Wednesday, 21 July 2010

desiderata book club: In the Valley of Mist

I spent much of the weekend in Mussoorie with my head stuck inside this book:

It's In The Valley of Mist, by British writer and journalist Justine Hardy.

It's non-fiction, about the trials of a family in Kashmir and how they managed to survive the violence of the past two decades, as a bloody conflict has raged there, mainly between Kashmiri separatists and the Indian military.

But far from being a dry, fact-based account, Hardy takes readers deep inside the insurgency thanks to her deep knowledge gained from years of travelling to the region. The book opens with a vignette of her and her mother in the late 1980s, shopping in central Srinagar wearing shorts and t-shirts. A year and a half later, when she next visits, she does so with her face and head covered, as the conflict had, in that short time, deepened and religious fanatics closed in.

The Valley of Mist doesn't give a comprehensive, blow by blow account of the conflict, but what it does give is a searing, honest depiction of how events have shaped the lives of this one family, how they have affected the lives of others in the region:

"From the top of the meadow the calls to prayer come from every direction, and at all angles across the lake, from the Shi'a mosque to the left side of the local bazaar, and from the two Sunni ones towards the right and rear side. Silence followed.

Up until 1990 the evening call to prayer was accompanied by bells ringing from Shiva temples around the city. As the azaan finished the bells would continue for aarti, evening prayer. The sounds wound together.

Children born in Kashmir since 1989 have not heard that song of symbiosis. Just as the young Pandits (Kashmiri Hindus) in the refugee camps have only their parents' memories to portray the homes they felt forced to leave, so too do young Kashmir Valley Muslims have only stories and old photograph albums as proof of how it used to be before they were born."

I couldn't put it down. In particular I appreciated that Hardy holds back - for the most part - from placing herself front and centre, rather, she depicts herself as a sideline character: observing and digesting, not judging. Only towards the end does her presence become more pronounced, her opinions more sharply outlined.

Given the current conditions in Kashmir, In the Valley of Mist is an ideal way to get inside the conflict without having to wade through something like this, or even this.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The book is on my bedside table ... I took it on a recent trip and got halfway through it ... and like always once we're back home, reading goes by the wayside.

I'll finish it by this weekend though ... have enjoyed it immensely so far!