Caught in the crossfire

Published in The Spectator (July 24th, 2010)

Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer (Harper Press)

Maqbool Sheikh dreaded hearing a knock at the door of his home. For he was the most intimate witness to one of the world’s most enduring and forgotten conflicts, the struggle over Kashmir. As the only autopsy expert at the police hospital in Srinagar, it was his job to conduct post mortems on those shot, stabbed or blown to pieces — and the bodies arrived at the rate of around 1,000 a year.

Each time, as he drove back to the mortuary, he wondered whether he would be confronted with the corpse of a child, a woman or another young man. The law required him to determine how each one died, and his judgment could affect how their families were treated — were they a terrorist, a police informer or simply another innocent bystander? His scalpels sought answers in the destroyed bodies of the dead.

Maqbool gained some solace from knowing that when he stitched the bodies together he lessened the pain for the families who would see them. But it was not easy. ‘At times I find myself standing in a heap of limbs and then it is a struggle to ensure that the fingers I stitch to a hand are of the same person,’ he said.

Worst of all, he lives with the gnawing fear of all parents in this beautiful but blighted place that his own children might be ensnared in a conflict that has dragged on for more than two decades. The proxy war between India and Pakistan has left about 70,000 Kashmiris dead; and, as Basharat Peer reveals in this timely book, few families have been left unscarred.

Curfewed Night is a courageous and enlightening work. It is partly a beautifully written memoir of growing up in one of the most idyllic parts of the world as it descends into ugly conflict, a tale of innocence lost amid savagery and stupidity. And it is partly an investigation into the catastrophe, a work of unflinching reportage by a skilled journalist as he seeks out childhood friends caught up in the mess and tells the stories of those on the frontline, such as Maqbool Sheikh.

Peer was born in a small village near Anantnag, which found itself at the heart of the militancy. His family was hard-working and tightly-knit, headed by his grandfather, the respected head teacher, and his father, a diligent civil servant. Peer’s early years were dominated by school, harvests and cricket, little different from generations that had gone before him. Kashmir had a unique autonomy guaranteed by its act of accession to the Indian union, and there was no hint of the darkness that was to descend on the valley.

Then in early 1990, the killings, rapes and atrocities flared up in the wake of rigged elections, and a peaceful land, where Hindus and Muslims had lived together for centuries, was ripped apart. A population whose support for Pakistan only extended to its cricketers started sending young men across the border for military training, and militant groups began appearing in the villages. The Indian response was swift, repressive and short-sighted. Soon, both nations were ramping up the conflict, leaving Kashmir caught in the crossfire of a fight for regional supremacy.

Peer’s childhood was shattered when he returned to school and found the desks of five Hindu classmates empty, their families having fled to safety in other parts of India. Soon he was painting nationalistic slogans on the school walls, and idolising older boys who had returned from Pakistan as militants. His father responded by pointing out that national uprisings take many years and need educated leaders such as Gandhi and Nehru. So his son returned to his studies, and the result is this moving book, giving voice to a lost generation.

The writing has a literary quality and is all the more powerful for its reserve. Many of the stories are so harrowing they need no embellishment, such as the mother forced to watch her son hold a mine that troops plan to detonate, or the poet who turned to religion after his family was wiped out. His lyrical description of the wedding of a neighbour’s son paints a familiar picture of traditional ceremonies rubbing up against popular culture. But he notes how one centuries’-old custom has been abandoned — that of the groom departing for the bride’s house after sunset and returning after a late dinner — after Indian soldiers fired upon a marriage party and raped the bride.

On several occasions, Peer and his family are fortunate to survive. His father is car-bombed. Their house is sprayed with bullets during an ambush. Most shocking of all, however, is the systematic use of torture. He details how the Indians set up a hideous torture chamber in a mansion built by Hari Singh, the Kashmir leader who sided with India at independence. Hundreds disappeared here and were never seen again, while those who came out alive were often wrecks. Many were left impotent by the use of electric shocks to the genitals.

By telling such tales, speaking to the victims and fusing their stories with those of his friends and family, Peer has done far more for his people than he would have had he joined those schoolmates who crossed the border to learn the art of war. Instead, he has delivered a profound memoir of his life and his people that is, as his father predicted, far more explosive. It deserves a wide audience.

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