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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
Cornell University


2010 Nonfiction Runner-Up

Click to see award video
Click to see video

(Click photo to see acceptance speech at awards dinner.)

Justine Hardy
In the Valley of Mist

Justine Hardy has been a journalist for twenty-one years, many of those spent covering South Asia. She is the author of five books ranging in subject from war to Hindi film: The Ochre Border, 1995, was about the reopening of the Tibetan frontier-lands. Her second Scoop-Wallah, 1999, was the story of her time on an Indian newspaper in Delhi. It was short-listed for the Thomas Cook/Daily Telegraph Travel Book Award 2000 and serialised on BBC Radio 4. Goat: A Story of Kashmir and Notting Hill, 2000, was an inside look at life in Kashmir and Notting Hill, two places drawn together by the latter’s obsession with the fine pashmina weave of the Kashmir Valley. This was also serialised on BBC Radio 4. Bollywood Boy, 2002, was a bestseller in which the Hindi film industry was the vehicle for a closer look at the obsession with fame as it crept West to East, as well as a closer look at the darker side of an industry pumping out high-octane escapism for an audience of over a billion. The Wonder House, 2005, is a novel set in Kashmir against the background of the conflict, and based on Justine’s experience of frontline coverage, time spent in militant training camps, and amongst the extremists. It was short-listed for the Author’s Club best first novel in 2006. Her books have been translated into nine languages including Hindi and Serbian.

Justine writes for The Financial Times. She also freelances for The Times, various Condé Nast magazines such as Vanity Fair and Traveler, as well as other publications.

As a documentary maker and presenter she started at Channel 4 in 1996 on BAFTA-nominated series Urban Jungle. She has worked on several BBC strands in India for both BBC and BBC World. Justine was a presenter on Travel TV for four years. Her most recent work was as a co-presenter with Jerry Hall on a series about Eastern philosophy’s journey West for BBC.

Justine is a director of the NGO in India that she wrote about in Goat. Development Research and Action Group sets up schools in slum areas of Delhi that have been over-looked by the bigger international agencies, usually because of the problems of slum politics. After the earthquake in Kashmir in October 2005 Justine was involved in setting up an NGO with some Kashmiri friends in The Valley. The Kashmir Welfare Trust is building homes, schools and medical centres in some of the worst effected areas, as well as moving into conflict mediation. In England Justine is part of New Bridge, a foundation working on the rehabilitation of life sentence prisoners before release.

Justine has been studying Eastern philosophy and yoga all through her adult life. She teaches yoga and philosophy in the UK and in India, both in Delhi and in the schools that The Kashmir Welfare Trust has in The Valley.

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“It has given me such pleasure learning about how the Dayton Literary Peace Prize spreads the idea of peace through the written word. I could not be in more agreement with what you are doing, and it is so in tune with what we are trying to achieve with our work in Kashmir. It had been an honour to be a nominee, and now to be runner-up ... well, the smile at this end is huge. It is also a great tribute to the courageous people I am working with in Kashmir. We all thank you.”

—Justine Hardy                        

 

 
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