In the Valley of Mist
In the Valley of Mist is a brilliant work of the mind and the heart. Combining an uncompromising sense of how
complex the world is, and a near-Chekhovian ability to show us our foibles and to evince our great, often indecorous,
passions, Justine Hardy’s poetic book about the Kashmir Valley— and the terrible human cost of the dislocations
there — is a paean to the great and difficult work of building friendships between the author and the Dar family,
between an Englishwoman and a Muslim family, and the near-inassimilable legacy of loss that ceaseless war and
ceaseless destruction exacts on a beautiful land and its inhabitants. It is a book about people who want the best
for their children and who know, first-hand, the dangers of a rising fundamentalism. And it is a book that makes
us understand — in evocative, human-centered prose — that those who so frighten us are also frightened. And it is
a book written by a woman, with a rich eye for detail and a lovely sense of the alliterative; a woman, with a
British sense of a woman’s agency, who, understandably, finds much in the Kashmir Valley to be distasteful in
its treatment of women. And it is a book, judicious as always, that provides us with the full measure of the
Kasmiri woman’s sense of herself — of her interiority — which differs markedly from Hardy’s conception. There are
no easy categorizations in Hardy’s work. There are only, as Hardy writes, “the stories… from inside their
world” (my italics).
At the end of the Second World War, the scholar Oscar Williams, in a very pithy introduction to his anthology of
British and American poetry, wrote: “In this difficult time, it is only the human heart that may prove provident
enough to outweigh the atomic bomb.” And in no small sense, Justine Hardy’s book is just as provocatively situated,
for the Kashmir Valley is the locus of great political shifts and currents, ideologies of religious fundamentalism
and competing nationalisms, desires for self-determination and regional superiority, great upswellings of amassed
hurts and distorted dreams, and the contested domain of two competing nuclear powers — India and Pakistan. And yet
it is also one of the most beautiful places on the face of the planet, which Hardy describes in writing as lyrical
as it is trenchant.
Although In the Valley of Mist is the story of the Dar family — and Hardy’s evolving friendship with them and their
beautiful valley — it is just as demonstrably the narrative of how one apprehends difference, during great cultural
and political upheaval. The author is a long-term visitor to the Kashmir Valley, where she grew up as a young girl,
at first appreciating as a young person does, the great pageantry of the life about her. As a self-conscious
adolescent, she witnesses a young boy kill a goat for a religious festival, Bakra Eid. Hardy quickly comprehends
the boy’s reticence — he does not want to kill the animal. And yet in that moment of shared commiseration, we confront
the great divide that experience, religion, and history provide. In many ways, this book is the chronicle of such
weighty moments of connection and miss-connection.
Still, time and time again, Hardy startles us with her ability to empathize with the voiceless. Her description
of how the poor become easy conscripts for terrorism is chilling in its veracity. Her description of the village
of Kunan Poshpura, where Indian solders allegedly raped the entire female population, and where the women are in a
state of psychic and social pariahdom, is horrific:
It was too soon for a response: from the army, from the victims, even from the families.
Everything seemed to be in slow motion of collision. There seemed to be no afternoon and
evening calls to prayer from the small mosque at one end of the main street. If villagers
were going to prayer they moved noiselessly through the streets behind closed doors.
In cold smoky kitchens there were no questions to be asked. Hands were held, faces touched
during long silences. Men seemed absent, the sound of crying usually that of a female relative,
not the victim, but someone still able to make sound. Cold stones were settling into the
cores of those silent women, sealing off the soft part of them that it would no longer be
able to reach. Some of them were curled up, shivering, regardless of how many blankets had
been laid over them to try to smother what had happened. Some squatted on their haunches,
rocking back and forth. Most of those I met had not even washed since the attacks, the
salty shock of their abuse still smeared on bruised skin and torn clothes.
In the Valley of Mist, Hardy reminds us that all true human connection depends on a reverence for human
experience, which cannot be denied. A British woman and a Muslim man can find moments of solidarity, but only if
it is based on mutual respect and mutual acknowledgement of what is ultimately untranslatable in human affairs.
As Hardy writes about her friend Mohammad Dar, with whom she has shared much: “We work together. There are gaps,
cultural voids that we fall into, sentences left unfinished, times when we have to turn away from each other.”
And yet, thank goodness, there are also times when, “He lets me catch up and we talk about things that are needed
for the school. Sometimes he asks [my] advice about something.” Such small, fledgling moments of trust, such
small openings for comity, Justine Hardy reminds us, are at the center of the world’s calculus.
In this dark time, when the fate of the planet may in fact depend on such hard-won moments of interconnection,
Hardy’s book becomes revelatory. There is little of the romantic in this — Hardy is too clear-eyed. But like Anton
Chekhov, or the great African American writer James Baldwin, Justine Hardy realizes that self-knowledge is the
first step in the knowledge of others, that although we may lie to ourselves about the world, the world is under
no obligation to lie for us. As Justine Hardy underscores in her magnificent book, and in her great philanthropic
work in the Kashmir Valley, true intercultural cooperation can only be forged — slowly, with great judiciousness,
and with great humility. In this ever-dangerous world, with its ever-increasing manifold dangers, we had best
listen to her.
- Kenneth McClane, 2010 finalist judge