A few weeks ago, in a desperate attempt to be productive in the midst of mind-numbing quarantine and never-ending lockdowns, I happened to come across C.E. Tyndale Biscoe’s book titled, ‘Kashmir in Sunlight and Shade.’
The compelling title of the book combined with its narrative format peaked my interest and I started reading it in the hopes of getting more information about the valley.
The book serves as a record of his first journey into Kashmir and his subsequent residence in the valley while recounting various stories and experiences based on his interactions with people during his efforts to impart western education in Kashmir as part of his Missionary activities.
The book, however, leaves much to be desired and imparts more shade than sunlight on the historical and political ambience of Kashmir where Biscoe stayed for about thirty years.
Cecil Earl Tyndale Biscoe was a distinctive amalgamation of a Christian missionary, a social worker, an enthusiastic traveller and a sportsman. Born in 1863 in Holton, Oxford in England he received his education at Bradfield College and completed his BA from Jesus College, Cambridge. After graduating, he became a priest for the Church of England and in 1890 was appointed to work in Kashmir by the Church Mission Society. Described as an ardent supporter of the British Imperial project, he used his position as headmaster of the Kashmir Mission School to introduce western education and Christian ideals to transform Kashmiri society into a ‘manly and dutiful one’ and produce of them, in Biscoe’s words, ‘men and not mere bipeds.’
The book is a marvellous and an important piece of text which provides a realistic and practical account of social, political, educational and geographical conditions of Kashmir back in the day, and the publisher’s adulation goes as far as to term the inclusion of this book as an asset to all libraries in the valley.
While it serves the purpose of a memoir of his time in Kashmir and his creative writing ability and tonality make for an enjoyable read, it’s hard to miss the glaring generalisations and judgements within the book that contribute to the making of a Kashmiri stereotype.
Kashmiris are frequently referred to as dirty, filthy beings and the term ‘Kashmiri’ is made synonymous with cowardly and deceitful behaviour.
The author misses no opportunity to call them lazy and refers to them as dishonest beings who consistently rely on sycophancy for upward social mobility.
Displaying a classic case of a white man’s burden, Biscoe frequently references the superior ideas and customs of the west as a beacon of light for the East that is shined upon these lesser beings while being proud of the work that is done to uplift these ‘half savages.’
Biscoe constantly extorts the image of the shrewd and fraudulent Kashmiri who dupes the simple and good-natured Britisher. He goes on to cite numerous instances of surface-level interaction with people as ‘evidence’ of his generalising claims and doesn’t show the slightest remorse or hesitation in using derogatory terms for the boat people of the valley.
He shows a remarkable lack of empathy and thoroughly fails to understand the peculiar customs of the people within his single-minded approach. He leaves no stone unturned in expressing disgust at their appearance and marked displeasure at their ‘uncivilised’ ways. It is as if notions of modernity and civility are definite agreed upon concepts that exist with certainty.
It is awfully convenient on his part to constantly reiterate these stereotypes and club people under generalised collective identities when in reality these individuals are complex and diverse beings. There is no consent in his interactions. Their voices are never heard or incorporated into his stories. They always exist to him as mere bundles of flesh that need to be civilised and transformed into self-respecting gentlemen.
It is also important to note that his interactions are severely limited to the privileged class of Kashmiri society who could afford to attend school at the time, mostly consisting of Brahmins; so his account of the experiences isn’t a reflection of Kashmir and its people as a whole.
What needs to be understood is that written accounts like the ones given by Biscoe that claim to offer insight into particular societies and cultures are always influenced by societal power imbalances.
These accounts are not based on facts as they claim to be, but are created and put forward by men and women with considerable exclusions and inclusions that serve the hegemonic power interests of the time and try to impose these ideas as universal. Since there is a skewed power dynamic at play, there is very little resistance towards such bodies of work which ultimately leads these texts to be deemed as credible. It can’t be denied that Biscoe as an author approaches his subject (here Kashmir and its people) first as a Britisher, then as an individual and then as a compassionate human being. His understanding of Kashmiri society is influenced by definite power imbalances that are situated in his experiential actualities.
I am not opposed to the process of documenting lived experiences of people, as I believe these can be sincere opportunities to appreciate the other not just for his or her difference but as a human in itself. However, there is a difference between writing about societies and people which is a result of genuine compassion and appreciation of the other and an account that is documented for the sole purpose of domination of the other.
This doesn’t mean that we ignore and turn our backs on the repeated injustices and oppression of our own surroundings; we definitely need to profoundly be aware of such atrocities and contemplate about them within our own cultural, historical and socio-economic reality.
We also need to open our intellectual spaces of exchange and cast its net far and wide so that we can replace superficial narratives about our experiences with a profoundly compassionate and earnest understanding that is rooted in deep-seated realities of our lives.
The author is a student of Political Science at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
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