their mother had abandoned them. One of her sons brusquely asked, ‘Was I an orphan? If my father has died, why do you still search for him?’” Then there are the toddlers who had seen violence which they have internalised so deeply that the trauma expresses itself in severe speech problems as they grow up, children who pick up live ammunition thinking it is a toy and lose their lives or limbs, children who are dragged into an ugly adult world when authorities bribe them with 10-rupee notes to make them bear false witness, children whose fathers have disappeared leaving their wives as “half widows”—a term that denotes a woman who does not know whether her husband is dead or alive—these are the experiences that are shaping Kashmir’s children. And the “total absence of psychiatric care or emotional counselling” makes it impossible to treat the thousands of such trauma cases.

Afshan, a young student of media studies, told Freny Manecksha: “My mother’s generation believed that death was foreshadowed by a red line in the sky. My generation has seen so much death that the sky should carry permanent red daubs.” Behold I Shine ably documents the combat zone that is the daily life of Kashmir’s women and children.


Khatun, Habba (2011): “Lol of the Lonely Pine”, translated by Nilla Cram Cook, in Tariq Ali, Hilal Bhatt, Angana P. Chatterji, Habba Khatun, Pankaj Mishra and Arundhati Roy, Kashmir: The Case for Freedom, London: Verso, page 73.

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