By Fatima Haffejee
I was fortunate enough, a few years back, to have travelled to India and Kashmir.. Whilst others complained of the stench and the unavoidable poverty, I looked beyond that and saw beauty instead which has long since instilled in me a love for traveling.
When I learned that Shubnum Khan, author of the book ‘Onion tears’, had spent some time living in Kashmir and teaching the locals I was curious to share in her experiences.
When she first visited Kashmir . Shabnum made a promise to herself that she would return to live there for a while, “It’s one of the most beautiful and inspiring places I’ve been to in the world”, she says, “I wanted to understand the place better, so what better way than to live with the locals? ”She never knew how the plan would work out and it seemed an impossible wish, but in retrospect everything worked out perfectly. She loved the idea of teaching the local children and living in a village. “I think if you can believe in something strongly enough, it will find a way to happen”.
Initially, there were fears of course. It was the first time she had ever lived away from her parents or from home; and then too on a mountain, in a village, in a conflict region. “I had many fears about my safety and not being able to adapt to a foreign environment, in fact I worried about too many things, from leopards, to ear worms, to djinns, to how finicky I was about food; but ultimately, my biggest fear at the time overcame everything else- that I would stay stuck in my comfort zone and continue being afraid” For Shabnum, it was more important to tackle her fears than worry about a market of fleas and a lack of chicken fillet. Her craving for experience and desire to be brave was what kept her motivated through the experience. “I’m the youngest of four protected girls and I’ve lived at home all my life; this was my moment to prove to myself that I could be strong and take on a challenge”.
The local people speak Kashmiri and Urdu. The plan was that she would learn Urdu while she was there. However, due to the number of foreign volunteers at the school in the past; the children were already quite fluent in English and by the time she had arrived they were already speaking it full-time in class. “I taught them English and the main thing was getting them to spell correctly and string sentences together in the right order. It’s amazing how quickly they pick up on the languages”
Shabnum was fortunate enough to have stayed in the Jammu region of Jammu and Kashmir. Living up on a mountain meant that she wasn’t subjected to many security measures. “In Srinagar, yes, there is a heavy, stifling, military presence (there’s more than half a million Indian soldiers in Indian administered Kashmir!), but I didn’t experience any of that in the village. There was some conflict in my area between the Hindus and Muslims that led to curfew just a few weeks before I arrived, but it resolved quite quickly” While in Srinagar however, she was frustrated.. “You may not directly be affected as a tourist, but just visually with such a dominant army presence, you can begin to understand why the people have grown so frustrated and why there have been so many uprisings in recent years.”
Shabnum used to tweet about her experiences with the children in the village. She used to often post drawing that they had done for her too. She admits that there were no real challenges teaching them. “They were quite comfortable with me and the other South African volunteer. They love Hashim Amla- usually back South Africa in cricket too- and even have a coveted South African flag. We also taught them the anthem and you’d be surprised at how quickly they picked up Zulu. They love easily and wholesomely especially if they sense that you respect them and are serious about teaching them. The only challenge I faced was leaving them. It was a heart wrenching, teary week, when I left”.
Shabnum describes one of the main highlights of her stay in Kashmir as having the opportunity to teach the local children and being given the privilege of living with simple, hardworking and good people. “It really took me out of my comfort zone and even for that, I am grateful. I really wanted to learn something about patience and working hard and experiencing different cultural and social conditions. I feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to pursue this dream by my parents, who must have worried a lot while I was away. Every single moment was a highlight, even the bad experiences”
She goes on to say that Kashmir has always been close to her heart, partly because of it’s haunting beauty, but especially because of the resilience of the people; fighting for their freedom despite insurmountable odds.
As a young Muslim woman with a successful career behind her, Shabnum felt the need to to isolate herself from the everyday luxuries that she had grown immune to. She describes this as a terrible habit. “The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) always said we should look at those that have less than w, not those that have more than us and there is so much wisdom in that, especially in this day and age. We live in a society where we are encouraged to flaunt our wealth and successes, and so even if we don’t want to, we are constantly comparing ourselves to others. We live in constant state of want” Shabnum felt the need to forget about comparisons, forget about her current ideas and let herself go. This was achieved by allowing herself to be engulfed by something that felt real to her. “Whatever happened, I knew I had to do it and despite my parents being completely against it at first, it actually happened with their blessings in the end. I think if your intentions are true and determined, then anything can happen”.
