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Sunday, Feb 05, 2023
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Impressions

Kashmir's Sea Of Stories

These stories—and their storytellers—are everywhere. Stories which move and mobilize, with which to irrigate their suffering and their struggle. We, on the other hand, have no stories to offer, or at least none that are not hollow, corrupt and coerc

Kashmir's Sea Of Stories
Kashmir's Sea Of Stories
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

To visit Kashmir, even for a short while, is to drown, slowly but surely, in a sea of stories. It is impossible to avoid them, for like the legendary lakes that dot Kashmir’s valleys, these stories—and their storytellers—are everywhere. I will re-tell some stories here to suggest one powerful reason why, this summer, in the midst of seeming calm and teeming tourists, an administrative decision about land usage has precipitated such a social and political crisis. The issue is not simply that of land any longer, but of a land so drenched in tales of suffering and violence that peace is never more than surface-thin.

There is the story that begins as the snow-melt from the high mountains, which each year swells the streams, rivers, and lakes, and brings life to paddy fields and vegetable gardens. For the past nineteen years, this rush of water has featured strange new fruit--bodies and faces--mangled or sometimes oddly preserved, as they bob along the surface. No Kashmiri who watches them pass by, or sees them being pulled to the side, forgets what they have seen. These visions sear themselves into the brain, and the only comfort is to tell of what they have seen, till the vision itself, and the tone of the story, becomes muted, and matter-of-fact.

There is the story of the Gujjar girl, raped by three paramilitary soldiers, and left to die in the fields. She lived, the three were prosecuted, and perhaps punished, but the story does not end with this intimation of justice, for the restless story-teller still wonders why no one asked about the seventeen other soldiers who watched and did nothing? Should they not have intervened, for were they not in uniform, and supposed to be protecting their own, their fellow-citizens of the republic? Then there is a tale with many variations: two brothers, on their way to till their fields, run into a contingent of soldiers. The soldiers demand that the brothers show them the route up a hillside, and then, when they are near the top, tell them to stand by the lip of the river gorge. How many brothers are you at home, they ask. Four say the brothers. Good, says one of the soldiers, then we can kill the two of you and there will still be two others. This will be good population control but your families will survive. They tell them to raise their pherans and cover their faces. Two shots ring out, both bodies plummet into the gorge. The younger one dies, but the older lives, as the shot enters one cheek and exits the other, shattering one side of his face. Their village below hears the shots, and then sees, in the stream, the red of blood. This story too is told without flourishes, for the teller knows that even as he tells the story of his best friend, the younger brother who was murdered, he can claim no unique pain, for there are so many more stories just like this one.

There are stories that feature buildings, Papa 1 and Papa 2, the notorious interrogation centers in the heart of posh Srinagar. Many died there, or were mangled in mind and body, and some claim that their cries still reverberate there. These buildings are now reclaimed by the civil administration, and house important people. The administration claimed that this would heal these buildings of their histories, but the many who were interned there, and the many, many more, whose loved ones disappeared into the two Papas, see little healing, only a handing over of property from one set of rulers to another. This too is one effect of the circulation of such stories, for those who hear them, and have heard them for almost two decades now, cannot hear when those in power speak. They stand and listen—Kashmiris have always stood and listened—but all they hear are the songs of the disappeared and the dead.

Pictures tell stories too, of course, and there are so many to be seen, for the world has an insatiable appetite for images of suffering. Crying women crowd these frames, their sorrow and their anger at odds with their chunnis and head-scarves of many colours.

Their faces, and those of the little ones, who cry not because they know who has been lost but because their mothers and aunts are distraught, are the new face of Kashmir. They weep as one for their gun-toting insurgent son, who climbed the high mountains in pursuit of a dangerous dream, or their carpenter-brother, who left the house for supplies and never returned home. There are pictures of buildings aflame, the end result of a skirmish between violent men, or the more spectacular one of the precise moment when the military blows up two homes from which militants fire at them. The tone of the photograph is uncannily like the tone of the stories: the roar of the blast is muted into the visual whoosh of debris flying high, with the quiet, understated certainty of death. Pictures and poetry, stories and songs—who could have known that two decades of violence could have made these the weapons of the weak? And then there are other pictures that are almost as inspiring: masses of men, and of women, mobilized into processions, surging forward, arms in the air and mouths open with slogans, storming into a future that holds few promises except for the certainty of more pain.

There is another set of stories though, that is told less and less often as the years go by, but whose power to haunt and to vex does not fade. They too feature people who were killed, but they are mostly about exile, about leaving homes and hearths in fear. These are Hindu stories, or at least stories of Hindus, and of their horror at hearing, in their neighbourhoods, the strident voices of hate. There is no compensation for their loss, which is also the loss of a set of stories that complemented and completed Kashmir’s web of enchantments. They will never be replaced, but, slowly but surely, their telling will fade in the face of the other more urgent, more recently painful, stories Muslims have to tell.

And finally, when all the policy planners, the politicians, and the military men have done their work, it is these stories that will defy their logic. We—I now write as an Indian and a democrat—have no convincing stories to offer Kashmiris, no narratives of inclusion and oneness. We have watched, and listened—but not really done either—as large sections of "our" Kashmiri population are brutalized and reduced to the status of supplicants. We think our promises of development, and of belonging to an India burgeoning into a superpower, will wean them away from the stories they now imbibe. We should know that we have in fact, no stories to offer, or at least none that are not hollow, corrupt and coercive. And they now have a sea of stories, stories which move and mobilize, with which to irrigate their suffering and their struggle.

I will be keenly affected by the outcome of this struggle, I know, but I know also, even more forcefully, that we have lost the moral right not to let Kashmiris compose their own stories. We do not know what form those stories will take, nor what conclusions they will offer. They might tell of the coming of an Islamic state, or of union with a Muslim neighbour, or they might imagine a future of continuing toleration and exchange, a reassertion of the Islam and Hinduism of the sufis and the rishis. Or they might yearn (and I hope this will be the case) for a secular polity in which Kashmiris of all religions and of none can participate fully. We cannot know in advance what those stories might be, but they need to be conceived, shared, and debated. If we value democracy, we can encourage no less.


Suvir Kaul is A. M. Rosenthal Professor and Chair, Department of English, University of Pennsylvania, USA

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