The Forgotten Forays of a Foreign Journalist into Kashmir

Justine Hardy’s books on India need to be re-read as much for their exploration of a world left behind as for their predictions.

THERE is a page in Justine Hardy’s fourth book about India where the author enters a shop inside the Lake Palace hotel in Udaipur and sees a woman trying to sell a pashmina shawl to a German shopper. The Indian woman floats a pile of shawls in front of the customer. When Hardy approaches her and tells her why she is there, she gets her manager who asks Hardy what kind of shawl she is looking for. The woman quickly tells him, “She is looking for Hrithik Roshan, not pashmina.”

That is not exactly true. In the late 1990s, Hardy did in fact look – very hard – for pashmina. Her search took her from the narrow bylanes of Delhi’s Jor Bagh market, through a shop in a five-star hotel, to dyers in Lajpat Nagar and, ultimately, to houseboats on Lake Nagin in Srinagar.

But it is also true that a couple of years later, she set out in pursuit of a different subject – the newborn superstar from the 2000 film Kaho Na…Pyaar Hai. These quests led to two books – GOAT (2000) and Bollywood Boy (2002.)

Pashmina and Kashmir

The first of these books takes its title from the Himalayan goat whose undercoat or pashm is used to weave pashmina shawls. The story begins around1998:

“Not very many people knew what pashmina was then, in the days before it was so liberally draped around the shoulders of the great and the glittering in the world of high fashion. Then, pashmina had been the preserve of Indian women and a few frequent visitors to the subcontinent who had discovered the rose-petal kiss of the mountain goats. But I had had an idea. If pashmina had appeared on the cover of Vogue, then it wouldn’t be long before the ladies-who-lunch at Notting Hill would be wanting it too, in every colour that Abdullah the storyteller had ever dreamt of.”

Justine at a counseling session in Srinagar

Thus begins Hardy’s venture whereby she buys shawls from Kashmiri weavers in India, sells them to the fashionable, wealthy women of Notting Hill, and sends the proceeds back to an Indian NGO that works to educate slum children. What is of interest to readers is not so much these non-profits but the multiple threads Hardy weaves together into her narrative with the dexterity of pashmina weavers. One thing leads to another in her project. For instance, her interest in pashmina leads to a discussion of the history of Kashmir, from the time of India’s independence to the rise of Islamic extremism. The author’s attempt to understand this rise in turn prompts her to study the Koran.

The history of pashmina is intertwined with the crisis in Kashmir. GOAT was published soon after the Kargil War. Hardy records some of the changes that crept into the area’s beautiful landscape by juxtaposing images. One moment we see this – “…the lake in thick afternoon sunshine, the shimmering reflection of the water danced across the swagged material above my head. A Himalayan falcon hung on a cushion of air, watching the silver slide of the fish below the surface.” And the next, we discover soldiers “standing braced in the back, black bandannas around their heads, the fingers on the triggers of their guns.”

Through insurgency and war, the lives of ordinary Kashmiris are irreversibly changed. Instead of moralising, Hardy holds up a mirror to the images she sees and the people she meets. Not everyone is always nice. Some try to cheat her, other lie about the origin of pashmina. Ten years of military occupation leave scars on the buildings and families of the region. The author favours reality over romance when it comes to depicting Kashmir. But this does not mean that the book is all doom and gloom. On the contrary, it is at times light as a feather and radiant as the fine pashm of a mountain goat when it is dyed in the waters of the Dal Lake.

Hardy also uses contrasting images of India and England but not in a heavy-handed way. The book flows naturally from the backdrop of poor slum children and militancy in India to the elegant parlours of of Notting Hill, where the ladies are pining for pashmina. The London sections provide a relief from the troubles in the subcontinent but not without a sardonic look at the vanities of Hardy’s clients who demand colors that match mimosa or a mother’s garden in Provence. But the descriptions of the shawls naturally add colour to what is essentially  a serious subject.

It is easy to fall in love with pashmina after reading this book. The orders Hardy receives are a sensory delight – “My day-book shimmered with colour – rinsed pomegranate, pale peony, deep castor, Valhrona chocolate and the colour of the outback sky.” The shawls float in the air and adorn the shoulders of beautiful women, but they also act as a reminder of the harsh realities of the region they come from.

The only irritating thing about the book is how the Indian phrases are all translated. An example – “ ‘Maf kijiye – excuse me,’ I said.” But to the author’s credit, she is self-conscious about her representation of Indians and seems aware of the danger of objectifying her poor subjects. When she uses children from the slum to model her shawls, she reports one of them as saying, “ ‘You want pictures of beggars. We are not beggars. Our father is working in a factory. He is making plastic bags.’ ” Her audience may be primarily Western, but her focus is original enough to be of interest to Indian readers and her writing never becomes dry despite the gravity of her subject matter.