Authors Note: Towards the end of my interview with Shabnum, I asked her some important question in relation to her novel Onion Tears as well as her personal opinion regarding life and being a strong, independent woman. This was her response:
Q) Your book, Onion Tears, touches on certain stereotypes that plague Muslim women of our time. What do you believe are some of the biggest challenges modern- day Muslim women face?
I think it’s the challenge that everyone faces; just being able to find a balance. Between what is good or bad, right or wrong and finding a path that is true to yourself and also to your Creator. You can only manage that path with reflection, good intention and knowledge.
Q) By and large, women are continuously striving to find themselves in this modern day era. Many writers have taken to blogging, fictional stories based on stereotypes and satire.. Some writers have even gone on to make a success of it. Do you (as a writer yourself) see a downside to the availability of a platform for “wanna-be” authors?
I think it’s great that online media had provided opportunities to young people to express themselves – we need more people exploring their creativity. The only concern is that such platforms can potentially burn out any real creativity or talent because it thrives on immediacy to survive. Writing is an act of truth-telling and truth comes with patience. Hence stories are not always cultivated long enough or with enough effort or editing. There’s a certain art and respect to every field and we’re living in an age where everything from music to film can be reduced to a consumerist, simple form that sells. You can be wildly successful doing this, but at the end of the day, what matters personally for me, is being able to feel the words ring with truth. My advice is to believe in your writing and cultivate a patience for it; at the end of the day good writing will stand on its own without any props or gimmicks.
Q) Media and the like, more often than not, can be viewed as effective “brain washing tools”. As women we are constantly subjected by this notion of having to ‘look good and to feel good.’ Do you suppose this barrier of who we are against social expectations of us can ever be eluded?
It can be eluded, if only we believed in ourselves strongly enough. Once you’re there it doesn’t matter what anyone says; you know what you are, what you stand for and what you need to feel good about yourself. The funny thing is, once that happens, everyone around you feels it too and sees you for your inner, not your outer beauty. How awesome is that? If only we had the courage to actually try it.
Q) Was your stay in Kashmir in any way cathartic? Did it redefine the person that you are?
I’m not sure I could go as far as saying it redefined who I am; those are big words, but it definitely changed the way I saw things. I really wanted to take myself out of my comfort zone and learn something about patience. I’m quieter, confident and easy going now compared to before where I felt I always had to be in control and worried a lot. The main thing for me right now, is to make those lessons last; it’s easy to get sucked back into normal life and old habits.
BOOK REVIEW: ONION TEARS
Author: Shubnum Khan
Intertwined in this realistic portrayal of a society drenched in stereotypes are the lives of three women form three consecutive generations: A mother, daughter and grand-daughter.
Khadeejah Bibi Ballim, a first generation Indian is characterized by the smell of onions that cling to her clothes and her curries which can be smelled miles away. She immerses herself in her cooking- the thud-thud of the kitchen knife against the solid block of wood, the slivers of a green chillies, the perfect backdrop to her life; that is what she does best. She survived the suicidal death of her husband and the immigration of her only son Naeem to Australia, both incidents that left her alone with her dhaniya and ghee buckets for company.
Summaya Ballim is thirty seven. The wounds of the past are still etched deep into her being and she cannot find the courage to share with her eleven year old daughter, Aneesa. Summaya struggles to find her place in a society predominantly ruled by misconceived notions and gender inequality..
Convinced that her mother is hiding the truth from her, she is determined to unearth the “truth” along with her best friend, Hoosen. As a result, little cracks start carving their way through her life and the uneasiness cannot be soothed, even with her grandmother’s cooking.
Onion Tears brings to light the damaging consequence of unchanging mind-sets. –Shubnum Khan has a way with words that is both descriptive as well as captivating.