7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
No other "patriotism" in the world has such a legion of aggressive online champions as the Indian version: make some innocuous and mildly critical comment about the "rising superpower" on the most obscure of internet forums, and chances are a proud Indian nationalist - as likely as not to be a resident of somewhere other than India - will come blazing out of the ether to tell you just how wrong you are.
Inevitably then, there are a good few one-star reviews of Basharat Peer's Curfewed Night out there on booksellers' sites, accusing the author of being, amongst other things, a brainwashed terrorist sympathiser, and - best of all - "biased".
These people do not appear to have read the book, for while they dish out the standard lines used by strident pro-Indian voices to attack any critique of the Kashmir situation - that the author "has failed to mention the fate of the Kashmiri Hindu Pandits", and has "demonised the Indian soldiers" - Peer has done nothing of the sort.
The fate of the Pandits is a thread running through much of the book, not just in the chapter (The Missing Shiva) dedicated to the topic, and Peer openly wonders what the Indian soldiers are like as human beings, and finally gets to find out, with a sympathetic portrait of an officer who comes to a friend's office in Srinagar. When, on the other hand, it comes to the militants - both Pakistani and local - though he skirts around the issue and makes multiple abortive attempts, he never really manages to have a proper conversation with one on the subject of their experiences and motivations. And he certainly does nothing to absolve the militants of anything - they tried to blow up his parents, after all.
So not the howling anti-Indian dirge some would have you believe then.
But Curfewed Night is not the "definitive work on Kashmir" either, and not quite a "masterpiece".
It is, however, very well written. Peer wears his literary influences very much on his sleeve. He name-checks Hemingway early on, and is very obviously going for a sparse, restrained Hemingwayesque style (a refreshing change from the wild baroque we seem usually to expect of South Asian writers - and which they seem to expect of themselves). Of course, there is hardly a would-be writer on the planet who hasn't at some point in his youth wanted to emulate Hemingway - and their attempts to do so are usually an unmitigated disaster: not even Hemingway could emulate Hemingway on his off-days. However, Peer manages to avoid any silly stylistic affectations, and his Hemingway-ism goes no further than generic restraint. It works - as it worked for Hemingway - when writing about terrible things.
So the style works, and the approach is remarkably even handed. The problem with the book, however, is the tension within it between "memoir" and "reportage": Peer is an excellent memoirist, but a fairly useless journalist, and this becomes increasingly apparent as the book advances.
The first section - an account of his own childhood in Kashmir, and his own first-hand view of the start of the conflict - is excellent, evocative and powerful, and if he had carried on in the same fashion then the book may well have been a "masterpiece".
But Peer left Kashmir to study in his teens, and though his family connections remained, his direct experience of the conflict dwindled, and then became clouded by the fact that when he returned he was a working journalist - an observer, not a participant.
Both Hemingway and Peer's other much-flagged influence, George Orwell - though both fine journalists in their time - had their writing about conflict initially forged in first-hand, participant experience of war.
Because of this deficit, when it comes to the second part of the book Peer struggles. He has returned to Kashmir write about the conflict, but having not been a militant or a soldier himself, having never been tortured, never been blown up (or done any blowing up), his options are limited if he continues with a straight memoir, and he surely realises that for a middle-class returnee who spent the worst years elsewhere to dwell indulgently on his own experiences would be an insult to those whore were stuck in Kashmir through all those bitter years. So instead he attempts to take the role of reporter, interviewing those who have had those experiences.
The problem, however, is that Peer lacks real journalistic courage. Again and again he openly describes his own reluctance to ask the right questions, to set up the right meetings, to go to the right places, and by the final pages of the book - with his abject failure even to try to meet a Pakistani militant - this has become almost absurd. A book that started as an excellent memoir ends up a somewhat formless jumble.
Though certainly equipped with the necessary skill as a writer, Peer had neither the extensive personal experiences for a full memoir, nor the bravery and drive for a full piece of reportage. This is the failure of Curfewed Night.
There are a few other little glitches. As with so many other books about the Kashmir issue, there is a distinct lack of contextualising: the "historical background" could have been gleaned from a tourist brochure. Peer even manages to misidentify the second Maharaja of Kashmir as Pratap Singh (the second Maharaja was Ranbir Singh; there were only ever four Maharajas; their names and regnal order are not things anyone with even a casual interest in Kashmir should need to go to Wikipedia to check).
And of course, like <em>every</em> other book on the subject, the REAL untold part of the Kashmir story remains untold: the disparate histories and the buried aspirations of the people of the parts of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir NOT inhabited by Kashmiris - the people of Ladakh, Jammu, Baltistan and the area around Gilgit. The wide gamut of <em>their</em> aspirations and experiences is an inconvenient truth in the "Kashmir issue" ignored by everyone.
But for all this, Curfewed Night is still a very fine book. And despite its rather shapeless second half, and its failure as reportage, Peer does manage very successfully to convey the heartbroken atmosphere of numbness and emotional exhaustion, which will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has firsthand experience of Kashmir as a non-partisan. The descriptive writing is beautiful, and the look and feel of the Valley is admirably portrayed.
There is plenty of promise here, and if in future works Peer relies on his writer's skills and draws purely from personal experience (and perhaps imagination), or alternatively "mans up" and confronts his journalistic duty, then he actually might come out with a masterpiece. Don't expect the saffron internet warriors not still to give it one-star reviews, though...