Farah Bashir’s memoir on growing up in Kashmir offers a sharp perspective on surveillance and resistance

Zainab Mufti
29 September, 2021

“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.

Bashir’s skilful recounting of her personal life becomes a lens for understanding how celebrations changed into funerals in a matter of seconds; meals smelled of death; children grew up before their time; everyone becoming fearful of not just each other but even themselves. And these are wounds that Kashmiris—including children and adults, with gender no bar—carry with them. Even though it is nearly two decades since Bashir was a teenager, this story could belong to any Kashmiri child even today. The trauma is only more intense, as the brutality of the 1990s rages on today; even more bloody, blinding and unresolved. There have been between eight and ten thousand enforced disappearances, sexual violence has become a weapon of war and mass incarcerations are the norm. Humiliation, beatings and maiming are rampant and include the world’s first mass blinding. It is in this matrix of the Indian state’s disproportionate violence that Bashir comes of age. Life for her and her community appears to change overnight. More and more Kashmiri men join the resistance, with logistical support from their Kashmiri counterparts in Azad Kashmir and agencies in Pakistan. Even though, by the Indian government’s admission, the number of combatants had never been more than a few thousand, a full-fledged war machinery was unleashed in the region, with an estimated seven hundred and fifty thousand Indian soldiers deployed.

Bashir’s book opens with Bobeh’s death and succeeding chapters explore the wake and burial that followed. They are divided into sections titled “Evening,” “Night,” “Early Hours,” “Dawn,” “Morning” and “Afterlife.” The chapters revolve around each funerary milestone with nuanced detours into the lives and times of people connected to Bobeh, Bashir and their family. We get to know Bashir’s family members intimately and their amusing idiosyncrasies and serious strategies to ensure a semblance of normal life amid bullets and bomb blasts. This is often a losing game. One of the first agonising realisations after Bobeh’s passing is how to give her a proper funeral amid the curfew imposed by the government. Mourning has become a luxury. “How am I to take the responsibility of so many curfew passes?” Bashir’s father laments. “What if they shoot someone?” His anxiety is not only about a singular death but about the deaths that might follow if they dare to gather to bid a proper farewell to his mother.

About the deep fissures that became concrete between Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits, Bashir writes, “in that winter of 1990, all the windows turned into walls.” She recalls the camaraderie that existed between Bobeh and a young Pandit girl, their next-door neighbour, as well as the overnight mass exodus of Pandits. Bashir’s juvenile conscience processes these developments through dreams in which her Pandit batchmates are absent during a rollcall. This comes true very soon. Bashir’s rendition of the event gives us an idea of the apparent sociality that existed between the two communities. However, in my opinion, it is important to note that the history of shared traditions existed side by side with the widening political visions of the two communities. 

Despite the ubiquitous sense of tragedy, Bashir shows her quintessential cultural trait by doing what Kashmiris call wadnass manz asun—laughter amid mourning. An open window reveals that Bashir’s aunt had developed a habit of saluting patrolling soldiers. While this amuses the young teen, her aunt reveals a heartbreaking reason for doing it: she thinks the next time soldiers search their house, they might be lenient because of her compliant gesture. One night, noises lead Bashir and her sister to fear the worst. They suspect a midnight knock by the soldiers. The midnight knock has begun to carry with it an abiding fear of rape and death at the hands of Indian soldiers. In a thought more in line with her childishness, Bashir suspects that mythical house spirits are making the noise. An investigation reveals that the noises are coming from their father’s aunt, who liked eating at odd hours and was having a midnight snack of oranges without her dentures on. Bashir is doubly amused when her aunt offers her and her sister a few slices, completely unaware of Bashir’s fear. “You girls are too funny, scared of an orange,” she says. “How can you be afraid of someone eating an orange?” While such incidents are superficially mirthful, Bashir illustrates how they are connected to the flagrant state violence that has interrupted all manners of private and public life. The chapter ends with the line, “since 1990, no midnight noises were worthy of laughter anymore.” 

