In conversation with Freny Manecksha

Cover page / Courtesy: Rupa Publications

Freny Manecksha is an Indian journalist whose book Behold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children was recently released in Srinagar. Focusing on women’s and children’s narratives of conflict, the book brings together varied voices from Kashmir’s silent war. In an interview with Wande Magazine, the author speaks about her journey, the challenges she faced while writing the book and the politics of representation in her work. 

Wande Magazine: Your book Behold, I Shine is one of the few books on Kashmir’s women who have faced State repression but also duly responded to it by resisting and documenting memory. How and when did the idea of the book germinate?

Freny Manecksha: I am a journalist and I belong to an informal group called Network of Women in Media, which believes in bringing gender sensitivity to the way news is covered. The idea for my book on women and children in Kashmir was an outcome of three or four articles I wrote on the impact of militarization and conflict on women. The idea for such articles sprang at the suggestion of a male friend. We were returning from Shopian one evening in November 2011 and I was struck by the sight of women walking away into the fields whilst some armed forces personnel looked on. It was such an incongruous sight. I remarked on it. How did women feel under the male gaze of such hostile scrutiny even as they went about their daily chores and routine? Our friend suggested I, as a woman, examine this aspect.  Later, whilst looking at one of Showkat Nanda’s photographs I was also struck by the way women had to negotiate such passages in public spaces almost daily.

Some very sensitive and kind friends, also males, helped me and accompanied me for field trips and so I began recording some narratives. When Rupa Publications commissioned me to do a book I was only too happy to be able to enlarge my gaze on this subject.

WM: From the inception of the idea to journeying through Kashmir while collecting stories and testimonies, what struck you as the most challenging task?

FM: My most challenging task was in accessing women’s stories. Unlike a survey or a study that many academicians undertake, my field work was unstructured. I did not have any fixed agenda. I could not demand stories. I was dependent on friends and sources to help me explore certain subjects. And so that is how the book grew. Organically as they say. Actually I hoped to have many more narratives, preferably from rural Kashmir.  I had planned to stay in Kashmir for two months in 2014. But then I was caught right in the midst of the floods and my plans were washed away along with that of so many thousands of people.

I could not return for at least six months because of the situation and also because now I had limited funds and time. In a sense, my challenges are reflective of the haalat in Kashmir - of the way there is a pervading air of uncertainty and unsettledness. Perhaps, that is the only way one doesn’t just hear but also understand stories.

WM: Being an Indian journalist writing on Kashmir, how do you negotiate your own politics with the politics of your subjects?

FM: The horrendous violence unleashed by the Indian state on Kashmir disturbed me immensely and there were no hesitations on writing narratives about human rights abuse. But what was problematic for me as an Indian, in terms of politics, was grappling with the question of “Hum kya chahte?” The Azadi factor, in other words. In the early years I was hesitant to align myself definitively. The understanding for Kashmir’s right to self-determination built up slowly. I do not think there was any great revelatory moment when I became convinced of this right. It was the result of small but significant accrual of many conversations and readings. I remember Malik Sajad’s animation film Hopscotch which has a Hangul running free until it is entangled in barbed wire and of him speaking to me of the “innocence” of demand for Azadi.  Or a woman who is fighting a legal battle for justice telling me, “Azadi toh paidaishi haq hai (To be free is a birthright)” How does one counter that?

Another problematic issue is that as a woman, as a left-liberal and one who champions secularism in India, how do I look at the role of religion in Kashmir’s politics?

A poor woman’s remark in Shopian that she had given her son to Azadi perplexed me deeply. How was she reconciled to the death of a 17-year-old son?

A friend to whom I posed the question suggested I read Cabeiri deBergh Robinson’s Body of Victim, Body of Warrior: Refugee Families and the Making of Kashmiri Jihadists. It was an eye opener. It challenged my earlier notions of jihad. I began to understand how the Islamic concept of social justice and the fight against all forms of oppression can be the bedrock on which the Kashmir struggle is based.

WM: Kashmir often grapples with the questions of its representation by those who are not Kashmiris. How do you see your book in terms of how Kashmir is looked at from outside?

FM: Yes, I agree that there is huge misrepresentation of Kashmir by outsiders. Partly perhaps the history and politics is so complex and fluid, and we remain blinkered by notions of nationalism, Islamophobia and so on. So much is constantly happening in the Valley. It is tough to wrap your head around it. And for Kashmiris it is particularly galling when you are constantly being demonized and demands made to prove your humanity on an absurd scale.

In my book I have tried to share my understanding of Kashmir while being very conscious of the fact that I am an outsider. However, I think as a woman, one has the advantage of sometimes surmounting this “outsider” barrier and being able to invoke empathy at a broader level. For example, when it comes to sexual violence, I think it is far easier for women to accept that such huge violence does take place and that there are immense difficulties in demanding justice.

Also, the evocation of sentiments as mothers and as daughters does strike a chord with Indian women whose understanding of Kashmir’s politics may otherwise be limited.  In one or two reviews Indian women wrote of the deep pain they felt after reading about the suffering of Kashmir’s children.

WM: In your book you chart narratives of women and children who have lived through extreme militarization and now are telling their stories. Do you think memorialisation or story-telling somehow has a therapeutic effect on the society that has experienced war?

FM: A Kashmiri friend and researcher was telling me how interested she is in the way women memorialize, of what they consciously choose to remember when they narrate their stories. It is indeed fascinating. I have been thinking about this and how each woman will bring up some detail that makes her story so compelling. I have also wondered at the generosity with which they shared their stories with me - a total stranger.

One friend has suggested that perhaps there is a catharsis when they open up to strangers since there are, perhaps far too many voices of pain within their own community. Or, then, besides the catharsis, is there an innate deep political awareness that realizes some stories have to be told, re told and re told?

This is perhaps common to many struggles. I am reminded of Arvind Narain, activist and legal scholar, who asks how do we understand the role of memory and how central is memorialisation and remembrance as political acts to the question of establishment of rights. Narain notes how the well- known Dalit Panther of India Thol. Thirumavalavan sees the political uses of memory and the way it is used as part of a political struggle against forgetting.

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