The Write Circle Jaipur with Farah Bashir

Jaipur, 23 rd July 2021 – The July session of the Write Circle hosted Farah Bashir, in conversation with Swati Vashishtha. The Write Circle is organized by Prabha Khaitan Foundation, in association with Shree Cements, Siyahi, Ehsaas Women of Jaipur and Spagia Foundation. Farah Bashir is a former photojournalist with Reuters, and now works as a communications consultant. Rumours of Spring – A Girlhood in Kashmir is her first book. The book has gotten an eager response from readers because of Farah’s deeply personal, revealing writing. Swati Vashishtha is a journalist with over 15 years of experience and has been Head of Bureau at CNN- News 18. She has won the prestigious Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh Award for journalism and photography.

Swati kicked off the session by quizzing Farah on the wonderfully evocative title of the book, Rumours of Spring. For Farah, it is a phrase that has stuck with her over the years, as her book-writing project took many forms. The phrase is borrowed from Agha Shahid Ali, a poet who captured the pain of an entire generation of Kashmiris. Farah had attempted two fiction manuscripts and reached on an autobiography, but the phrase has stayed with her through these years. Kashmir’s long, hard winter is followed by a most beautiful spring. The notes of hope and change in the air have held great meaning for Farah.

There is a flood of writing on Kashmir and has been for 150 years, spanning the 1846 Treaty of Amritsar, the 1931 riots, the insurgency years that began in 1989, and beyond. For Farah, despite this extensive canon, she didn’t see herself reflected in it. There is a very conspicuous absence of women’s voices in the story of Kashmir. Rumours of Spring isn’t just about her life. It is also about the lives of her female relatives, their stories and their pain. No two experiences in the book are similar. Bollywood and the popular imagination have broken Kashmiri women into binaries. There is either the swooning Kashmir ki kali, or the fierce, young woman trope. Farah has known many different shades of women and wanted to make their stories heard.

The opening scene of the book is Farah and her sister going to get their hair done in the parlour, one day before Eid. When they step out to return home, the world has flipped on its axis and there is chaos. There have been shots fired close to their house. There is chaos and they can’t find a ride back home. When they reach, they realise a cousin and his father were also in the market, out to buy shoes. They hear some time later that he had been shot in the firing. He said to his father, “I’m feeling hot here”, only to realise it was a gunshot wound. He bled to death on his way to the hospital. Eid is a time of anxiety and intense irritation for Farah. She’s rarely ever celebrated over the years. It took a long time for her to unpack the survivor’s guilt from that day. As a young, 12-year-old girl, she couldn’t help but think the whole thing was her fault. That if she hadn’t gone out to get her hair done, none of this would have happened. Her anxiety manifested in her slowly beginning to pull her hair out, until she was eventually almost bald and had to wear scarves to hide her head. After the Kashmiri Pandits started leaving, there were frequent curfews, and her classmates and teachers slowly stopped appearing in her school, when it did open between months of curfew. Farah lost interest in her studies and retreated into herself. She sees it now in her young nieces and nephews as schools remain closed for months on end and they lose interest in their studies. Young people are on antidepressants and, unlike in other parts of the world, are able to confess frankly about their mental health issues. It is an indication of how wide-spread mental health issues are in Kashmir. She knows people in their 70s who have been on medication for decades.

She was the first generation to experience the normal Kashmir and overnight, the Kashmir under siege. She has seen her grandmother, a progressive, dominating figure in the house, always sitting by a window, watching the world outside as she did some kitchen work. Windows in the old city in Srinagar are mostly wooden planks, and if closed, give no access to the world outside. With the first curfew, her grandmother’s connection to the outside world was taken away. The windows turned into walls. She would be up all night, her asthmatic lungs having trouble dealing with the stress of firing, tear gas and her son not coming home late into the night.

People are now relating to the plight of Kashmiris, having been locked into their houses for months, but Farah explained that we hear the constant refrain of “stay home, stay safe”. For Kashmiris, staying home didn’t mean staying safe. They were subjected to routine night raids and patrolling. Her cousin used to cry if she saw a light at night. The trauma of the night raids was related to seeing flashlights in the dark, and being a sign of impending trouble.

Swati asked if writing about her childhood has been cathartic for Farah. Since there has been almost no reduction in the violence in Kashmir, Farah would not say it’s been cathartic for her. Her aunt recently lost her house when security forces burned it down. It is a continuing violence and even if it doesn’t happen to you, it happens to someone you know.

Faith helped Farah cope with the world around her She would visit shrines in Srinagar, and instead of praying there, would cry. When she moved to Singapore for her studies, she realised how different life could be, and what other people lived like. She read women’s writings and was able to write freely about her first crush, cut short when the lack of a post office couldn’t support their long-distance friendship, and her first period. People ask her how she’s able to write so frankly and if it was necessary to talk about such private matters. Farah, like every other Kashmiri, has already lived a life under minute scrutiny and would have found her story incomplete without including these milestones of a young girl’s life.

The lost culture, that makes your whole identity, is a very tangible loss for Farah. Kashmiris are rice eaters and immense quantities of rice are stored in common courtyards. Women would spend days cleaning the rice. It was a chaotic, loving atmosphere. Farah has never seen that again. Nor has she seen the shehnaiwala who would come to her house on Eid, play the shehnai and get eidi from her grandmother. Eids are spent under curfew.

Farah has come some way from that life but having grown up in those times, she borrows resilience from that young girl. Rumours of spring, when they do come, Farah hopes will bring true justice and peace.