As I write this column, a sense of agitation and urgency threatens to overpower my emotions. Over two months ago, on August 5, 2019, the Indian army moved into Kashmir, tourists were evacuated, schools and colleges shut, communications cut and the entire region put into lockdown. Then, the Indian government announced it was revoking Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, under which Kashmir and Jammu had held special status since 1947.
As a Pakistani, I am still struggling to understand what the end of Kashmir’s autonomy will signify for the people of that region, for relations between India and Pakistan, and for the prospects of war. I had written in my novel Before She Sleeps about a fictional nuclear war between Pakistan and India which devastates the region and brings a nuclear fallout that kills millions. The thought of what the Kashmiri people have suffered for decades, and the not knowing what they are going through right now, is even more chilling than the prospect of all-out war.
Reportage has its place, but for me, It is literature in the voices of those directly affected that tells us what it is like to live under this occupation. In the absence of news reports directly from the region, my first instinct is to turn to the literature that has come from Kashmir in order to understand.
Kashmiri literature is, of all the bodies of literature in the world, the one most closely engaged with tragedy. It combines literary aesthetics with politics to show how human beings grapple with oppression and tyranny. When you read literature from Kashmir, you are able to make connections between the Kashmir struggle and other similar struggles elsewhere, such as Palestine, where a similarly beleaguered population fights against an overwhelmingly hostile occupying force.
We do not often think of literature as able to make much difference in times of conflict and violence. But writers have always contended with and contested power by being truthful about the human condition. We do not often think of fiction as telling the truth. But that is exactly what the best fiction does.
The following list of fiction, memoir and poetry written by Kashmiris and about Kashmir is by no means comprehensive. Consider it a starting point to gain context and insight into a region that we as Pakistanis have only known through politics and propaganda.These books have been written in English, a necessary decision by the authors to make their work more accessible to a global audience, and to tell the story of Kashmir and its people as widely as possible.
The Country Without a Post Office — Agha Shahid Ali
The Kashmiri American poet deserves first place on this list for his collection of poems originally titled Kashmir Without a Post Office. Agha Shahid Ali wrote lyrically and emotionally about his lost homeland, using the 1990 violence when Kashmir went without postal services for seven months to frame the title poem of this astounding collection. Ali inspired a new generation of Kashmiri writers to take up pens, not guns, in describing what happens to the heart when the homeland breaks.
The Collaborator — Mirza Waheed
A boy without a name grows up in “the forgotten last village before the border”. It is the 1990s, when the land burned and the confrontation between Kashmiris and the occupying forces became violent beyond measure. The 19 year old boy is sent by the Indian military to collect the ID cards of fallen militants. Violence, war, humanity, isolation and grief — Waheed portrays all aspects masterfully in his debut novel.
The Garden of Solitude — Siddartha Gigoo
The Kashmiri Pandits who were driven away from Kashmir have stories, too, and here, Siddartha Gigoo tells one that is important to hear: the other side. Sridar is a young Pandit boy whose family must leave the Kashmir Valley for Jammu. This forced migration and exile affects families and their future generations, afflicting them with loss and alienation that can be compared to what Sindhi Hindus felt when they left Sindh in Partition.
The Half Mother — Shahnaz Bashir
War affects women more adversely and disproportionately than men, as research has shown. Who better to tell the story of Kashmiri women in conflict than Shahnaz Bashir? The Half Mother narrates the story of Shafiqa, whose two sons become militants and whose daughter is stripped naked and paraded by Indian troops in the village of Natipura. Haleema’s teenage son is subjected to forced disappearance. The Kashmiri uprising in 1990 gives birth to half widows and half mothers, who do not know if their dear ones are alive or dead.
An Isolated Incident — Soniah Naheed Kamal
Another book that describes the impact of occupation on Kashmir’s most vulnerable: Zari Zoon, the protagonist of the story, endures a horrific gang rape and the murder of her family by unknown men. She moves first to Pakistan, then the United States, to heal her wounds. But she can never escape her trauma, her memories of her family, and her longing for her homeland.
The Book of Gold Leaves — Mirza Waheed
Another novel from Mirza Waheed about Kashmir, this time focusing on the lives and loves of its youth. Faiz and Roohi are young sweethearts in Srinagar, but military occupation and the disappearances of Kashmir’s young men makes it impossible for their love to survive. Or perhaps the violence and death all around them makes their love all the more vital and necessary. In Kashmir, one does not exist without the other.
Curfewed Night: A Frontline Memoir of LIfe, Love and War in Kashmir — Basharat Peer
Journalist and commentator Basharat Peer was only 13 when the insurgency in Kashmir became violent in 1990. HIs adolescence was shaped by this war; he describes, in this book that is part reportage, part memoir, wanting to join the militancy as a teenager, traveling to school in fear of gunfire and landmines. He was sent away to study, but later returned as a journalist to bear witness to the damage and suffering inflicted upon the Kashmiri people.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness — Arundhati Roy
The Booker-prize winning novelist and essayist attempts to tell “a shattered story” in this ambitious novel, much of which takes place in Kashmir in the 1990s. Musa, a Kashmiri separatist is connected to Anjum the hijra and Tilomatta, a Malayali architect, through narrative threads that capture India’s unity amid vast diversity. The Kashmiri struggle and the impact of the Indian Army’s brutality affects all three of these disparate characters in political and personal ways.
Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir — Malik Sajjad
The most unusual book on this list is a graphic novel by political cartoonist Malik Sajad, who grew up in Srinagar in Indian-administered Kashmir. Sajjad depicts Kashmiri citizens as hangul deer, an endangered species, in a poignant memoir that is reminiscent of the wildly successful Maus by Art Spiegelmann. Through his art and his words, Sajad makes it clear that Kashmir does not follow the blueprint for other freedom struggles; it is a unique situation derived from specific circumstances that the world must learn about.
An edited version of this column first appeared in Dawn Books and Authors