Basharat Peer’s touching memoir, Curfewed Night, originally published in 2008, begins with memories of childhood spent in his village situated in the southern district of Anantnag in Kashmir where he was born. We read sentences like, “Paddy fields, green in early summer and golden by autumn, surrounded the cluster of mud and brick houses”, and “On winter afternoons, grandfather joined the men of our neighbourhood sitting on the storefronts warming themselves with kangri, our mobile firepots, gossiping or talking about how that year’s snowfall would affect the mustard crop in the spring.”
There’s a sense of normalcy and lack of urgency in these lines – remnants of a childhood most people who grew up before the 2000s in India would be able to identify with. Except those living in Kashmir after 1989, when the separatist movement blew up.
It was first reported by The Wire on the 23rd of July that the University of Kashmir has dropped three poems by Agha Shahid Ali as well as Basharat Peer's Curfewed Night from its English MA curriculum, while two poems by Ali were removed from the syllabus of the Cluster University Srinagar.
This undue censorship blots out the anguish of thousands of Kashmiris, like Peer and his family — a denial of their truth and experiences.
Agha Shahid Ali's Poems
Deletion of such a powerful text from the syllabus of two of Kashmir’s leading universities, also erases the evidence of this normalcy that the valley once experienced.
Allegedly, some poems by the late poet Agha Shahid Ali – like Postcard from Kashmir; In Arabic; Call me Ishmael Tonight; and a few others – which were also taught – are no longer a part of the curriculum.
It’s ironic that Kamila Shamsie’s review of Curfewed Night in The Guardian in 2010 had opened with a passage about how during his student years, Peer used to find books written by people from nearly every conflict zone in the world when he entered bookstores in Delhi other than his homeland, with the exception of the poetry of Shahid Ali.
Ali’s Postcard from Kashmir is a longing for a long-lost home, an elegy written in unmetered verse.
Waging War Against Memories in Kashmir
Exclusion of these lines is similar to raging a war against these very memories.
By 1990, Kashmir was more turbulent than ever before and witnessing a full-blown rebellion from the citizens of the Valley against the state, alongside the deployment of troops in large numbers by the then Indian government to crush the same. Peer writes how his father who was living in Srinagar for work suddenly found it more difficult to visit home during weekends.
The picturesque journey from Srinagar to their home which once only took two hours now required five due to the military check posts on the way which had become a common sight. The tangible losses of the people of Kashmir, even if not reported adequately, have found their place in literature, cinema, and art frequently.
But these invisible, irreversible erosions of dignity and freedom of regular lives only find mention in works such as Curfewed Night, which makes this book essential reading for the young minds who hold the key to the future of this nation.
History, after all, isn’t just about celebrating our glories, but also remembering our flaws and learning to rectify them. Infantilising students by hastily deciding that such extraordinary works of literature be removed from their courses is a disservice.
The question must be asked that if an education system doesn’t allow them to make up their own minds, is it of any relevance to them?
Curfewed Night: A Memoir of Life, Love, and War
At 14, Peer and four of his friends had run into a group of Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) rebels and asked them to include them in the fight. “Fighting and dying for freedom was much desired,” Peer wrote, “like the first kiss on adolescent lips.”
The JKLF guerillas laughed it off but when Peer’s father got a whiff of it, he asked Peer to think about it for a few years and to read more before coming to a decision. He gave examples of Nehru, Gandhi, Václav Havel, and the Dalai Lama, to remind Peer that those who truly change the world never do it using guns but with knowledge.
At a time when world leaders threaten each other with the nuke button publicly and faceless bots hurl abuses at anyone who disagrees with a certain viewpoint every day on the internet, is there a greater, more civil lesson than this advice from a father to a son that one can learn?
“Read more” can serve as an answer to many of our life’s anxieties and yearnings.
Certainly, a student going to either of these universities in Kashmir, or anywhere else in the world, can benefit from this wisdom and acuity too, to ensure they always keep a thinking mind and never shy away from challenging their own political persuasions. It’s a simple enough thing but sometimes the simplest words can become the toughest to convey.
The Importance of Personal Accounts
Once Peer returns to Kashmir after quitting his reporting job in Delhi, to tell the stories that he felt no one else was telling, readers get a peek of the Valley from a less moistened and far more objective point of view. The book veers between memoir and reportage effortlessly but never loses its eyes on the target of truth which – even when truly terrifying – it presents with zero sentimentality.
History has always been written by victors and it’ll continue to be rewritten by those in power until the end of humanity. Hence, personal historical accounts are more crucial to be recorded, evoked, and passed on.
Ever since the ideological war broke out in Kashmir, whether a bullet was fired from the gun of the militants or the security forces, it was always ordinary families – like Peer’s own – that paid the price for it. It’s unfortunate that one has to state such a thing in clear words but it’s important here to mention that a community’s suffering cannot and must not be reduced to whataboutery.
Yes, every generation to come must learn about each story of injustice concerning the people of Kashmir, if possible – irrespective of their religion, belief system, class, or caste. For instance, they should know about the plight of the violent exodus of Kashmiri Pandits which Peer briefly writes about as well – not through that atrocious film – but more nuanced works, such as Rahul Pandita’s riveting Our Moon Has Blood Clots.
Agha opened his immortal poem I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight with the lines:
This is the poem where the title of Peer's Curfewed Night comes from. Noted filmmaker Vishal Bharadwaj’s haunting Shakespeare adaptation, Haider, co-written by Peer was a retelling of both Hamlet and Curfewed Night. Towards the end, Ali says:
Kashmir has been burning for a long time, like Ukraine and Manipur are now.
If our earth is a forest, then no matter where a fire is lit, it will soon consume every place and everyone we have ever loved. Each one of us has a responsibility to put out these flames – mothers and fathers and policemen and politicians and writers and critics and those who are the present and those who’ll be our future. If a tree falls in our forest, some of us must be around to hear it, so the rest of the world can come to know that it was alone when it fell but it did make a sound.
(Sayantan Ghosh is a writer and editor who lives in New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)