Book Review: Behold, I Shine by Freny Manecksha

Book Name: Behold, I Shine

Author’s Name: Freny Manecksha

Rating: 5/5

Publisher: Rupa

Book Blurb:

Set in the once-fabled land of Kashmir, Behold, I Shine moves beyond male voices and focuses, instead, on what the struggle means for the Valley’s women and children—those whose husbands remain untraceable; whose mothers are half-widows; those who have confronted the wrath of ‘Ikhwanis’, or the scrutiny of men in uniform and what it means to stand up to it all.

This book also brings to focus the resilience of the Valley’s women and children—of activists like Parveena Ahangar and Anjum Zamrud Habib, who, after debilitating losses, start human rights organizations; of ordinary homemakers like Munawara who have taken on the judiciary and of a young generation of thinkers like Uzma Falak and Essar Batool who foreground the interaction of gender, politics and religion and won’t let Kashmir forget.
Stitching together their narratives, Behold, I Shine not only memorializes women’s voices—thus far forgotten, unwritten, suppressed or side-lined—but also celebrates the mighty spirit of the Valley.

Review:

Behold, I Shine tells about the plight of Kashmiri women. Kashmir has been ravaged by militancy and the high-handedness of the Indian state has only made matters worse. Freny documents the stories of women who have witnessed sufferings at the hands of not only a rigid, patriarchal society but also the bullets from twin ends, viz. militants and the Indian military.

Given her journalist background, she documents the stories quite diligently and with an eye to each and every detail. Freny decides early that it’s a better idea to let the women tell their story without interruptions which works very well for Behold, I Shine. The book starts with a historical perspective of the Kashmir problem and the real action begins after two chapters. She also alludes to Habba Khatun, the mystic poet whose words resonate with the plight facing Kashmiri women today.

“How does one understand Kashmir and its sense of pervading loss? How has militarization transformed its landscape and eroded its cultural matrix? One was of imagining Kashmir, as it once was, is through Habba Khatun and she symbolizes for people, especially women.”

It is not easy to collect stories in Kashmir where the Indian forces are protected by AFSPA (Armed forces special Powers Act), a draconian law that grants immunity to armed forces in insurgency hit areas. However, there is no such alternative protective cover for the common citizens. The writer faces hostility first hand and in her words:

“A policeman mocked my choice of profession and tried to intimidate me. ‘What are you going to write about us?’ he asked. ‘will you be writing against us?’ I refused to argue with him…”

Given the hardships that Kashmiris face each day, it is surprising to note that the common citizen hasn’t given on Kashmir, not just yet.

“I gave my son to azadi,” remarks a poor woman.

This is a serious read and Freny has diligently provided references and footnotes, hallmark of a good researcher. Perhaps this is also a drawback since this scholarly work deserves attention and is not a fleeting read. It is not something that will appeal to casual readers.

She talks about half-widows, a term frequently used for Kashmiri women whose husbands have gone missing in Kashmir. The stories of all women have a common theme, of loss, economic disintegration and a daily struggle to endure a life of penury without any right to recourse and little positive hope for the future. But it would be premature to ignore the positive aspects that underlay some stories. In spite of the backseat gender identities and equality have taken in Kashmir because of the larger focus of calls for Azadi, some women have focussed on these equally important issues.

Freny touches upon a variety of issues plaguing people in Kashmir and ‘Behold, I Shine’ is in the league of Beauvoir’s, ‘The Second Sex’. It’s that good!

Behold, I Shine is a great attempt at capturing stories of Kashmir’s women, stories that need to be told and have remained untold until now. Take the case of Hameeda who was beaten by the police who demanded that she disclose her cousin’s whereabouts. It is difficult to come to terms with the fact that the Indian state often blurs lines between militants and common citizens in order to extract information.

The last lines taken from a facebook post of a young woman sum up the situation aptly:

“Some want to put the hijab on me and save me. Some want to take the hijab off me and save me. Just give me a break man! I can save myself.”

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