Recently, I found myself in a long, fascinatingly civil conversation with a person who said he was engaged in bringing forgotten narratives into mainstream awareness and discourse, which is exactly how I would describe my own work as a writer. However, it was clear that our intentions were diametrically opposed: his interest came from the desire to celebrate and amplify stories of past glory, while mine is about challenging glorification and complicating established storylines through a multiplicity of perspectives. As we spoke, I was intrigued by how we used the same vocabulary towards completely different purposes. We both maintained a pretence of open-endedness. I saw how easy it is to concur that history is written by the victors, while thinking of entirely different sets as the vanquished.
It was clear we knew this mutual respect for the sparring partner would dissolve if we came to subjects of real stakes. As long as we spoke only about the very distant, we could differ pleasantly. For example, we agreed that Rani Padmini was probably fictional, a character from a medieval poem, although the wartime practice of jauhar that inspired her tale was probably real. He felt the symbolic figurehead was meaningful as a representative of actual events which he saw as heroic. My view was that this symbolism lends itself to dangerous uses, and flattens the motivations of individuals involved.
I had brought up the topic because what was really on my mind was how the bodies and minds of women are sites on which battles are inscribed, both viscerally and theoretically. I see a similarity in the unrecorded thoughts of those self-immolating women and silenced voices everywhere, now and long ago. In the writing of history, the fact of experience rests under layers of observation, interpretation, erasure and appropriation. In Behold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children by Freny Manecksha, the author writes of how she was spurred into embarking on her book because of two incongruent accounts she encountered about the death of one woman: “I will never know who the real Haneefa was or why she was on the streets. Was she indeed a protestor… or was she a [single] mother whose love for her daughter made her break curfew orders and seek medical help?”
One of the ways that the ongoing situation in Kashmir is being celebrated is through blithely misogynistic statements about how Indian men can now lay claim to “fair Kashmiri girls”. Women are being spoken about as chattel, in the same breath as the purchase and settling of their lands. What do they think of all this? Due to a communication blockade, even those without harmful intentions can only imagine on their behalf. Hopefully, some day soon we will know, and listen to, what they are really feeling as these events unfold. But it’s likely that centuries from now, people will discuss a film character, a Kashmiri woman who was rumoured to be based on a true story, and even deified. They’ll use her legend as a way to tiptoe around pressing realities as they sip tea from some contested territory, and agree to disagree. Politely, and pointlessly.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 19th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.