A Peerless Peer

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After the jury selected Basharat Peer, author of Curfewed Night, as the Kashmiri of the year 2009, Kashmir Life invited Dr Haseeb A Drabu to write on him.

Kashmir, 1989 onwards is not a story. It never was. Yet, it was told like one. Repeatedly. Of course, first as news stories the world over which were sensational at best and biased at worst. But beyond that as well. The story of Kashmir since 1989 was told in various garbs; fictionalised by Vikram Chandras, trivialised by David Devadas, romanticised by Gautam Navlakhas, and vulgarised by M J Akbars of the world. It not only became fashionable to write on Kashmir but also became a route to instant recognition.

In the process, even if well-meaning, Kashmir was deprived of a Kashmir voice. We were represented. We didn’t represent. In that, we lost out. And how?!

It has taken us two decades to move from being the plot in a story to constructing a narrative of our troubles and travails. The man who converted the story of Kashmir into a Kashmiri narrative is Basharat Peer, Kashmir life’s “Kashmiri of the year 2009”.

It was a tale waiting to be told. Not only by an insider but someone who grew up in that period. Basharat was a teenager when the “movement” started. And he struggled to grow up in an environment where stagnation and strangulation were the norms. Growing up those days was a struggle of consciousness, of values and of emotions. Most people were choking to say something; to give a vent to their pent up feelings. They didn’t. Or perhaps couldn’t. But one amongst us, a young reporter, decided to speak about us in their language and in the way they would read it.

It is not just an insider’s narrations of the social traumas and turmoils during the last two decades, more importantly, it is from the perspective of the new generation, the GenX view. A generation that is not only exposed to an international discourse through the new media but one that also does not carry any excess baggage of the past, be it the partition or the great betrayal of 1950s.

All this – the context, the perspective, the timing, the skills – seemed to come together in Basharat and made him deliver what he did: a narrative of the Kashmiris. His book “Curfewed Night”, erroneously described by many as autobiographical which it is not. Yet in its inspiration and inlay, it is hugely cathartic for the writer and to the local reader.

To the outside reader, it has what he wanted to read. It has all the ingredients and elements to make it justly recognised the world over: the authenticity of experience, the mystique of a Kashmiri writer, a young talent, a rancour-less narration, and equidistant from various competing and conflicting ideologies. Basharat writing from the trenches, as it were, gave the book an authenticity of not just experience but also expression and emotion. And that too in just the right balance.

In this lies the other great contribution this book has made to the civil society of Kashmir: it is a completely professional body of work. Well written, elegantly produced and brilliantly marketed. In that sense, it is the first professionally managed book on Kashmir, out of Kashmir and by a Kashmiri.

Basharat wrote the book with sensitivity and sincerity about what he saw and felt. Perhaps without a thought for the market. Yet, by virtue of where the book came and who it came from, it presented a great marketing opportunity in the publishing world. Most people who have purist predilections would see this as a negative but to be read in today’s world you need to be marketed well. It is a huge plus in my view.

The pun is in the heading intentional insofar as there is not a strong tradition of writing prose. So Basharat has been “peerless” in this field! He has had no icons to look up to and emulate in this field unlike in the case of poetry. Basharat has done brilliantly well to create one in himself for future generations.

Of late we are seeing the emergence of prose. I am told two or three youngsters, Basharat’s age group, are pregnant with novels. This is very heartening to know. To the purist, this may be a regression in the intellectual activity of the nation, but it is a significant change that needs to not only heralded but also nurtured.

The shift from poetry to prose maybe because of the “macabre reality” that Kashmiris have been living through for the last two decades. As Basharat confessed quite candidly in a conversation, “I have no imagination to write fiction”. To broaden this observation, this generation may not be full of because the reality that they have lived and are living in Kashmir is so complex and overwhelming that it consumes the imagination into itself. When the facts are stranger than fiction, then imagination is needed to present fact than create fiction.

In this sense, Basharat is a chronicler of his time. He has evolved into this from being a reporter to a journalist, and an author. So far, the setting has subsumed the skill; the context has made the content very powerful. In future, Basharat is not going to find such a strong, powerful and emotive subject for himself. So where is he headed? How does the narrator become a writer, if at all he wants to?

I think he has made a prudent move towards that end; he is not planning another book on Kashmir though that would have been an easier choice. Instead, he is writing about the post-colonial transformation in Muslim societies of South Asia. This will let him breathe outside of Kashmir, get analytical insights that can be used later to evocatively write about Kashmir, but it will hone his skills and ability to write about a subject that is not his by birth. His first book was about himself and his people and his land.

What we hope is that he will do journalistic reports or reportage written with a certain literary finesse and in an engaging manner. Indeed, that is something that what is desperately needed to be done in and for Kashmir.

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About Author

Haseeb A Drabu is an economist. He has worked with the Planning Commission, Finance Commission, and Economic Advisory Council of the Prime Minister. He has also been Economic Advisor to the Government of Jammu and Kashmir and Chairman and Chief Executive of the J&K Bank. His last public engagement has been Finance Minister of Jammu and Kashmir.

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