“An unforgettable work that refuses silence” is how Ethiopian-American writer Maaza Mengiste describes Kashmiri writer Farah Bashir’s Rumours of Spring, a personal account of her adolescence spent in strife-torn Srinagar in the 1990s. In this interview, Bashir, 43, who currently works as a communications consultant, speaks about why there are hardly any accounts by women on life in the Valley in those years, and the impact of the silence on her. Edited excerpts:
How did the book evolve?
I was working with Reuters (as a photojournalist) in the early 2000s when reading about Iraq and Palestine reminded me of home. It had happened so fast that it took us a decade to process how militarisation changed our lives overnight. It made me think about the teenagers who are left behind and the fear they absorb, especially girls. Initially, I started exploring that through a novel, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. After reading the works of (African-American and Palestinian) women writers, I felt a compelling need to write my own story, which coincided with my original idea of investigating what happens to young girls who are unable to raise a voice — because when it happened to me, I was full of silences.
Your memoir looks at those turbulent years through the eyes of a teenage girl. Was there a gap that you wanted to fill?
We all were inspired by the iconic book — Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night (2010). It’s a fantastic account, but if you observe closely, there are hardly any women (in it). If you also observe Mirza Waheed’s The Book of Gold Leaves (2014), the protagonist is a grown woman. This was because whoever was writing in my generation was slightly older. Now, things have changed. Girls are becoming journalists, going to encounter sites. It’s those silences which half of our population had absorbed then that are being articulated now.
When did you realise the enormity of that period and its impact on your life?
When I moved away physically, I realised how difficult it all was. You would go out and there was no guarantee that you’d come back. That is the way of life there. I remember I was on antidepressants back then — most of the Kashmiri population still is. For a long time, I used to wonder why the doctor had put me on medication because I felt all right. It was later that I realised that so much had happened that there was no time to question or to mourn. You accepted each change as it came along. Without actually being on the frontlines, we were on the frontline all the time.
How was the experience of returning to those memories?
Some came easily. For others which I remembered in fragments, I would go back and talk to people without telling them that I was writing a book. I regret not including one particular memory — of an aunt who survived a massacre. She was travelling from her home in Budgam to our place in downtown Srinagar when the Tengpora massacre happened (More than 30 people were killed and nearly 50 injured on March 1, 1990, during protests calling for the implementation of a United Nations resolution regarding the plebiscite in Kashmir). I remember her shoes were making a squelching sound — there was blood in them. I didn’t ask her anything then because I was too scared. She died a decade ago.
Did writing help you process your grief?
After the first eight chapters, I began having panic attacks and a recurring dream of the Bijbehara massacre (More than 50 civilians were killed after protests erupted over the siege of the Hazratbal mosque in October 1993) for weeks. The doctor put me on medication again. Each time I read these chapters, I feel the same heaviness. But the book is helping others process their grief.
Snippets from your grandmother’s last years and her funeral recur in the book. Why is that?
When I spent some time with the draft, I realised that I hadn’t written anything after her death. She used to sit by the window, but suddenly they were shut. She would get wheezing attacks from the tear gas no matter how tightly we shut the windows. I saw her shrivel up from a tall, elegant woman to one utterly helpless in the face of conflict. So, it was my way of returning to her and using her as an anchor for my story, the way she was the centre of my universe all my childhood.
Are you planning to adapt (Louisa May Alcott’s) Little Women set in Kashmir?
Little Women was our first introduction to sisterhood . When the boys were getting killed, disappearing, or moving out of Kashmir, there was a very different kind of sisterhood among the women. I want to look at that group portrait under the loose structure of Little Women.