“I learnt the words that warranted double unease, both and unspoken, as she’d utter them: byaakh bunker. Another bunker. ‘But your daughters are going to walk past it every time. Can you not protest? What are we going to do if they put one up outside our gate as well?’” Throughout Rumours of Spring, Farah Bashir’s memoir of her childhood and adolescence in Kashmir, the voice of a curious, sharp and sensitive schoolgirl reflects on worries that surfaced in the everyday conversations her family had, making evident the collective trauma from heavy military occupation.
In 1989, Kashmiris reignited their demand for the UN-mandated right to self-determination and plebiscite. Bashir’s book is a searing eyewitness to the violence that India unleashed to repress the insurrection and its aftermath. Every page is an open wound, as not even one person mentioned is untouched by the disproportionate violence of the Indian military. The book documents Kashmir turning into what it has since come to be known as: a beautiful open-air prison and one of the most densely militarised zones in the world. The swelling numbers of soldiers and mushrooming of military bunkers are ominous in more ways than one.
Bashir joins a few select memoirists who have focussed on growing up in Kashmir in the 1990s. She brings an intimate, sharp and gendered perspective to accounts that speak specifically from the Kashmiri Muslim vantage point, including Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer and Jaffna Street by Mir Khalid. Bashir’s memoir begins with and revolves around the death of her grandmother, lovingly called Bobeh—a title reserved for Kashmiri matriarchs. Bobeh’s death becomes symbolic of the final departure of love, protection and compassion from Bashir’s life. Despite having been ill with asthma, Bobeh had taken care of Bashir. At times, she even annoyed the young teenager who was trying to seek private space for herself, which was already hard to get because of her age and gender, but also because her life was under relentless military surveillance. “On the deserted streets of my neighbourhood, in the presence of so many military bunkers and the gaze of unknown men inside them, I suddenly became aware of my body and its contours,” Bashir writes. On the streets, she walked hunched over to shield her body from ogling Indian soldiers; she carried this hunch into adulthood.
Homes became sites of desecration by the military. The level of surveillance was such that Bashir notes that homes were even searched “without anyone entering it physically.” She recounts how every knock and creak spelled humiliation, imprisonment and, worst of all, death:
The dreadful rhythm of jackboots echoed through the bitter cold winter evenings. We did everything we could to shut the sinister, synchronized sound out. We put up heavy crewel curtains with thick linings and added a layer of woollen blankets on the latticed wooden windows, but even that did not stop the unwanted entry of those steps which pushed further, inch upon inch, into our kitchen which overlooked the street. From there, they stomped on our temples and finally entered our heads. The marching seeped into our silences, punctuated our conversations with pauses, which, in turn, jumbled our thoughts and our language.