MK Raina
MK Raina

'Before I Forget' book review: Woes of the valley

The heartbreaking story of Kashmir told through the life of a theatre stalwart

Theatre actor, director and cultural activist MK Raina grew up in the mohalla of Sheetal Nath Sathu in Srinagar. It had a mixed population of Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims. And expectdly, it was a childhood that witnessed disruptions. All of this and more is captured by the thespian in his new memoir, Before I Forget.

Recalling the day the Centre dismissed PM Sheikh Abdullah’s government—August 8, 1953—he writes, “Stone pelting and people agitating and fighting with the security forces were part and parcel of my growing up... The power of the olive-green uniform and what it means becomes very clear from a very early age for every Kashmiri child.”

The most disturbing chapter is called, ‘Kashmir Implodes’. As he remembers the time he spent in the government hospital, where his mother was in a coma, he recreates visuals from 1990 Kashmir, when when militancy in the region had intensified, with frequent gunfights between the Army and militants. In an extraordinarily evocative segment, Raina recalls seeing injured militants being brought into the hospital, even as Islamic slogans blared through speakers of mosques throughout the night, and goes on to describe how, despite curfews, his family could conduct a cremation for their mother.

The book progresses to capture the plight of Kashmiri Pandits during the exodus. Like many Hindus, Raina’s father too fled to Jammu. “The centuries-old links of interdependence that existed among neighbours were washed away,” he writes, adding, “No one talked to each other. Nobody looked at each other. The majority, in their helplessness, kept quiet and let all this happen to the minorities. And the minorities left…for where they did not know.”

Before I foreget, however, is more than just a grim retelling of a Kashimi Pandit’s life. There are anecdotes of an enjoyable life too. One of Raina’s fondest memories is attending a concert by Mohammed Rafi at Bakshi Stadium, where he saw the legendary playback singer use only a harmonium during the performance as a local musician played the tabla. “People were enraptured when he opened the concert with his super-hit song, Yahoo from the film Junglee,” he writes.

A penchant for the arts which he nurtured since he was a boy, led him to Delhi, where he secured admission into the National School of Drama (NSD), and eventually settling there. But Kashmir always remained on his mind. “I would often hear of some folk theatre performer, or the other being killed. It would send shivers down my spine. No one in the media reported on the attacks on the basic cultural fabric of the Valley, and how for years, the cultural space had been taken over by religious diktats and militant organisations,” he rues.

As ordinary life became difficult in Kashmir, with institutions being closed down frequently, and hopelessness creeping into the psyche of the people, Raina decided to take it upon himself to help fellow Kashmiris back home, who were exhausted by the constant violence and the “oppressive gaze” of the security personnel. He writes, “For years, the younger generation had not experienced what one could call a ‘normal’ day. People preferred to remain indoors for weeks. All this created many psychological illnesses. The task of helping them seemed enormous and impossible, but one had to start somewhere.”

Raina got an opportunity in Surabhi, a programme on Doordarshan that focused on the artistes of Kashmir. Later, he did another series for the Press Trust of India. In 2000, he also conducted a theatre workshop on behalf of the NSD in Srinagar. To the two NSD colleagues who accompanied him, he recited a verse by the German playwright, Bertolt Brecht: In the dark times Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times. This was the first of many workshops. Raina also wrote about the tragic killing of cultural activist Safdar Hashmi in 1989, the riots following the assassination of PM Indira Gandhi, and the children whose fathers had been killed in the insurgency.

This is a most remarkable book. What holds the reader’s attention is the lucid voice of Raina speaking the truth. You get a picture of Kashmir that is tragic, unforgettable and alarming, too.

Before I Forget

By: MK Raina

Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 409

Price: Rs 999

The New Indian Express