A View of the Valley: An Interview with Justine Hardy

FOR JUSTINE Hardy, author, filmmaker and activist, Kashmir has been a home away from home for about two decades. Her latest book, In The Valley of Mist, published by Random House, tracks the story of a family of houseboat owners and carpet-sellers – the Dar family. Excerpts from an interview:

Q. You based your novel The Wonder House and a non-fiction book, Goat: A Story of Kashmir and Notting Hill in Kashmir. Was it important for you to write another non-fiction book to tell the story of conflict and insurgency in the valley through a family portrait?
A. It is my third Kashmir book, and the second non-fiction one. Each time I have been trying to find ways of drawing people right into the heart of the situation in Kashmir, beyond the politics and the international rhetoric. I could think of no better way to do this than by telling a family story, and not just the story of one family, but many families.

Q. What was the genesis of this book? While it is the story of one family in transition, there are concomitant aspects of the changing cultural landscape and the religious, social and idealistic faultlines. Did you set out to incorporate all this?
A. My hope was to portray a people and a place rather than a wall of political history. Kashmir’s recent history is so complex that even if you rinse it right down the chunks of complicated information easily alienate readers. But all of us are part of a family: we all have brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children and extended families. We have all had our own struggles with our families, with education, work, relationship pressures, and stress. I wanted to use these very familiar themes to make the situation in Kashmir
as real to people as possible.

Q. The plight of the Kashmiri Pandits makes for a heart-rending narrative. What sense did you get of their pain and agony of being uprooted from the land of their ancestors while interacting with them?
A. Their sense of loss is not only palpable, it affects every aspect of their lives, both consciously and unconsciously. In the camps it was all-pervading, and impossible to escape, because their refugee status was and is writ large in every tent and cramped living space, in the way they suffer in the Delhi heat and long for the softer summers in the Valley. And beyond the camps, far beyond them, in places like the UK and the US, Pandits speak of their former home with such poignancy, keeping it alive in cooking, wedding customs, songs, stories, art and of course in the pashmina shawls that they wrap around themselves. As a dear friend of mine, a Pandit now living in the US, put it,
“We are joined by an umbilical chord that can never be cut, and sometimes that chord
tugs so hard that sense of loss is overwhelming all over again”.

Q. Kashmir is a place you have lived in for a long time. How close do you feel to Kahsmir? Does it give you a sense of home?
A. We live in a such a mobile age, and so many of us can call many different places home. Of course there are obvious reasons why we choose some of them; for work,education, family reasons, sometimes just to try and start afresh, and sometimes it is because there is some sense of a connection that goes beyond explanation. I have a sense of home there and I am not sure why. Perhaps it is familiarity, the kindnesses that have been extended to me, and the shared pain that binds you to people; perhaps it is the mountains and their pull; maybe it is because when you fly in from Delhi and descend towards Srinagar, you fly in over green fields, trees and water, just as you do when you fly over the part of England where I was born.

Q. Initially, as an “outsider”, it must have been tough to find yourself in the state which was beginning to show the signs of insurgency, extremism and repression. What egged you on to continue?
A. When I was in Kashmir with my mother during that final big tourist season in 1989, there was a tension in the air that was like an electric current, but because so many of the local people were trying to ignore it, we tried to do the same. We were told that the sounds of gunfire from the city were firecrackers for Holi. I remember an absurd discussion with our houseboat owner then. I asked him why they were having firecrackers for Holi when they were supposed to be for Diwali, but he would not budge his story, and indeed we chose to believe him. When I returned, 18 months later, by then as a newly-trained young journalist rather than a tourist, the insurgency was in full swing. At first, I thought I wanted to be right there, commentating on the fighting, but it did not take long for me to realise that what I really wanted to do was to bear witness to what these people were trying to live through, and to tell their stories. This is why I have kept going back and back.

Q. Do you feel you had an edge as an “outsider”? Did being a journalist help?
A. I don’t think it’s so much an edge as a different point of view. While I have a sense of connection with Kashmir I am neither Kashmiri nor Indian, therefore I can approach this without the weight of recent history of the region. Though of course being English brings its own weight of recent history and the vast human and cultural cost of post-colonial remapping. I am also unsure as to whether being a journalist helped. In some ways, it was a hindrance because the journalist is trained to remain separate from the story, and
to be just the messenger. I have become involved in the story and so I can only struggle to try and be a balanced teller of the stories of those people. And we are not just talking Kashmiris here, but also others: soldiers, foreign militants, tribal herders who used to move easily across borders.

Q. How did the Dars react to the story?Have they read it?
A. The Dars gave me their blessing to write the book. The eldest of the four brothers, who are so central to this book, read the final draft, and he told me that he was happy with it. I sent them final copies of the book several weeks ago, but I just got an email from that same brother saying that they had not arrived yet. I am not sure whether to blame the UK postal system or the Indian one.

