Photojournalist and communications consultant Farah Bashir describes living in Kashmir in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a young girl.

A book opened and held against the distant sea during an afternoon
Features Books Sunday, August 22, 2021 - 19:52

On a chilly December evening in 1994, a young woman coming back from school saw some people causing commotion outside her house and her heart sank. “Was someone hit by a bullet?” – that’s the first thought that crossed her mind. A rather extreme first thought, you’d think. But not if you had known the volatile situation that she had grown up in; for she lived in a corner of Kashmir, the border state that’s long been a territory of dispute between India, Pakistan and China. Bullets, bombs, curfews and crackdowns were a part of her life and vocabulary and the commotion outside her home could only mean something bad had happened. It indeed had, she learnt – her grandmother, her Bobeh, had died that afternoon. But as she would later recall, Bobeh had not been a casualty of the war, hers was a natural death. And this, at least, brought the young woman a sense of ease.

Farah Bashir, a photojournalist and communications consultant, who grew up in Kashmir takes that one December evening of her life as a prelude to her childhood. In Rumours of Spring: Girlhood in Kashmir, Farah begins every chapter with the proceedings of that evening and slowly slips into the past years of her young life, into moments like the one described above. Even if by some magic she could pluck out those moments from her life, those bad days when things went wrong, what would be left are years of apprehension of things going wrong any time.  

What Farah plucked out instead were strands of hair from various corners of her head, a habit she began after a dreaded day in 1989 when she went out for a haircut and there was shooting in the streets. Her family had thought her dead. She was only 12 then, and young Farah began splitting her life into two ever since that day – before 1989 and after. It must have been relatively peaceful years before, for everything changed after 1989. Everyone in the family changed. If Sarah began to deal with her trauma by plucking out hair, her Bobeh stayed away from the open windows she had always looked out of, and had them shut. Farah’s father began sitting in a crouching position as if he was always in a hurry. Her mother began finishing all the kitchen work by five in the evening so no noise from their house reached the armed troops outside.

These are parts of Kashmiri lives that an outsider cannot begin to imagine. Farah gently pulls you from the newspaper images of guns and battles to the insides of homes where people – young and old – live in the only reality they know. You desperately turn the pages to get a glimpse of a rare ordinary moment in her life, devoid at least for a moment of fear and anxiety. Farah has added the bits of forbidden fun she shared with her sister Hina, listening to songs, dancing alone and at one point, writing love letters to a boy she knew. All of these are precious moments because you, the reader, know like Farah did – these moments will soon slip away from her. Crackdowns will make sure the music system goes away. You are apprehensive that something will destroy her means of communicating with the boyfriend, and eventually, a fire that burnt down the main post office, does.

Even friendships get suddenly and unexpectedly terminated. Farah’s Kashmiri Pandit neighbours, the Kauls, left in 1990 after the opposition of some Muslim groups against Hindus staying in Kashmir created an atmosphere of fear and caused the migration of many.

What Farah lets you into is a life after and before the atrocities on the people. It doesn’t get over after a crackdown or a bomb going off. You read about the nights when families had to bear every urge to get out of bed so that the house stays quiet and does not attract stray bullets or the wrath of the armed troops. Farah has borne her pain during the nights she was menstruating without going to get her pills so that she wouldn’t put her family at risk.

I’d have rather continued to lie quietly, cry, and let my hair soak up the tears through the night, than attract dangers for the family.

The days too were not easy. At one point she stopped going for walks. She describes the anxieties of women living close to bunkers of troops. She mentions the Kunan Poshpora incident of 1991 when many women were allegedly raped by soldiers in the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora after they were fired at by militants. Farah’s fear of ever walking alone in a road comes through in various incidents: once, when she got down from the school bus and went towards her father’s shop, clutching her bag tight and wishing she had a scarf as an additional cover. Another time, she was caught in a crossfire with her father’s friend Ramzan Kaak, both escaping narrowly.

And so, I began to ignore caring for my skin. I thought maybe if I looked ugly and less pleasant, the men would not look at me and I’d be safe. I wouldn’t wash my face for days. I didn’t want to look attractive in any way, at all, lest it invited undue attention and that indescribable guilt. I wanted to somehow become invisible.

In 1993, she had, like many other Kashmiris, been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Farah does not employ long descriptions of the pain or suffering she’s been through. Instead, she goes on to wonder about a life growing up away from a conflict zone, and that, if not anything else you have read so far, puts a lump in your throat.

To wake up to the rays of the sun without having the previous night’s sleep interrupted by screams of the neighbourhood women who’d run after the armed personnel in convoys that took away their husbands and teenage sons in nocturnal raids. To only care about using the right colognes and worry about the right detergent, to not to have to constantly think about the availability of vegetables, milk and medicine during erratic but long periods of curfew… I wondered what life would be like if there was some certainty in our day-to-day affairs. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Felt more like a dream…

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