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Book Review: Khalid Mir’s ‘Jaffna Street: Tales of Life, Death, Betrayal and Survival in Kashmir’

By Adil Bhat 

Jaffna Street: Tales of Life, Death, Betrayal and Survival in Kashmir
Author: Khalid Mir
Publisher: Rupa Publications
Pages: 290
Price: INR 295

The life of a Kashmiri, as understood by the outsider, is simplistic. This view of the Kashmiri is without complexes – both political and social – that forms this intriguing identity. Set in the backdrop of the protracted conflict, Mir Khalid’s book, Jaffna Street: Tales of Life, Death, Betrayal and Survival in Kashmir, explores the various dimensions of this conflict, the multiple narratives that have emerged from within and without, and the making of the Kashmiri, who is, again, both expendable and indispensable, depending which side of the war you stand on.

In this 290-page book, the reader comes across anecdotes and personal memoires that attempt to give an intricate picture of the conflict, the role of the various players in the decades-long conflict, and the eventual creation of the discourse on the subject of Kashmir Conflict. Published by Rupa Publications, the book narrates seventeen stories that are further divided into three Sections. Each section entails a set of stories, both personal and observations. The first section, titled, “The War – 1990 Onwards”, includes eight chapters or stories; the second is “Reveille – 1950-1989” with seven chapters, the third, “The Past as Memory – 1947-1950”, has two stories. The last section of the book is the “Afterword” that is based on his experience of the winters of 2013.

While reading the book, one comes across profiles of various kinds of people in the Valley that include the Hitman, the Butcher’s Wife, the ‘Political’ Coiffeur, the Transporter and the Saint of Shalimar among others. Among the various profiles that Mir discusses, the character of the hairdresser, named Noor, evokes curiosity in the first instance. However, as the reader moves further in the chapter, the spirit of curiosity dies and the narrative become predictable. In his introduction to this ‘political’ coiffeur, Khalid writes:

I remember Noor as a wiry, arid man wearing a worn-out black karakul felt cap at a slant and given to temperamental displays of authority when it came to disciplining as especially slow worker at his shop. Born into a family of economically limited means, his verve and hard work complemented his style’s skills, and attenuated the strenuousness of the extra workload resulting from his handicapped limbs.

With an “innate proclivity for politicking”, Noor was politically inclined towards the Plebiscite Front that later, with the passage of time and the dilution of the demand for plebiscite, took the form of National Conference, which came to be the most popular political party in the Vale. Described as a dominating figure, Noor, the hairdresser, also arranged Kangaroo Courts for dispensing ‘justice’ in family or property feuds as well as pronouncing moral judgements. The dismissal of the Abdullah Government incensed the common people who, according to Mir, were “seething with feelings of revenge.” The protestors patrolling the downtown street were armed with Russian-made Kalashnikov and Molotov cocktail. The mood of these young protesters, in Mir’s words, displayed the “generational change” and “disquieting political shifts” that had come over in Kashmir. Noor was ignorant about these changes and shifts. He was, instead, engaged in providing succour to the incarcerated party workers.

Immersed in performing his political obligations, Noor, too, was arrested. After his release from the jail, Noor went back to hairstyling and put up a poster in Urdu that read, ‘political discussions disallowed.’ But this was a superficial measure by Noor; it did not deter him being loyal to his party and political ideology. The new generation’s disdain for the party leader Sheikh Abdullah not only enthralled Noor but also corroded Abduallh’s stature in the party. The younger generation that was influenced by Hollywood movies like First Blood and Lion of the Desert, believed in martial spirit and were determined that “to get out of this quagmire, the state’s monopoly of violence had to be broken.”

With the passage of time and change in the nature of conflict, violent schism had taken hold of the small community. Through the character of Noor and the political faultlines, Mir writes, “Political lines pitted fathers against their sons and nephews against their uncles, neighbours against neighbours.” National Conference, the party Noor stood by, was perceived by the younger generation as “a cancer eating into the body politic.” Mir locates the genesis of this political change in the rigged elections of 1989 that exacerbated the conflict in Kashmir with its repetitive cycles of violence, arrests and killings. “As the 90’s unfolded, insurgents, a semi-anonymous mass in the thousands, spread their writ with the deadly, street–sweeping power of AK-47. For them, a clean political slate was a prerequisite to achieving freedom. 1990 saw everything written before on the Valley’s political slate over-ridden and erased.”

These developments had an adverse impact on Noor and other political workers who had been abandoned and left to fend for themselves by their party leaders, who had fled to safer environs at the time of heightened militancy. At this time in 1994, Noor lost two of his nephews, who were picked up by paramilitary forces during a cordon and search operation. This incident broke Noor completely who tried hard to hold back his tears. The media coverage of the incident further shattered him. The state-owned media reported, “Two ‘terrorists’ shot dead and large quantity of arms recovered from them.”

Two years later in 1996, elections were announced and old political parties made a comeback.

Unaffected by the new political developments, Noor continued to run his shop miles away from political influence and presence. Given the past developments, both personal and political, Noor deliberately distanced himself from the politics and political leadership in the Valley. Noor changed with the change in politics – he transformed himself from being a loyalist to a recalcitrant. In the autumn of 1997, Noor was murdered in broad daylight by “unidentified assassins.” His death was shrouded in mystery forever.

Noor’s name was added in the long list of the victims of war. The conflict in Kashmir has seen many such stories of life, betrayal, and death. There were others who have survived the violence through means that hold different meanings to different people. A collaborator for one is a betrayer for another, a warrior to one is a suspect for another – the tactics of survival in Kashmir have varied. There are some, like Mir’s father, who take up white-collared jobs, while others find refuge in fighting the enemy within and without. There are still others who give meaning to their lives through means that are neither black nor white, but that lie in different shades of grey.

Upon returning from Noor’s funeral remarked, Mir’s father “A life wasted. What was that drove people to be “political” in the bygone times and end up on sides that eventually would consume their lives?” To this, the privileged son of a civil servant, Khalid Mir replied, “Lack of prescient politics, perhaps?” These superficial remarks made by Mir’s father tell us about the lack of empathy and understanding the bureaucrats in Kashmir have towards the people and the conflict.

In building the narrative around Noor’s character, Mir opens up the window to his mind and thoughts that is both narrow and has complete disregard for the life of a Kashmiri, which appears simplistic from the outside, but is otherwise dense and located in politics. A subjective account of a protracted conflict, Khalid’s book lacks nuance and depth. As a collection of non-fction, it doesn’t qualify as suitable literature on Kashmir. An alienating account by the son of a privileged civil-servant, Khalid’s book is loaded with heavy vocabulary that takes away the smoothness and ease required for narrative non-fiction.

For a storyteller to narrate stories about Kashmir and Kashmiris objectively and with empathy, it is important to take off the rose tinted glasses with which they see the world.

Adil Bhat 
is assistant editor at Cafe Dissensus. Twitter: @Adiljourno


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