Girlhood is both confusing and aspirational. It is a time to figure out your place in the world as the margins that you belong to become clearer. But how does growing up in an occupation interact with these fraught axes?
Set in 90s Kashmir, Rumours of Spring explores this question by showing the interwoven nature of an adolescent girl’s life with the ever present occupation. It maps how the structures of physical, mental, spiritual and emotional violence become a part of the everyday.
The book was published in April 2021 by Harper Collins and is the debut novel of the former photojournalist Farah Bashir.
Rumours of Spring is an own-voices Kashmiri woman’s account, the narration of which absolutely refuses the coloniser’s gaze. It reads as a memoir written by a Kashmiri for a Kashmiri audience, a kind of literature that only has a handful of titles to its name among the myriad of books written about Kashmir.
In being interspersed with dreamscapes, letters and songs, the writing is vivid and nostalgic. The use of Kashmiri words is abundant but not in a way that reads like embellishment.
The use of Koshur flows seamlessly with the English, bringing this work even closer to a Kashmiri reader’s own experiences. Farah Bashir has built a monument of memory to her homeland through a tender, descriptive and masterful use of language.
The book is divided into six parts: evening, night, early hours, dawn, morning and after life.
The time from the author’s grandmother bobeh’s death on a winter evening to the next day when she’s laid to rest outlines the entirety of this memoir. Bobeh’s passing is the central memory around which all other memories form a patchwork. The timeline chosen by the author also reflects the dusk to dawn curfew on the day of bobeh’s passing, almost gesturing at the lifetimes that pass as curfewed days.
On Ordinary Violence
In the very first chapter, the author sets out to lay bare the reality of living through curfews. She describes the curfew as that which controlled everything: the sounds and the silences. The movements of people came to be dictated by identity cards. An outing to get a haircut for Eid turns into an attempt to escape a shoot-at-sight-curfew. The festive occasion gets tainted in a way that every Eid feels plagued with the cloud of death.
Bashir describes how violence barely contained outside the walls seeped into her drawings as a young girl, guns and barbed wire replacing the figures of people. It entered children’s games as they reenacted military operations instead of playing hide-and-seek. It seeped into bobeh’s wanwun or lack thereof. The only singing that Kashmir was left with was dirges for the fallen.
The book points out the subtle ways in which occupation becomes normal to those being at its mercy every day. Bashir explains that as bunkers started to crop up everywhere like weeds, they entered the lexicon; people would explain their addresses with respect to where a bunker was located. A site of reconnaissance becomes a point of reference when violence becomes the norm.
Bobeh’s folk tales in the household were replaced by her poring over the pages of the newspaper, trying to make sense of the immensity of the suffering.
The book also addresses the violence of statistics, how people became nameless bodies, forgotten before they could be remembered.
This violence entered dreams, faces of the dead travelling from the newspapers into the minds of the survivors. The author contrasts Kashmiri newspapers with Indian ones, the latter full of colour and nonchalant concerns like comfy mattresses and horoscopes. She wonders about the life that these people live, their biggest care being what cologne to choose.
The daily, from going to school and sitting for exams to buying tchot or preparing hoakh syun is punctuated by crackdowns, nighttime raids and stray bullets. Yet the author’s narrative tone doesn’t change drastically.
The conflation of routine with violence in Kashmir mirrors the formal choices in the narrative. The author talks about Jaaji, a woman who appeared to be a living corpse due to her mental illness and says, “more faces resembling Jaaji’s started appearing in the streets, and the number of patients outside the psychiatrist clinics increased rapidly. Three years later, a reflection of Jaaji appeared in my mirror when I too was prescribed sedatives and SSRI medications.”
The mental health epidemic in Kashmir is mentioned without breaking away from the plot, PTSD is coined Perennially Traumatic Stress Disorder in a deadpan tone at the same time.
Rumours of Spring reflects on the ways in which the psychological acts of violence started to pervade Kashmiri life and constantly reminds the reader that not all violence has markers like blood, seeming bystanders are victimized in ways that aren’t visible to the eye.
The book delves into how ableism and occupation interact to create new forms of oppression, a discussion that has been absent from literature on Kashmir so far.
Naseer, a man who survived a head injury as a child is ridiculed by the kids in the neighbourhood. He starts living a more stable life when he’s married, until one day, he forgets his identity card at home. He is beaten by the military and is plagued by serious violent outbursts as a result. The disabled of Kashmir are victims to both ableism and the violence of being policed with an identity card in their own homeland.
Bashir also goes into depth on the ways in which different people coped with ever present threat and uncertainty. The persistent sounds of bullets and jeeps announcing constant surveillance and threat made her pull her hair out to soothe anxiety.
Her father’s rocking back and forth to curb restlessness, starting the winter of 1990, mirrored her own habit. If he was ever late in getting back home, her mother would keep tying knots of faith in her dupatta while reciting verses from the Quran. She would invoke the Sufi saints for protection if there was turmoil in the streets.
Faith is shown to be a huge source of comfort and coping, from the verses of Surah Fil to the Ayatul Kursi. Daily rituals become compulsive acts as violence unfolds, from the streets to the walls of one’s own house.
For a woman whose houses were razed by the army, she coped by imagining herself as a proper subject, whose subservience would prompt the military to have mercy on her. For some, consistent acts of resistance like graffiti became a way of coping. Even in the face of imminent threat, young men continued to write and rewrite their defiance.
In an interview with the Wire, the author stated that “the ordinary and mundane exists in life despite conflict or wars.” By talking about the ‘ordinary,’ the author has brought to light the extensive but obscured brutality that every Kashmiri faces, from unborn children to the elderly.
There are personal wars waged on the subject population to mirror the wars happening on a larger scale. The body continues to remain the site of violence, even if it is situated within the mundane. And as this memoir chillingly portrays, the mundane can become criminal in its cruelty yet “people adapt to their new circumstances as if the old ones never existed”.
Saadia Peerzada is a student of English and Creative Writing at Ashoka University.