With the Indian state’s violence mounting, fear and death tinge everything in Bashir’s life. She is no longer a carefree child, and her thoughts are morbid and mournful. The beloved landmarks of her homeland are replaced by sites marked with crackdowns, curfews, searches, surveillance and beatings. Every occasion, from a grocery run to a wedding that Bashir recalls, is a saga marked by these. She creates a map of her walk home based on locations marked by the signature brutality of the military. Her depression and anxiety develop into full-blown trichotillomania—a hair-pulling habit that she hides, especially from Bobeh, who would routinely give her nourishing hair massages. Bashir suffers sleeplessness, heart palpitations and even contemplates suicide. She is not diagnosed nor treated for any mental-health issues. Everyone in her family suffers from some form of depression, and the rest of the community is no different.

A Kashmiri life emerges as a stark negotiation in surviving from one day to the other. People are burdened by seeking protection from rampaging soldiers, and the successful benchmark of the day is to return home alive. Bashir’s prayer for death by old age and not a bullet manifests an exemplar Kashmiri childhood full of grief. A friend of Bashir says that, in Kashmir, post-traumatic stress disorder should be renamed “Perennially Traumatic Stress Disorder.” The decline in mental health and lack of adequate care becomes persistent. Bashir’s already sick cousin, Naseer, is beaten by soldiers when he cannot locate his identification card quickly. The incident triggers him, and he begins habitually abusing his spouse. Naseer’s life had been on the upswing before the incident. Ultimately, his battered wife dies by suicide.

The efficacy of Bashir’s memoir, as opposed to a non-fictional analysis, lies in its no-holds-barred intimacy and honest perspective of a youth forced to grow up quickly. The autoethnographic quality of the memoir allows for a first-hand look into how the Kashmiri political subjectivity emerges amidst increasing militarisation. There is a possibility that memoir can be read only as a unidimensional rendering of Kashmiri suffering under India. But I would urge readers, especially young readers in India, to not miss that all the stories in the book illustrate how every Kashmiri life is connected to the resistance and impacted by the Indian retaliation to their unflagging stance. Human-rights violations are done to repress the undying thirst for freedom and self-determination. 

In this backdrop, stories like that of Bashir’s reclusive cousin Riyaz are not just simple narratives about being a victim of state brutality but stories about ordinary Kashmiris who are quiet practitioners of resistance that has become a cultural fact in Kashmir. Riyaz routinely scribbles the term “Q.K.” on walls, referring to the Quit Kashmir movement. The Quit Kashmir slogan was used prior to 1947 against the monarchy and has been used to protest Indian rule as well. Riyaz’s action unfolds the historic truth that has been criminalised by the Indian government. His character tells the reader how everyday, persistent and multilayered Kashmiri struggle against India is.

Bashir also mentions the case of her uncle, who was kidnapped by militants for money. In my experience, such incidents have been habitually deployed by the Indian government to paint the militant organisations as rank extortionists and aggressors. Militant organisations did use coercive methods of fundraising, but these were later stopped. While the kidnapping is critical, the focus on the uncle’s backstory is crucial and allows for an understanding of the role resistance plays in Kashmiri lives. The uncle himself was no stranger to resistance politics. He had been a student activist in the 1960s and had been imprisoned as well. Even though he had left the active resistance, its legacy was notable in his household. His young daughter, despite her father’s troubles and her mother’s worries, had prepared a memorandum to take to the UN headquarters in Srinagar—in the 1990s, memoranda were often presented in massive rallies to remind the United Nations about its promise of self-determination to Kashmiris. Bashir’s cousin planned to march with a group of friends and had invited her as well. Her actions reveal how the resistance can be inherited and sustained through simple everyday acts.  

Bashir’s memoir, then, is not only about individual and collective traumas but a compendium of nuanced revelations about the political genesis of the Kashmir struggle—its multiple faces and phases, evolution and aspirations. The lives of ordinary Kashmiri are not mere renditions of suffering, mourning or victimhood but bring into relief the irrepressible political agency and identity that Kashmiris exert and inhabit. These stories should nudge readers to shun reductive readings of the Kashmiri resistance and pave the way for a more historical understanding of it. Bashir’s memoir is a valuable contribution to historicising the struggle in Kashmir from the Kashmiri perspective; one that has been denied to its most important stakeholders.


Ather Zia is a poet and a political anthropologist who teaches anthropology and gender studies at the University of Northern Colorado, Greeley. She is the author of Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women's Activism in Kashmir. She is the founder-editor of Kashmir Lit and co-founder of Critical Kashmir Studies.