The Un-Silent Valley

An event in London held to celebrate the literature emerging from Kashmir besides developing a multi-perspective understanding of Kashmir, talked about giving people space to explore their own stories. Amina Rawat reports

Kings Cross, a hub of activity in central London, hosted an event on May 28, 2011 evening exploring the role of literature and film in expressing people’s experiences and psyche in Kashmir, particularly since the rise of the insurgency in 1989.

The event, ‘The Silent Valley – Retelling the Story of Kashmir through Art’, was attended by writer and journalist, Pankaj Mishra; author and trauma conflict therapist, Justine Hardy; author and BBC Urdu service editor, Mirza Waheed, and Professor of English at Leeds University, Ananya Kabir.

The evening commenced with images of Kashmir in its current day, both the beauty and the decay, as light music played in the background. The images were somewhat obscured by the rays from the vast skylight and the melody of the music disrupted by the chatter of people discussing their daily lives while nibbling on kebabs and pakoras drenched in chutney and slurping kahva.

Ms Hardy, in her opening remarks, said that the number of people present in the event was a demonstration that the Valley was not silent. She said that the people in Kashmir Valley have traditionally been renowned to talk in expressions of poetry which, however, have been lost after decades of continuous mental and emotional trauma.

“If you silent a poet, they go mad,” she said while emphasising to give back the metaphorical and collective voice to people.

Hardy has been working in Kashmir as trauma therapist. She says that a thoughtfully written word is powerful enough to give people space to explore their own stories and commended Waheed’s book, The Collaborator, for doing just that.

Mishra who was to present an analysis of the Western media’s “limited coverage” of Kashmir said that he did not have the answers to why they maintained such a “lazy silence”.  “The hush was a great mystery given that more than 80,000 people have been killed in the conflict and many more have suffered other atrocities,” he said.

He said that President Obama had been talking about solving the Kashmir issues before coming into office, however, since then “his commitment seemed to have vanished”. In the run up to elections, Prime Minister David Cameron did not ever mention anything on Kashmir. Even during his visit to India not a word was uttered on the conflict zone which has been bleeding since partition of the subcontinent. Kashmir Valley is the most heavily militarised region in the world.

The power of the written word was further explored by Ms Kabir who teaches a Masters module on the subject specifically pertaining to Kashmir. She said when she first started to teach the module in 2004 Kashmir representation in the art form was limited to mainly poet Aga Shahid Ali, the novels of Salman Rushdie and of course the all singing and dancing and romantic scenes of Bollywood films. However, as years have passed more and more writers have emerged in representing Kashmir in fiction like The Garden of Solitude by Siddhartha Gigoo and The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed. Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night is the most popular book written by a Kashmiri about Kashmir in English.

“These books embody the painful experiences of young authors who were bought up in Kashmir in the 1990s. As these novels were gaining more attention, the voice of Kashmiris and their feeling were becoming more well-known. This not only created a space to talk about the issues but also facilitated reconciliation,” she said.

Waheed Mirza talked about “brutalisation of the Kashmiri people”. He talked about the most popular mass medium in India – Bollywood. “The Bollywood’s representation of Kashmir could be summarised in four and a half words; The Mughal gardens, houseboats, snow and jihadi,” he said. Mirza termed “Azad Jammu and Kashmir” a misnomer. “No part of Kashmir was azad or free,” he said.

“Following years of atrocities of the Indian government under the guise of draconian laws such as the Public Safety Act (PSA) and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), Kashmiri people have accepted the perversion of the legal system and the police as a normative relationship between the state and its subject,” he said. “This was one of the most grave, and saddest, kind of brutalisation of a people.”

Recalling a conversation with a former Kashmiri militant in 1994, who told him he gave up his cause due to disillusionment and uncertainty but also because he was grateful to the authorities for not having killed him in custody as many were, Waheed said, normalisation of “such butchery allows the executor to live in moral comfort whilst destructing peoples’ minds and reducing them to spiritless bodies”.

The event was organised by Shama Naqushbandi, Sabah Naqushbandi, Saalim Chowdhury and Mazar Masud – second generation Asians and former arts students at Cambridge University, to celebrate the artistic voices emerging from Kashmir as well as develop a multi-perspective understanding of Kashmir.  The group claims to have no political or religious affiliations. The event, the organisers said, was a not-for-profit, and that they did not receive any funding or sponsorship.

After a reading from his book, The collaborator, the floor was opened up to questions. The debates ensued and there were heated arguments demonstrating the complexity and the contentiousness of the Kashmir issue.

While responding to a question, what role did literature play in creating a history of Kashmir, Jane Hardy quoting British writer and Noble Laureate Doris Lessing who wrote about apartheid said “because if we don’t, people will say it didn’t happen.”

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