The memories of August

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Kashmiris drew parallels of the current lockdown, to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, with the siege that followed 5 August 2019. The comparison between a lockdown and a siege is abhorrent to say the least but what was even more frightening for me was that my memories of the days following August 5 were foggy. 

It is ironic that I do not seem to remember much about my world before 5 August 2019, it is funny that I cannot remember the post August world any better. There are just fleeting memories of how the world used to be before the Indian State unilaterally dismantled what was left of Article 370 and revoked the semblance of “autonomy” the state had. I was horrified when I realized that even my memory was failing me. 

So here I am writing this to see if I can recover some of my memories.

The moment I saw the news that day, I had felt a sense of resignation that I can remember only now. It was immediately followed by something of disgust and anger but a little satisfaction too, that this would probably prove the viewpoint of a majority of Kashmiris – except for unionist politicians, that is if they are able to independently have thoughts – that we had all seen it coming. 

I cared for that Article in the Indian Constitution for a moment. I briefly lamented its “abrogation”, that is also how I have come to hate the term because of how many times I have had to hear it. And then I did not. Whether it is the apathy that Kashmiris have developed over decades of turmoil or the indifference I have developed over the years, I did not care. After all, when the Indian State and the Indian people do not care about their own constitution anymore, why should we? That is not to say I cared much about it before, or at all, but just to be clear.

I also remember that I had spent the next couple of days in blissful resignation or maybe I had blacked it all out because by then Kashmiris knew that the Valley was under a lockdown – political, social, economic, but also psychological – enforced with the help of a torturous communications blackout. Its effects on our lives and our collective psyche can perhaps be better gauged by experts of the relevant fields. 

The Indian State, the media and its Kashmir “experts” by infantilizing and patronising native Kashmiris have succeeded at making us numb. Not being able to communicate with fellow Kashmiris was good for us, we are told. It would not be farfetched to say that they did this by removing the “simultaneous time” (to borrow from prominent political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson) that we share with our community through communications and isolating us intellectually. 

The French philosopher Maurice Halbwachs, who developed the concept of “Collective Memory”, says “we preserve memories of each epoch in our lives, and these are continually reproduced; through them, as by a continual relationship, a sense of our identity is perpetuated”. I think this numbing of Kashmiris was brought about because we could not share our stories, our suffering, not even our apathy with each other. This separation of us as a community brought about this numbing. This persists even now. I can remember now that I had these thoughts during those days, the thoughts are coming back to me.

As I write this another personal story comes to mind. On second thoughts maybe I should have put this in the beginning of this essay. I had secured an offer, an unconditional one, of admission at a reputed university in Glasgow, Scotland in late July, last year. I could not afford it and hence was supposed to apply for a scholarship, applications for which would open the following month in August when all communications were blocked.

I managed to contact a friend who works in Bengaluru to check my mails for any updates. I was told the applications were still open and that I had to fill an online form which included details about my project. I travelled all the way to Chandigarh to access a cousin’s internet connection. The trip set me back about Rupees 10-15,000 instead of just moving more than a couple of muscles if I could do it at home. The small hostel room, where my cousin stays with his colleagues, was hot and suffocating. I think I completed my application in a haste and that is why it was deemed not satisfactory and thus rejected. Maybe I did not deserve that position, maybe my project just was not good enough, or maybe it was only because of the communications blackout and the siege of Kashmir that I missed out on that opportunity. I try not to think about it. But now I remember I blame the siege. 

I remember spending days during the siege trying to read The Prize by Daniel Yergin that was a good read, I remember now; and Directorate S by Steve Coll which I now recall my friend Tawhid having lent me. I remember reading something about memory and forgetfulness in an Orhan Pamuk novel, The Black Book. I recall that a student I taught had gifted it to me when I used to teach journalism at the state women’s college (that seems like ages ago now, and those memories have come back too). I did not like the novel but there was something about memory in that book that stuck with me—something about the memories of our past and of our history, and of the memories we forget. Pamuk pondered over what kind of memories we forget first as we move along in life. Not of Kashmir, I hope.

Coming back to Halbwachs, even if we cannot remember all of the memories that we have, collective memory is something that we must strive to create and preserve, not just because they mean a very hefty much to our personal lives and identities, but because they also help to create a narrative history for the generations to come. “[…] precisely because these memories […] are not intact vertebra of fossil animals which would in themselves permit reconstruction of the entities of which they were once a part. One should rather compare them to those stones one finds fitted in certain Roman houses, which have been used as materials in very ancient buildings: their antiquity cannot be established by their form or their appearance but only by the fact that they still show the effaced vestiges of old characters.” 

I do not know much about poetry, I recently read a poem by John Donne, and I think it has relevance to our memories, we must strive to preserve these vestiges of our existence.

“This book, as long-lived as the elements,
Or as the world’s form, this all-gravèd tome
In cypher writ, or new made idiom;
We for Love’s clergy only are instruments;
When this book is made thus,
Should again the ravenous
Vandals and Goths invade us,
Learning were safe; in this our universe,
Schools might learn sciences, spheres music, angels verse.” 
- A Valediction of the Book by John Donne.

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