Is there a future for foreign correspondents – outsiders who parachute into a war zone, report on what they see, hang around for a bit and then go home? Now that anyone with a laptop and an internet connection (or a pencil and a phonecard) can file to anywhere in the world, in real time, is there any need for London or New York to shell out for the vast expense of housing, feeding and educating the offspring of a staff reporter in the field? Local journalists are better educated and trained than they were when the current model of foreign reporting was developed. And they come with generations of context, a grasp of the local lingo and more modest salary expectations as standard.
Basharat Peer’s at times brilliant and at times exasperating account of his life and travels in Kashmir is a reminder of the dilemma. At times his stripped-down prose lets the horror of the region speak for itself in all its miserable detail. At other times, though, his close personal connection to the conflict in Kashmir prevents him asking the money question: the question that an outside can get away with because no-one expects anything better, but which Peer flunks for fear of causing offence or re-opening old wounds.
The book is at his strongest as he describes his childhood, growing up surrounded by Pakistani-trained militants. His spare descriptions of carrying cricket bats like Kalashnikovs “in imitation and preparation” capture the wide-eyed mix of innocence and world-weariness that comes from growing up in a war zone, where schools become army bases and cricket pitches are turned into parade grounds. His pen portraits of family, friends and the butcher build into a picture of the ordinary lives that so many an outsider might have treated as scenery.
But his powerful writing falters occasionally when he returns from life as a reporter in Delhi on a mission to understand and document the land where he grew up. He might have got away with it once, sitting by the side of the road and letting a bus drive away, rather than clambering on board and travelling to Kunan Poshpura, a village where Indian soldiers raped 20 women in 1990. It’s a powerful metaphor for a horror perhaps best left forgotten.
But it happens too often: the militant who might have killed someone and the school teacher who left for some unspecified, unexplained problem. The problem is that they are old friends, and with old friends sometimes you prefer not to pry.
For all that though, the precise descriptions of lives lost in “encounters” (boys made to carry mines and then shot), the massacre at Gawkadal bridge and the sense of fear that grips his family make an evocative and thoughtful commentary on a land caught between warring nations.
Curfewed Night is a powerful memoir which just falls short of brilliant.