“Don’t you want to learn? Don’t you want to read?” Bayed Mubarak asks this question to himself whenever he finds it difficult to read. “And the answer is always affirmative.” 

Reading books began as a leisurely activity for Mr. Mubarak, a resident of south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, when he was in class 8. A student of literature at Lovely Professional University, Punjab, today, he said that reading became an important aspect of life. “Now I read around 50 books in a year. Before that I would not even consider myself a reader,” he said.

The lockdown that was enforced amid the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic brought with it disruption of routine and increased levels of anxiety, said Mr. Mubarak. “The lockdown had a very strong effect on my mental health. I have been reading less than I used to,” he said. “Reading sometimes contributes to anxiety too. It’s like a double-edged sword, a Shakespearean dilemma: to read or not to read.”

Even though lockdowns are a familiar drill in Kashmir, the lockdown in March was merely a continuation of the lockdown that was enforced on 5 August 2019, when the GoI unilaterally abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and statehood. 

Since then–and amid a continued curb on the internet–some Kashmiris have stocked up on another essential: books. While the frequent lockdowns have disrupted businesses, education, and the marriage season, its impact on the book reading culture in Kashmir is beginning to show.

To read or not to read

For 23-year-old Toiba Paul, a literature student from Srinagar, the events since last August have taken a heavy toll on her ability to focus. “What happened since August and the situation we were dealing with, it was absolutely impossible for me to read or do anything that needed concentration,” she said. “For a person like me, who is a constant reader, not being able to read anything was a different sort of pain and frustration.”

However, for some, the lockdown meant more time at hand to read. Diya Kaiser, who recently graduated from high-school, read a book in a day unlike before the lockdown when she needed a few days.

“When the lockdown started in August 2019, I finished 13 books in the first month only,” she said. “There was an internet shutdown, I literally ended up finishing one book in hours. I had no distraction at all. My reading habits improved.”

Ms. Kaiser had started reading when she was in class 4, drawing inspiration from her father who would read books in front of her. “I didn’t understand books in the beginning but they interested me. I wanted to read more,” she said. “I was curious. As [author] Haruki Murakami says in his book Kafka on the Shore that the world in the book is more alive. And it just felt like that. I started collecting and reading books.”

A year of no business

The online bookstore, Lachowk, started their venture in 2017 with fashion products and electronics but later shifted to books due to the overwhelming public demand. Lalchowk resumed operations in December 2019, taking orders over the phone and SMS in the absence of the internet. 

“Sales were quite low due to obvious reasons,” said Mr. Ashai. “Sales picked up after February when 2G was restored. Before the COVID-19 lockdown in March, sales were quite good but then again, deliveries were stopped due to lockdown. After June relaxation, sales were beyond our expectations.”

The internet shutdown and lockdown also affected their company profile after orders to mainland India were cancelled, resulting in negative feedback. “We are going to be three years old next month with around one year of no business. August 2019 was a jolt for us.”

The successive lockdowns and curbs on the internet had left booksellers in Kashmir with barely a few months of business since August last year. Gulshan Books’ three outlets in Srinagar and one in Leh, Ladakh have remained mostly shut since then. “Our sales had decreased rapidly,” said Mr. Maied.

That, however, did not deter Gulshan Books from distributing about one thousand books, including fiction and nonfiction, to different government-run quarantine centers during the March lockdown. 

The quarantine centers consisted of a large number of students who had returned from various cities across the country. “The internet is on 2G and there were no other facilities there,” said Mr. Maed. “So, we thought of contributing by providing these students with books so that the students could stay busy there”. The gesture was widely appreciated.

Gulshan Books had started delivering books but the successive lockdowns have made operations difficult. “All the books are kept in the shop only, we could not go there to take out the books in order to deliver [but] when the unlock process started, we got an amazing response from people,” said Mr. Maied. “They rushed into our store, youngsters came in to buy books because everyone was bored because of the situation.’ 

Following the reimposition of a partial lockdown on 13 July 2020, said Mr. Maied, “the situation is [again] the same”.

Relooking the past

One perceptible change in reading habits after the lockdown began after the removal of the semi-autonomous status of J-K last August. Both Mr. Mubarak’s and Ms. Paul’s reading interests have changed completely after August. 

“Ever since they scraped Article 370,” said Mr. Mubarak. “I have developed this overwhelming desire to read and learn about Kashmir. Most of the books I’ve read ever since have been about Kashmir. Also, I realized that I’m not necessarily inclined towards nonfiction but most of what I have read ever since is nonfiction only.”

Bookshop owners in Srinagar have also observed the readers’ interests gradually shift from fiction to nonfiction, especially towards the history of Kashmir. “I noticed that previously youngsters used to buy only fiction but since August 2019,” said Sheikh Maied, manager at one of Srinagar’s oldest and prominent bookstores, Gulshan Books. 

“Kashmiri youth is now more inclined towards reading books about Kashmir and its history. They are curious to know more about what happened after 1947 in Kashmir,” said Mr. Maied. 

According to Haseeb Ashai, co-founder of an online bookstore called Lalchowk, the interests of young Kashmiris has changed. “Books by Franz Kafka, Elif Shafak, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, and similar authors are the usual selling ones,” he said of the pre-lockdown demands. “But now we receive overwhelming orders on books about Kashmir, politics, and conflict. Mirza Waheed, Shahnaz Bashir, Agha Shahid are what they constantly order but books by Khalid Bashir beat them all.”

Khalid Bashir, a former Kashmir Administrative Services (KAS) officer turned author, has written books challenging popular narratives on Kashmir. His most recent books, Exposing the myth behind the narrative and Kashmir: A Walk Through History, challenges the dominant narratives on Kashmir that trace back to centuries-old documented history as well as the recent past.

Mr. Ashai added that young Kashmiris are also reading the works of the British settlement commissioner in Kashmir from 1889–1894, Walter Lawrence, author, and academic Christopher Snedden, as well as revolutionary Urdu poets like Allama Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. 

“I guess that’s what conflict does to you. People used to buy books related to Kashmir before as well but it increased after August 2019,” said Mr. Ashai. “People choose truth over fiction.”

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