Q. What change do you foresee in Kashmir? What needs to be done to allay the sense of alienation?

A. There are two ways of approaching this. Politically and humanly. The politics have a bumpy history to date. It is vital at this stage to look at the people themselves who have been going through this trauma for 20 years. There is little point in imposing grand ideas of political change and resolution on a people who are collectively suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that manifests in hundreds of different depression and disease forms. How can a man think about the future if he is barely able to get himself out of bed in the morning? In a sense the cry of last year’s state election for “bijli, paani, sadak” was as much a cry for basic dignity as it was for power, water and roads. I would suggest that a part of giving this dignity is to see very clearly the
condition of a people who have been going through an extended generation of violence
and unrest.

Q. What are your expectations from the current dispensation in the state?

A. When Omar Abdullah was announced as the new chief minister last winter he came into office with a huge load of expectation. I was amongst the crowds lining the road to the airport when he flew in at the end of December. It was so soon after Barack Obama’s election and people were chatting away, saying that they too had a new young lion, and that this might finally really change things. No single man can ever live up to this level of expectation, and he has a difficult political family history to contend with in the context of Kashmir. What I know many people hope, or rather those pro National Conference and Congress hope for is some courageous use of legislation that might begin to chip away at the staggering levels of corruption that have been paralysing the economy at so many
levels.

Q. Do you feel the real stories from Kashmir – of rape and torture – never make it to the mainstream media? Do you agree that the atrocities of the Army are almost always buried under the carpet?
A. In the early days of the insurgency these stories very rarely got out, but that is changing. The story of Kunan Poshpura in February 1991 was the beginning of that change. The village is still referred to as the raped village, and the story of that sad night in February 1991 is told in the book. The government of India had to comment on what was happening in the Valley. But let’s be clear, there is truth, and then there is “political truth”. The latter is never going to be transparent, simply because of the nature of politics. Conflict results in appalling extra-judicial violence, and in the case of Kashmir this has been carried out by many parties, and not just the security forces in the state.
As we can see right now everything is not being swept under the carpet, as has been
shown by the much-covered unrest over the recent alleged rapes and killings of the two young women in Shopian by the security forces.

Q. How do you see the government of India’s recent offer of a dialogue with the Kashmiri separatists? Do you see things changing in the near future?

A. It is a step, but with that step comes the complication of splitting factions within the separatist, and indeed pro-Pakistan groups. Those that might agree to the dialogue with the government of India will be attacked by the hardliners who will see it as a betrayal of the cause. This is the almost unavoidable risk of dialogue, and those brave enough to take this risk may well be able to take the first step towards the negotiating table. But this can only be a long and very slow process, and not without its own backlashes.

Q. Where do you see the issue of Kashmir in the larger context of a discourse on the changing face of Islam and what is called “Islamic terrorism”?
A. One of the saddest things about Kashmir’s story is that it has been turned into a rallying cry for jihadi movements, and not just for those in South and Central Asia. There are young boys being recruited “to the cause of Kashmir” by extremist recruiters in the UK, Europe, Africa, the West Asia, the US and more. On the international extremist stage,Kashmir has been turned into a poster child for the “the oppression of Islam”. One of the odd judgements made by many outside commentators seems to be that if the “Kashmir problem” can be resolved, then the whole region will be much more peaceful. This is an extreme over-simplification. If Kashmir were to suddenly, miraculously, find a way out of
its current situation, the extremists would find another cause to rally to.

Q. Finally, you have been quite eclectic in the range of your writing. What next?

A. I’m smiling as I answer this question because it’s the fate-tempter. In many ways each book seems a journey towards the next. Ten years ago I wrote a book about Kashmir (Goat, 2000). I was told then that I had to make it funny because the subject was so depressing, so I adopted the pashmina as a way of comparing the story of the weavers of Kashmir, living through the worst of the situation in Kashmir, and the “ladies who lunch” crowd in the hippest areas of London who were tripping over each other’s kitten heels to get their hands on pashmina back in the late 1990s. I wanted to go on writing about Kashmir, but I went sideways to the subject of Hindi film and the new generation of stardom in the filmi world. But then I went back to Kashmir with a novel (The Wonder House 2006), hoping to be able to tell some of the more difficult stories using fiction. And finally I got to this one, In the Valley of Mist. Of course, I would like to go on telling the story in the hope that it will create dialogue on the subject of our attitude to conflict, not only of this kind, but our own personal conflicts. I am currently working with wonderful doctors and psychiatrists in Kashmir on a programme addressing the extensive mental fallout of 20 years of trauma. This is a story of the defiance of the human spirit, and I
think it is one definitely worth telling.

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