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In the Valley of Mist – a Story from Kashmir

March 20, 2011

It’s funny how in times of trouble you stumble upon stories that put current events in context. Stories reminding you that trouble is not just about individual events, disasters and unrest that erupt and subside – it can stretch over generations and seem like the curse of whatever god you believe in.

A few days before I left Bahrain on holiday, I stopped by a bookstore in one of the malls. I do this often – sometimes to pick up an English newspaper, and sometimes to browse the new titles. This is a habit that sometimes causes annoyance to my wife, because I end up buying books at a much higher cost than I would have to pay if I ordered the title through Amazon. But the beauty of a bookshop is the ability to happen upon something that it would not occur to me to buy if I browse online. And I actually have no problem with paying more to bookshop because I believe that the world would be the poorer if there were no bookshops – places where one can pick up a title, look at the cover, read a few paragraphs.

The book I happened upon that day in Jashanmal bookshop was Atlantic, by Simon Winchester. I had read two of his other books. The first was about the eruption of Karaktoa – a vivid chronology of the greatest volcanic eruption in living memory, and its terrible consequences. The second was The Surgeon of Crowthorne, about an American surgeon and millionaire locked up in Broadmoor hospital for the criminally insane after committing a murder in London. W C Minor devoted decades of his life to the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. Only towards the end of his life did the editors of the OED discover who he was and why he was unable to come to Oxford to receive an award for his contribution.

But this article is not about Winchester’s latest book. I mention his previous books in passing because they are worth reading. When I went to the counter to buyAtlantic, the cashier told me that I could also choose one of a selection of books at no cost. The offer of “buy one, get one free” is standard at bookstores like W H Smith. But this deal was not advertised. The cashier just asked me to take one.

The book I chose was In the Valley of Mist, by Justine Hardy. It’s a personal chronicle of the Kashmir conflict by a British journalist who has spent much of her life in India, and who still calls Kashmir home. She writes about the conflict through the lens of her longstanding relationship with a Kashmiri Muslim family.

Hardy talks of the beauty of the lakes, meadows and mountains of the region. Of the Srinagar houseboats to which the administrators of the Raj would retreat for the summer season, later followed by wealthy tourists and latterly by the dope-smoking backpackers in the sixties and seventies. Of how Hindus and Muslims lived happily together, albeit in the shadow of the 1948 partition that divided the province between India and Pakistan. About the separatist movement that became hijacked by jihadis looking for fresh battlegrounds in the wake of the departure of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan.Of how the Indian Army brutally suppressed the separatists and stamped on incursions by the jihadis.

She writes about the recruiting techniques of the jihadis as they selected and seduced young people to join the training camps on the Pakistani side. About how Kashmir slowly transformed into a Muslim-dominated region as the Pandit Hindus fled to conflict – many into transit camps where they still live today. How a vibrant college for women that turned out doctors and lawyers was slowly stifled, as families judged that it was no longer safe to educate their women to be anything other than mothers and housewives.

But In the Valley of Mist is no polemic against radical Islam, or indeed about the brutality of the Indian security forces. It’s about a family, the Dars, to whom she became close before the conflict started in 1989, and how they adapted and evolved amid the chaos that gripped their society.

The narrative comes to a climax with the devastating earthquake of 2005. She describes how the family patriarch, after decades as a merchant and houseboat operator, redefines the meaning of his life by leading relief efforts throughout the region. How corruption and attention-seeking international NGOs hampered the desperate attempts to reach those survivors most in need of aid.

The book is full of heartbreaking and poignant anecdotes. Of Mohammed Dar’s efforts to obtain hot water bottles for those freezing on the mountain slopes. Of the tailor struck down by agonies of itching, the physical manifestation of the stress of living through the conflict. Of attempts by an Indian general to rebuild trust between the Army and civilian population in the wake of the earthquake.

I was reading Justine Hardy’s book as soldiers took to the streets in Bahrain, as Colonel Gaddafi turned his tanks on his people, and as thousands were swept away by a tsunami in Japan.

I knew little about Kashmir except as a holiday resort we were thinking of visiting in the 1980’s. I also knew it as a flashpoint in the relations between India and Pakistan. But it’s only when you hear stories about human beings and their suffering over decades – about lives that were and never will be again, and about life’s tendency to visit disaster upon disaster upon a single people – that you remind yourself that suffering for many is not a single event. It can be a life-long curse – whether or not you believe that a divine hand is involved. After Hardy’s book was published, the region suffered yet another curse – millions displaced and made homeless by the floods of 2010.

The experience of suffering is no less for an individual even if that suffering is confined to family, friends and local community.  I would never ask anyone to compare their suffering with that of others and tell them that they are still luckier than some. I would only say that suffering on a massive scale has massive consequences, and that when we consider those consequences we should try to understand the causes before we take actions, make policies and form opinions. Hardy’s book served that purpose for me, not that anything I say or do will make a difference in Kashmir. All this from a book I didn’t pay for.

If you live in Bahrain, you can probably still get a copy of In the Valley of Mist from Jashanmal. If not, it’s available on Amazon here. Alternatively, you can support your local bookstore!

Either way, it’s a compelling read.

  1. Thank you for your kind review Steve. It is much appreciated. To flesh out the story of our work here is a recent rundown from a summit in Oslo:

    • Thanks for the link Justine. Thanks to your book, I look at Kashmir in a different light. I’d love to visit the region at some stage.

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