It’s always hard to talk about the darker side of things. Sadness, fear, anger — we don’t really have conversations about any of these things, and when there are children involved, it’s harder. We try to protect younger people by shielding them from painful information, forgetting that despite their age, they’re living the same reality as we are. It’s becoming more important for children to have a space where they can get simple answers to their questions, and learn more about things happening around them. Let’s consider Kashmir. Children are often exposed to the idea of Kashmir as a once-idyllic, now unsafe tourist destination. But why is it unsafe, and what does that mean for the people who live there? Who is fighting whom and why? What is Kashmir’s relationship with India? The answers are usually left hazy, filled in by garbled information gleaned from peer groups or media.
Books are usually helpful sources of information, helping us grasp what’s going on and the nuances of issues. While there are now some brilliant books adults can read about ‘sensitive’ issues like communal violence, or Kashmir, children’s literature willing to feature the same topics tends to be rare. There are few pieces of work for children emerging from Kashmir by Kashmiri authors, and this is worrying. Is it a result of mainland publishers wishing to avoid the potentially ‘disruptive’ narratives which may challenge the existing political status quo? Is it an extension of the suppression of freedom of speech that Kashmir has had to face multiple times over the years? Or is it because the authors do not have the words or the inclination to make such ‘adult’ topics accessible to children? But then, why aren’t there more pieces of writing which feature Kashmir, if only as a backdrop?
We do not have the answers to these questions, unfortunately. But what we do have is courage, brimming from a few women, braving censure to the point of even getting their books banned. They are writing about Kashmir as a real place instead of merely a hell-hole of violence or a lost piece of a blissful past; and of violence as a real thing, fueled by acts carried out by real humans, rather than faceless groups or monsters. While realistic fiction depicts the reality of oppression, historical fiction and fantasy can be clever methods of opening heavier topics up for discussion, while still maintaining a reasonable distance.
Here are some books we think might help to start the conversation with younger people, so that they can begin to form their own opinions.
For Very Young Readers
Okus Bokus, Onaiza Drabu (2019)
It’s never too early to explore different cultures, and for a Kashmiri youngster curious to explore their cultural heritage, Onaiza Drabu’s Okus Bokus is a great place to start. Essentially a picture book, with adorable illustrations by Ghazal, it takes the reader through the ABCs of Kashmiri tradition and cultural markers. Written in the classic style of grandmother’s fireside tales, it follows two small Kashmiri children Billa and Munni as they learn about their traditional food, art, music and even some folklore.
Drabu’s driving force was a desire to hold on to the Kashmiri language and provide representation to Kashmiri children in the literary mainstream. But her Okus Bokus, with its attention to the finer details, such as what kind of bread is to be had at specific times of the day, also has the potential to become an important archive of Kashmiri daily life, preserving in type the cultural traits which may have disappeared across generations.
For Independent Readers
The Night Diary, Veera Hiranandani (2018)
This book by Veera Hiranandani shows a child’s eye view of the experience of living with communal violence and surviving. Nisha and Amil are twins living in Mirpur Khas with their Hindu family and a Muslim cook, called Kazi, who is almost family. Their mother, who died giving birth to the children, was Muslim — a fact which had forced the young couple to leave their homes to avoid censure. Everything seems perfect until Partition is declared and the historic riots start breaking out. The children are no longer safe, with men breaking into their house to demand the date of their departure from the new Pakistan. The family then makes an arduous trek across the desert, risking their lives to reach the ‘new India’. Hiranandani keeps the story feeling real, only becoming idealistic in certain places, with her mentions of absolute communal harmony in Mirpur Khas before the Partition.
The book also explores themes such as loss of a parent, religious identity and the internal turmoil that is caused by visible violence that seems to have no rhyme or reason. Nisha’s love for Kazi plays on the reader’s own emotions, forcing one to imagine leaving behind a part of themselves. The scenes of the riots are not excessively graphic, which allows squeamish readers to continue reading while still learning of real incidents which still influence the politics of the country today.
The House That Spoke, Zuni Chopra (2017)
15-year-old Zuni Chopra’s fantasy is an important addition to this collection, because this a young adult author writing for her peers, making difficult themes more accessible. The spell of magic she weaves into her tale works to cushion the effects of the ‘darkness’. Kruhen Chay, the shadow demon bringing discord and despair to the valley, is an embodiment of the religious and cultural persecution people face in Kashmir. The constant presence of the Indian army, and bombings wiping out entire neighbourhoods, form the grim background of the story. It acquaints readers with a display of political force and power that is so everyday to Kashmiris, that the surprise often lies in survival.
Chopra uses nature symbolism to depict the condition of the state, with picturesque descriptions of a lush valley changing to those of decaying chinar trees and holy lakes turning black as the story goes on. In the middle of all of this lies the house that is magic itself, imbued with enough enchantment to be able to trap and hold the darkness underground. Zoon, the young protagonist, is destined by her bloodline to be the Guardian of Kashmir. Aided by the sentient furnishings of the house, she is soon drawn into a battle of the light and dark in an attempt to save her own life and all that is good in her world.
Queen of Ice, Devika Rangachari (2014)
This historical fiction, told in fairytale style by Devika Rangachari, unravels the story of Didda, the “ruthless queen” of Kashmir. Didda, despised by her father for being lame, is born with greatness predestined in her star-charts. Her childhood, with only a vicious cousin and heir apparent Vigraharaja for company, suddenly becomes much happier when she befriends Narahavana and Valga, who is also her faithful carrier. After the death of her husband, then-king of Kashmira, she uses her intelligence and cunning to establish herself as regent to her minor son.
Determinedly quelling rebellion, she then orchestrates a series of take-overs. After the untimely deaths of her son and grandsons, she finally becomes the true monarch. It’s an exhilarating story of a strong woman from the past, who made no compromises on living on account of her disability. Set in the backdrop of a snow-clad Kashmir, Didda’s tale extends the story of conflict backwards into the tenth century, throwing light on the present day situation. Demonstrating how political conspiracies work, it helps readers understand that though conflicts manifest at local levels, they are most often brought into existence by the maneouverings of authority.
No Guns at My Son's Funeral, Paro Anand (2005)
Paro Anand is one of the few authors writing unapologetically about Kashmir’s internal conflict and its impact on the children there. The protagonist Aftab, is like any other teen: curious, with implicit trust in the ones he loves, yet likely to withdraw at the slightest rebuff. His boredom with his life, and teenage angst towards his family, make him vulnerable to recruitment by a militant outfit run by Akram, a ‘firangi’ from outside Kashmir, who seeks to ‘restore peace and harmony’ to the valley. Led by the casual murderer who is also his hero, Aftab soon loses sight of his love for his family and friends, eager to please the charismatic Akram, who cares for no one. By the time the young boy starts having doubts, it’s too late.
The poignant character of his older sister, who realises the futility of violence after the tragedy happens, is a sharp reminder of the fall-out of such incidents. Descriptions of police brutality, militant training, and follower induction tactics are crystal clear. It’s a book meant to make the reader think about the children caught in the crossfire, and the price they have to pay for their innocence.
All of these books, while not always speaking of the same events or places, have a common thread in the experience of conflict. At first glance, the events of The Night Diary may seem widely disparate from those in The House that Spoke, but the question is, are they really? Recurrent patterns, such as the loss of a parent, unexplainable violence affecting regular life and communal sparring egged on by those in power tie together Nisha and Zuni’s lives, even though they exist in different timelines, in different geographies. Most of the young protagonists have lived with violence, and are ready to share their stories with others of their age. Perhaps, it’s time we let them.