The Song Of An Odyssey

  • Adil Bhat
  • Publish Date: Jan 19 2017 1:34PM
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  • Updated Date: Jan 19 2017 1:41PM
The Song Of An Odyssey

Nayeema Mahjoor’s novel is a chroncile of the joy and heartache that is the Azadi movement 


Terror is a peep into the pitfalls of a Kashmiri society in rebellion. The book traverses, primarily, the latest turbulent period in the history of the struggle for freedom that started in the late 1980s.

The plot is woven around one woman’s struggle for independence, within and without. In her search for freedom, Nayeema, the author-protagonist, first problematises and then articulates the idea of Azadi. Nayeema, a married, educated, career-conscious woman, begins by questioning the idea of Azadi when the sentiment first erupts into popular consciousness. While there was jubilation at the thought of freedom, she writes, “However, no one seemed to comprehend much about this idea of freedom. What it would bring in our lives, or what it really meant – we had never thought of any of it, except that it would be better to have our land with our authority over it... Everyone was brimming with enthusiasm about Azadi, as if it were the cure to our otherwise mundane lives.” 

Cure? And to what? For one, the attitude towards the education of women in Kashmir. “Being the only educated family in our locality had alienated us in the eyes of our neighbours. They begrudged us our existence, and we always uttered prayers on leaving the house so as to ward off evil eyes,” Nayeema narrates her and her school-going sisters’ experineces in the 70s. “Our biggest sin, in their eyes, was going to school and getting educated.” 

This issue was (is?) not peculiar to Kashmir. Women across cultures and societies have been systematically discriminated against in both education and work. However, the problem is accentuated in societies dominated by religious patriarchy, where women’s roles are confined to the four walls of their homes. 

While the society was divided into the educated and the uneducated, the early political divisions pertained to the supporters of Mirwaiz Farooq, the cleric-cum-politician, who were known as the Bakras (Goats), and the supporters of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, called the Shers (Lions). In this politically divided landscape, Nayeema oscillated between her father’s support for the Shers, and her husband Assad who was a staunch supporter of the Bakras. Her husband’s family, like other Bakras, had always supported the two-nation theory and desired Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan. On the other hand, the Shers stood by Sheikh Abdullah’s decision to acceede to India. It wasn’t a pretty division. “Following the partition, the constant feud between the Shers and the Bakras had torn asunder the Kashmiri society, often leading to violence even among family members,” Nayeema recalls. 

In this divisive environment, the idea of Azadi seemed a distant dream. As young adults, Nayeema and her siblings were confused over adherence to either political ideology. Gradually, with Pakistan losing the 1971 war with India, the Sher-Bakra division lost “some of its steam” and people got disillusioned with idea of a separate homeland for Muslims. However, with the success of the Iranian revolution and the emergence of the Afghan jihad in 1979, the religious fervour in Kashmir was rekindled, leading to a “new armed struggle [that] owed its inspiration to Islamic awakening throughout the Muslim world.” This awakening directly impacted the women of Kashmir who either willingly participated in or outright resisted the “Wear Burkha” campaign. There were overtones of Islamism in the Azadi movement now. 

Over time, the Kashmiri society was divided into various camps -- those who aspired for independence, the pro-Pakistan group and the supporters of the Indian state. Unsurprisngly, a climate of mistrust and suspicion of the other took hold.

While her husband was inclined towards the pro-Pakistan camp, the author herself desired Azadi. Perhaps the idea carried more than a political connotations for Nayeema. She was so struggling in a bad marriage with Asad that she had come to believe the institution was a farce: “Husband was only a word, and a nikah-khani, at the end of the day, translated into a piece of paper, which had no meaning in the real world. Whether your husband was a rogue, an alcoholic or an offender, his actions would never be considered shameful...We were living in a society that was against womankind.” 

Yet, as the marital discord deepened, she would end up questioning the Azadi movement. “What does liberation mean exactly?” Nayeema would ask. “Liberation can mean life, it can mean death, or it could mean the end of marriage?” 

Her uneasiness only grew as random murders of “suspects” by the militants mounted. One victim was her 25-year-old colleague Shiasta, murdered by masked gunmen on unfounded charges of “spying for the security forces”. Shiasta had been ordered to smuggle a few AK47 rifles to Anantnag, which she refused to do. This invited the wrath of the militants who took her denial to be support for the state. “Could this movement be so cruel that it was claiming innocent lives? The liberation movement had become a very deadly weapon. And we had a feeling that we were falling into an abyss of shame and disgrace,” Nayeema writes, narrating in heartbreaking detail how Shiasta’s killing led to her family’s ostracisation. “The people would spit on Shiasta’s mother, ridicule her sisters and would not let her mother bury her daughter in their ancestral graveyard.”

As the conflict raged, the brutality inflicted upon innocent civilians, by both militants and the Indian security forces, only worsened. The military occupation has had damaging psychological and emotional impact on the people in Kashmir. This is apart from the innumerable cases of enforced disappearances, torture, custodial killings and cold-blooded murder. One incident of the brutality that Nayeema narrates is the killing of a young man, the son-in-law of her father’s neighbour and close friend, Moulvi Sahib. By this time, Nayeema, distraught with her husband and his involvement with the gunmen, was staying at her maternal home. She was expecting her first child, after seven years of marriage, but owning to her husband’s indifference, she had come to stay with her father. This personal joy came during the most turbulent of times. It was a crakdown and people in her locality were parading for identification. Nayeema, sitting at her window, saw Moulvi Sahib’s daughter Fareeda crying and pleading with the soldiers to not take away her husband, who was being dragged towards an army vehicle. 

As Fareeda and her father begged them, “one soldier came close, kicked Moulvi in the face and dragged him by his long, white beard; the other soldiers punched his abdomen”. Amid this tussle between the two sides, the soldier shot Fareeda’s husband, killing him on the spot. Seeing her husband die in her lap, Fareeda screamed, “We want freedom! We want Azadi!” Soon, the air filled with cries of Azadi. 

While Shaiza had died a “traitor” to the cause, Fareeda’s husband died a martyr. In thus trying to portray the tragedy that being a civilian in Kashmir inherently is, the author equates the violence inflicted by the militants and the Indian forces. But in doing, she neglects that the former is an outcome of the latter, not vice versa. The magnitude, and sheer brutality of state-directed violence in Kashmir -- killings, mass rape, enforced disappearances, torture -- is too great to compare with any other.

The book ends on a positive note of hope: the author receives a letter of appointment from the BBC in London and she migrates to Britain. Her life changed for the better. But the story of Kashmir has followed the script, save for a change in the nature of the state-directed violence. 

Lost in Terror is a critical insider’s account of the armed iteration of the Azadi movement. It could be, if approached with an open mind, a source of introspection for those involved with the movement.