The recent all-party meet with J&K leaders, and the demands for a transparent delimitation process and restoration of statehood before the state assembly elections, has revived memories of August 05, 2019, when Article 370 was abrogated.
On this day, journalist Suhas Munshi was travelling to Srinagar from Gurez. He had visited the Habba Khatoon peak, named after the 14-century Kashmiri poet, who according to legends wrote her best verses here while lamenting the imprisonment of her husband, King Yusuf Shah Chuk, by the Mughals.
Munshi documents this journey in the opening chapter of his debut book, a travelogue, titled This World Below Zero Fahrenheit, and how he discovers Khatoon’s fandom in the Valley with a spring, English-medium school, a theatre group named after her; and in a later chapter, has Madhosh Balhami (real name: Mohammad Bhat) saying he became a shayar (poet) after listening to her verses on the radio.
In time, you realise the broken hearted Khatoon is emblematic for the all the locals from non-touristy spots (so no mention of Gulmarg and Pahalgham) that the author profiled for the book, whose life stories were mostly marred by violence from militancy and bureaucracy.
Balhami goes on to tell Munshi how he lost 800 books and 30 years of his writings when militants barged into his home and the forces burnt it down; his work partly recovered by fans and friends who had written down his verses or circulated them on Facebook.
The author himself recounts his own panic being stuck in the communications blackout after the abrogation; has his uncle address their Kashmiri Pandit roots, subsequent exodus and years in penury after being displaced; and an admission of his snobbery for the nomadic Bakarwals with whom he trekked from Srinagar to Jammu’s Pir Panjal Range for three weeks.
Chronologically, the book is a blessed mess (for instance: the abrogation was his last experience and the Bakarwals, his first). Munshi tries to give some semblance of structure by geographically classifying the places, chapter wise, under the four cardinal directions, but admits he strove for a slightly disorganised result. Excerpts from an interview:
The first sentence of the book is by an exasperated friend of yours who says Kashmir, contradictory to popular opinion, “is not a goddamn heaven”. Later in the book, a Kashmiri Sikh during your conversation with him on a train ride, remarks, “What do young people have here [Kashmir]? This is Jahnam (hell)”. Your views?
Kashmiri Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims use the same word for hell, Jahnam. My friend’s anguish came from the long curfews, internet ban, shutdowns of all kinds, and limited means of keeping oneself occupied. But Kashmir is neither heaven nor hell. It is not a battleground. Not even an amusement park as tourists treat it by taking pictures, dancing, feasting, without engaging with the locals. You cannot assimilate, accumulate, encapsulate, any place into one word, least of all Kashmir with its chequered history, vibrant 1000-year-old culture and literature, and a complicated present. It is just home to the people living there, and a conflict zone. It is what it is.
What instances made you think seriously about writing a book on Kashmir?
Many! The first instance was when my family and I revisited Kashmir, where I saw a 3-4 year old boy chirping in Kashmiri like nobody’s business. Just by the act of speaking Kashmiri that boy had a sense of belonging, could engage with the culture, make word games, even abuse in the language… I too could have had this childhood. After the exodus, our parents had stopped speaking to us in Kashmiri, to bring us up in a non-provincial, metropolitan way. But when I heard that child, I decided to think hard about the exodus. I had grown up wondering whose fault it was and how angry I ought to be. I found my literary hero, Agha Shahad Ali, from whose poem, The City of Daughters I took this book’s title, and who had beautifully described the anguish of Kashmiris in his works, looking the other way when the Pandits were persecuted. I am not trying to melodramatise our past, but if we can’t even agree on/acknowledge the circumstances that led to our exodus, then where do we go from here? For my own sake, I wanted to open a dialogue, to think coherently about these things.
Tell us a bit about your research for the book.
As a journalist, I have been reporting from Kashmir for years, and got more insights to the place with every visit. When I got the book contract, I single-mindedly worked on it for three years (2017-20). I just kept returning to Kashmir for 10-20 days, and ended up interviewing hundreds of people. I read up accounts of other conflict zones to see how other writers approached their interviewees, their conflicting histories and opinions strictly against their own.
What are you trying to impress upon the reader?
That Kashmiris are weird, envious, sympathetic, kind and bad just like you and I, doing 9 to 5 jobs, calculating their life insurance at the end of the day. They also read a lot about conflict zones, know Chomsky inside out, and engage in debates all the time. With such a high literacy rate and an argumentative population, it’s a shame that Kashmir doesn’t have enough bookstores to keep up with them. A few books that I read on Kashmir were just tears on every page. So, I put in the dark humour that I overheard or received from my interviewees, to show how they deal with so much trauma, pain and violence. I t was a matter of trying to get very dissimilar voices and opinions in the book to show how varied a n d non-homogeneous Kashmir is.
What did you take away from your trek with the Bakarwals?
The first thing I realised after starting my journey with them is that I had not thought this through. They are Muslims, and I am a Pandit, and how would they react to this? And what could I talk about to these unkempt, illiterate folks who had never stepped out of Jammu & Kashmir? But the class shame vanished when my belly was empty and I wanted food from their plates. Then it was a matter of accounting for the times they saved my life, showered me with love, shared their innermost thoughts, not giving two hoots about my political beliefs or identity. I didn’t need to approach them with a false sense of compassion. Especially the women, like Rabeena, who carried herself with such grace, despite her tattered clothes, having to live with a child who was always sick and a husband who didn’t love her. Tragically, like Albert Camus’s Sisyphus, she keeps the rock rolling, up and down the mountain.
Any suggestions as to how tourists can engage with the culture of Kashmir?
In An Odyssey by Daniel Mendelsohn, Daniel (the American memoirist) took his father dying of a terminal disease to the places Homer mentioned in his novel, and met so many people. Kashmir has so many poets. If I have evoked any curiosity about Habba Khatoon, then read her poetry, and visit Gurez. Talk to the local people. Don’t form your opinions based on what you watch on the TV.