2020 in reading: Ten books on Kashmir

Illustration by Sameer Bhat for Wande

2020 has been a year of great surprises. The coronavirus pandemic led to a global lockdown and disrupted all activity. Stuck within the four walls in the company of smartphones and laptops, many readers – mostly those who like the feel of written word and smell of paper – couldn’t get hold of the freshly printed books. That’s one among many hard feelings with which we say goodbye to 2020.

Kashmir lived in two lockdowns at the same time. The first one began on August 5 following the reading down of Article 370 and removal of Article 35-A of the Indian constitution. The second one began in March as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. In this period many writers, poets, and academics published some important works on Kashmir. Our Editors here present a list of some of these works with a few lines of introduction.

Serpents Under my Veil by Asiya Zahoor

In August 2019, Asiya Zahoor published her first collection of poems called Serpents Under my Veil (Thethys). In this collection, Asiya traverses a long route from Greek to West Asian mythology, bringing to life Medusa, Yusuf, and Zulekha but eventually finds her tongue caught in a barbed wire in a militarized zone – Kashmir. “I run with the hem clenched between my teeth / as your bomb-sniffing dogs bark at me." Each poem has an individual sublime in terms of content and style. The author comes from a very rich literary background which is obvious in her use of allusions/metaphors. Each poem in the collection opens with a Masood Hussain painting coming to life through Asiya’s words.


Love, Loss, and Longing in Kashmir by Sahba Husain

A few months later, researcher and activist Sahba Husain published Love, Loss, and Longing in Kashmir (Zubaan Books). Through this book Sahba presents a deeply engaged and empathetic involvement with the politicized terrain of Kashmir. The book is a reflection of the author’s two-decade old engagement with Kashmir, starting in year 2000 for fieldwork as part of an Oxfam study on the gender dimension of the conflict and then with an Indian NGO to work on gender and mental health. Husain brings up the dilemma of being an ‘outsider’ placed amidst people who had experienced violence and loss and how her own voice is ‘embedded’ in that of the people she spoke to. This book is divided into five chapters. First dealing with the departure of Kashmiri Pandits; second with enforced disappearances; third about the presence of women in Tehreek (movement); fourth on the mental health of the Kashmiri people; and fifth, the final one, on the sexual violence and impunity in Kashmir.

Future Tense by Nitasha Kaul

Nitasha Kaul’s second novel Future Tense (HarperCollins) was published in the early days of 2020. The novel follows lives of three young Kashmiris – Fayaz, Shireen, and Imran – whose intertwined lives are thrown apart as the story progresses. Through their stories Nitasha Kaul illustrates that in Kashmir the past, present, and the future exist simultaneously. She makes a few splendid leaps from humour to pathos as she depicts the tangled web of morality that all Kashmiris must come to terms with.


Can You Hear Kashmiri Women Speak? Edited by Nitasha Kaul and Ather Zia

Later, Nitasha Kaul and Ather Zia edited a book titled Can You Hear Kashmiri Women Speak? (Women Unlimited). This book brings together a number of Kashmiri women writers and academics. It carries 12 essays focusing on a range of subjects and narratives: abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019; of spectacles and street protests in the Valley; of women’s companionship and female alliances; and of the literature of resistance. They analyze the links between gender, militarism and militarization; and between violence, women’s livelihoods, and environmental destruction. Forced into surrendering their rights and their autonomy, the Kashmiri women in this first-of-its-kind anthology shatter the silence and speak truth to power and to society.


Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir by Ather Zia

Ather Zia’s book Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir (Zubaan) was also published in South Asia this year. Drawn from Ather Zia’s ten years of engagement with the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) as an anthropologist and fellow Kashmiri activist, Resisting Disappearance follows mothers and “half-widows” as they step boldly into courts, military camps, and morgues in search of their disappeared kin. Through an amalgam of ethnography, poetry, and photography, Zia illuminates how dynamics of gender and trauma in Kashmir have been transformed in the face of South Asia’s longest-running conflict, providing profound insight into how Kashmiri women and men nurture a politics of resistance while facing increasing military violence under India.


The Plague upon Us by Shabir Ahmad Mir 

Shabir Ahmad Mir published his first novel The Plague upon Us (Hachette India) this year. The book captures many shades of truth that underlie the region’s long history of violence. In a review in Mint, Somak Ghoshal wrote, “The story has the urgency of a Greek tragedy and the ambitions of an experimental novel”. The book tells the interlocking stories of four childhood friends, who grow up close but drift apart due to the force of circumstances. Oubaid, the son of Aziz Pohal, a shepherd, is one of the quartet, fated to be mocked for his lowly origins, a pawn in the hands of the army as well as the insurgents fighting for freedom.


The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care by Saiba Verma

Saiba Varma’s important book The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir (Duke University Press) was published in October 2020. In this book, Saiba explores the psychological, ontological, and political entanglements between medicine and violence in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Into a long history of occupations, insurgencies, suppressions, natural disasters, and a crisis of public health infrastructure come interventions in human distress, especially those of doctors and humanitarians, who struggle against an epidemic: more than sixty percent of the civilian population suffers from depression, anxiety, PTSD, or acute stress. She shows how occupation creates worlds of disrupted meaning in which clinical life is connected to political disorder, subverting biomedical neutrality, ethics, and processes of care in profound ways.


My Mother's Scribe: Poems and Tales by Rafiq Kathwari

Rafiq Kathwari published his book My Mother's Scribe: Poems and Tales (Yoda Press) in the later part of 2020. Gerald Jonas of The New Yorker called Rafiq Kathwari “a dangerous man” for such is the power of his poetry. This collection of poems is moving and heartbreaking. For Ranjit Hoskote: “At the heart of these poems, there remains an absent center, celebrated in song, wept over in exile: Kashmir, a homeland reduced to a battleground, its people subjected to endemic violence. A profound sadness inhabits these poems, yet so too do a continuity of affection, a lineage of hope. I leave you with the word Mouje: Mother, mother country.”


Cups of Nun Chai  by Alana Hunt

Alana Hunt published her book Cups of Nun Chai (Yaarbal books) on the onset of winter in Kashmir. The book records the sharing of one hundred and eighteen cups of nun chai, and just as many conversations. Each cup was a part of a growing memorial for the deaths of 118 civilians in the Kashmir valley during the summer of 2010. In these exchanges the political unfolds through a profoundly personal experience, and events, places and sentiments that are often obscured from view are given breathing space. People, homes, memory—and flavour—combine to make tangible what so many outside Kashmir do not know. Earlier, Cups of Nun Chai have appeared once-a-week in the daily newspaper Kashmir Reader.


Kashmir: Looking Back in Time—Politics, Culture, History by Khalid Bashir Ahmad 

In December 2020, historian Khalid Bashir Ahmad published Kashmir: Looking Back in Time—Politics, Culture, History (Atlantic). The book reconstructs the 20th century’s turbulent years of Kashmir and offers a closer view of the people and events that influenced the course of its history. It is an absorbing commentary on the flipside of the politics of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah who ruled the political scene of Kashmir for five decades and, in the course, changed his goalposts. Allowing a peek into the Kashmir of yesteryears, the book guides a reader on its social and cultural pathway, throwing up individuals and developments that made up its recent history.

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