Crying for Kashmir

When Justine Hardy and her mother visited the Kashmir Valley in the spring of 1989, it seemed to them an idyll. The weather was warm, the nights were cool, and mother and daughter rode bikes, shopped, and packed picnics of Kashmiri delicacies. Distantly, they were aware of unrest: protests, strikes in the city, and the ever-present jawans—young Indian soldiers, reminders to the Kashmiri Muslims that India held the region by threat of force. But to the British tourists, and even to many Kashmiris, these signs seemed more annoying than dangerous. For the most part, Hindus and Muslims lived and worked peaceably, their festivals intertwined, their Kashmiri identity shared.

That December, separatists kidnapped a young medical student, the daughter of a Kashmiri government minister in Delhi, from a bus. Kashmiri separatists took to the street, crying, "Jo kare khuda ke khauf, Utale Kalashnikov!" ("All God-fearing men, pick up the gun!") Since then, more than 50,000 people have died. But for those who haven't been killed or driven out, it's still home.

Hardy's new book, In the Valley of Mist, is an attempt to understand what life is like for families in the Kashmir Valley. Her story is mostly a portrait of the Dars, a family of carpet sellers and houseboat owners who have remained luckier and wealthier than most. But amid the violence and frustration they have found solace, order, and control in the orthodoxies of their faith, including those strictures on women that seem to an outsider cruel and unjust. Hardy is an outsider—a Westerner, a woman—but she has tremendous sympathy for the Dars, as well as for others she meets: insurgents, a Hindu refugee, a liberal female doctor. Her book is also an account of her own romance with the place. She's part friend, part tourist, part journalist, part aid worker. She seems unsure how to reconcile her disparate sympathies with the terrible realities she witnesses, and her confusion is reflected in the book.

The confounding relationship between India and Pakistan is also beautifully and strangely glimpsed in Supriyo Sen's short documentary film, Wagah, about the highly orchestrated flag-lowering ceremony that takes place daily at the checkpoint between the two countries south of Kashmir. In front of rabid crowds on both sides, elaborately uniformed soldiers kick and strut in a ritual that recalls West Side Story more than mock war. And in the midst of it all, Sen, an Indian, follows three young boys from a nearby village selling DVDs of the event to visitors. The ceremony is bizarre, almost funny—and for the crowds it is entertainment. But the solemn eyes and bright smiles of those kids remind us that there's more than a show, or politics, or even fighting at stake. Life goes on—as best it can.