Not much is left to imagination. The title, the cover and the authors' names on it, all give a fair idea what the book is about. Yet, each of the six essays takes you closer to the "ground reality", if I may say so, in Kashmir.
It is hard to find
writings on or about Kashmir, where the phrase "once upon a
time" doesn't occur, at least, once. And, hence, with it begins
Pankaj Mishra his "Introduction": "Once known for its
extraordinary beauty, the Valley of Kashmir now hosts the biggest,
bloodiest and also most obscure military occupation in the world."
Nostalgia of the past underscores the conflict of the present. Mishra
reiterates the facts, numbers and the conundrum. But more than that, he
introduces the reader to the "why": human suffering in Kashmir
is dismissed; youth fill streets protesting with nothing more lethal
than stones this time, soldiers shoot dead protesters, most of them
teenagers; Indian intellectuals are evasive on the issue of Kashmir`85
Mishra writes, "Here is a well-educated Muslim population, heterodox and pluralist by tradition and temperament, and desperate for genuine democracy," he is, wittingly or unwittingly, pulling some of those.
True, democracy carries a big question mark with it in context of Kashmir. At the same time, one wonders what explains the exodus of Hindu Pandits? How did Islamisation of Kashmiriyat happen? In what name, under what head can violence in Kashmir be legitimised? Why can't regionalism and nationalism exist together?
The book doesn't offer answers; the personal experiences of the contributors do help present an "unedited Kashmir". Though the "facts" and "truths" in the book can always be contested, it can't be denied that these stories are closer to reality.
Tariq Ali does the needful with his "Story of Kashmir", as he traces its transformation from a paradise on earth to a disputed territory. But for others, Ali's anecdotes and comments stir the recap. His verbal exchange with Indira Gandhi and Farooq Abdullah, his remarks to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his margin notes, shared in a matter-of-fact tone, offers a fresh perspective.
So does Arundhati Roy's write-up, "Azadi: The only thing Kashmiris want". She offers her point of view, which could be accepted or rejected, called biased or dismissed as a mere personal opinion, but not quite seditious in nature. In her defence, she puts together the words of Jawaharlal Nehru under the head "Seditious Nehru". Telegrams, letters and statements by the first Prime Minister suggest his stance on Kashmir. Well, things have changed since then.
Roy does try to delve deeper into the idea of "freedom" and what it means to Kashmiris.
Well, the definition of "freedom" would vary, depending whom you ask, just as Hilal Bhatt narrates how the announcement- "Fayazabad Special 31223 from Fayazabad to New Delhi is arriving on Platform 3`85Indian Railway wishes you a happy and comfortable journey"-at Aligarh railway station altered his meaning of the word. It was December 1992, and the riots following Babri Masjid episode had broken out. Having watched his Kashmiri friends slaughtered on the train, it was only in the company of Sikhs that he felt safe. It wasn't wrong then for his classmates back in Kashmir to have produced two versions of the essay "My Aim in Life": the first for their Hindu teacher and the other for the Principal who had left to join guerrilla warfare. Freedom of expression, at least, is allowed.
Angana P. Chatterji in his piece, "The Militarised Zone", rightly puts it: "Each dimension of life in India-governed Kashmir is replete with the obsessions and absurdities of militarisation."
Tariq Ali tries to sum up in his "Afterword", but it too is only an attempt, a viewpoint; yet another one on Kashmir. Alas, the quest for meaning, for answers and for peace in Kashmir doesn't seem to have reached the end. Waiting for Godot, let's hope not!