Lights, camera, action

The gravity of Hrithik Roshan is harder to pin down. Bollywood Boy tracks Hardy’s attempt to meet the star following his meteoric rise to superstardom with his film debut. As she sets off in pursuit to try and unravel the enigma of his sudden and absurd fame, she also ends up unravelling much else.

During the year in which he eludes her, she encounters other Bollywood folk such as the established choreographer Pinky Ali, the veejay turned actress Sophiya Haque, the gay assistant director Raf, and the veteran film journalist Meena. Hardy talks to everyone about Hrithik, from her cleaning lady to the women at her beauty salon, and all the women in India, irrespective of age, seem to be united in their adoration. But the book is not just Hrithik Roshan. He is merely an excuse to explore the culture of Bollywood.

Much of the book is quite funny with clever caricatures of Bombay’s rich and famous. We see Meena preening at a small Parsi café that she finds “so sweet.” We see a young wannabe director making a film about a hairdresser and a dildo. The petite Sophiya Haque calls everyone babe, and the more experienced actor Anupam Kher keeps looking around during his interview to see if anyone’s watching him. It isn’t just the stars but also their sycophantic fans who manage to look slightly ridiculous in these pages. Even as everyone takes themselves and their surroundings extremely seriously, it is hard for readers to do so.

As is to be expected, the Western observer finds Bollywood movies themselves to be as absurd as those involved in their production. Of course, the book was published in 2002 and mainstream Hindi cinema has changed a lot since then. So her summary seems slightly dated, but not totally, for many of the formulae continue to be churned out year after year.

Hardy emphasises the fantasy element of the movies – “In the world of Bollywood, India finds a panacea for all her ills.” But her summaries reduce Indian mainstream cinema to parodies of themselves. Here is a brief synopsis of a key scene in the Hrithik Roshan-Kareena Kapoor filmYaadein, shot in London:

“Possibly the finest scene involved Hrithik warning his love interest, Kareena, not to go on a river outing. She, in true feisty heroine fashion, ignores his remonstrations and heads off. Naturally she is attacked by crocodiles, on the Thames, as is wont to happen beyond the Thames Barrier. And naturally Hrithik comes to the rescue wearing a very tight vest, his signature black bandanna flying in the wind as he scoots past Docklands in his high-speed rescue dinghy.”

But the plot summaries of the movies are the only part of the book that might seem simplistic. Hardy may frequently hang out at the swank Breach Candy Club where the pool is shaped like the map of India, or at hot bars and restaurants where she rubs shoulders with B-list celebs and their groupies. But she does not write exclusively about the rich and famous.

Instead, she makes her way to the red light district of Kamathipura, traces the underworld connections with the film industry, and discusses the decline of Parsi cafes. We see the city of Bombay in all its splendour and all its shame. We see “Bollywood” rush by in a collage of giant movie posters.

Fardeen Khan is arrested for possession of cocaine. Sanjay Dutt is arrested for holding AK47s. Rakesh Roshan is shot at in the dead of night. A former dancer who could not make it in Bollywood turns to prostitution in the city’s famous red light district. One of the glossy colour photographs in the middle of the book shows a pensive Hrithik Roshan “away from the bright lights,” contemplating perhaps the question someone asks Hardy to pass on to the star – “You ask your film star when you catch him if he would have started at all if he had known what it really was going to be like high up on the pedestal.”

GOAT and Bollywood Boy are very different in tone and the subjects they cover. But what they have in common is excellent reportage. They are both full of drama, suspense, poetry, humour, and characters that come alive on the page. For anyone seeking good non-fiction about India, here are two books that are both entertaining and informative.

Since they were published a decade and a half ago, it is also fun to see how some things have turned out. In GOAT, Wangnoo the weaver predicts that perhaps Mrs Clinton – who reportedly bought pashmina from him – will one day become the first woman president of the United States. He may be right. In Bollywood Boy, Hrithik Roshan is hailed as a challenger to the Khans, who are in their mid-thirties and presumed to be fading. More than a decade later, the Khans are still going strong, but it is Roshan’s light that may have dimmed a little.

In the end both the movie industry and the beauty of pashmina seem like a fantastic illusion for those who consume them. Hardy’s words about one can be applied to either – “It is the distance that creates the sparkle, the remoteness that feeds the fantasy.”    — Scroll.in

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