Living On The Edge: Women In Danesh Rana’s ‘Red Maize’

In the past 26 years of armed conflict in Jammu and Kashmir, a number of contemporary fiction and non-fiction narratives have come out which reflect the trauma and the sufferings of the people impacted by the conflict in this beautiful Himalayan border state. Among such writings,

“Red Maize” is a novel by Danesh Rana, a senior IPS officer of J&K cadre who is presently working as Inspector General of Police (IGP), Jammu zone. Having been a witness to the conflict for all these years, his book reflects the human cost of war especially its impact on the women of the war-ravaged region.

Set in a nondescript village of Morha Madana overlooking the Chenab river in erstwhile Doda district of Jammu province, the fiction reflects life when the arc of militancy got stretched to the peaceful districts of Jammu region including Doda, Poonch and Rajouri.  The village of Morha Madana also witnesses increased movement of gun-toting militants in the hills. As these militants fight in the name of azadi, the euphoria attracts some of the young boys from the villages in the folds of militancy which ultimately tears apart the lives of its villagers.

The protagonist of the fiction is a widow by the name Kausar Jan who has three sons – Khalid, Shakeel and Firdous. Lured by the gun and the slogans for Azadi which are now resonating the valleys along the Chenab river in Jammu province, Shakeel who is Kausar Jan’s second son, join the ranks of a militant organization thus becoming Morha Madana’s first mujahid and later a dreaded area commander. Shakeel’s elder brother Khalid who does not associate himself with azadi or its ideology, however is dragged into the conflict after he is repeatedly picked up by an army officer Major Rathore and his men and tortured just because his brother happens to be the most wanted terrorist in the region. As the events unfold, Shakeel is forced to pick up the gun and disappears. The youngest school going son Firdous becomes a policeman and is later killed by the police after labeling him a deserter who tried to escape from the force to join militant ranks.

“Red Maize” is thus the story of Kausar Jan – a mother who is caught in the crossfire between the militants and the army; like the hundreds and thousands of women of the state. Like all mothers whose sons joined the ranks of militant organizations in the initial years of turmoil in valley, Kausar Jan would also get worried initially but would console herself that everything would be fine. This is also a time when the Che Guveras of Azadi are welcomed by the mothers in Kashmiri households. The women welcome the Mujahids with open arms and shower candies on them and sing wedding songs known as “Wanwun” in their honour, this trend is also seen in Doda district in the Red Maize.

“It was believed that the houses that received the knock of the mujahids were chosen by Allah himself to host His sons. The women of these fortunate houses would break into wuwan-the weddings songs-and the delectable aromas of spices and mutton would fill their kitchens.”

Initially, riding on the azadi wave, mothers and sisters from Kashmir valley sent their sons and brothers to seek azadi and wage a jihad in Jammu and Kashmir, but the euphoria died down slowly which has also been reflected in the novel.

“It is fassad, it is not jihad”, …the people of Morrha Madana also realize that this is not getting them anything. Their peaceful lives have been torn apart and the honour of their daughters and sisters is also not safe.”

There are some other characters too in the plot. Gul Mohammad, the village headman who had lusted Kauser Jan when she became a young widow, is a double agent working both for the army and the militants. His house is being used by the militants to take refuge. Besides food and shelter, they also demand their daughters and sisters too to satiate their sexual urge. In these past years of conflict in J&K, there have been such countless stories wherein the militants, on gunpoint, demanded their daughters from parents and the poor parents could do nothing but watch the honour of their daughters being ripped apart. “Red Maize” also reflects this reality. For instance, the author writes:

“…Gul Mohammad had become close confident of the Tanzeem. His older daughter Hasina was a young woman of immense beauty. Unfortunately, she caught the prurient eye of a mujahid. Gul Mohammad was shattered man on the day that a gun was placed on his heart and he helplessly watched his sobbing girl being led to an adjoining room. After a few hours when she emerged from the room the shame of the misdeed glazed her eye. Soon the house was famed not only for its hospitality, but also for Hasina. This left a deep impression on the young girl’s mind. Her soul became subservient to her body. Each time there was a knock on the door, she would start to shiver and look for the place to hide. However, she could not run away from the reality when the guns were pointed at her parents”.

The novel further takes the readers to much more horrific brutal crimes committed by militants on the hapless village girls. Gul Mohammad’s 14-year old beautiful daughter Fozia is forcibly picked by these mujahids and presented to their God man Rehmtullah Peer in his hideout where she is brutally raped by him. She gets killed in an encounter in the same night along with Peer. Later, Gul Mohammad’s elder daughter Hasina avenges her sister’s death by getting Shakeel killed by the army. The plight of the women of the village does not end here. There is another painful story of Gulfiroz village where mujahids forcibly solemnize marriage of their top commander Shakeel with Nilofer, the daughter of a respectable family. After Shakeel’s killing, she is left with his three-month unborn.

The forced marriage of Nilofer to Shakeel is also a reminder of the fact that during the peak of militancy, Forced Marriages or Muttah (contract) marriages were very common in the hills of Pir Panjal and many girls were forced into such unions. There were instances wherein Maulvis were kidnapped and asked to sign fake nikahnaamas (marriage certificates).

In Red Maze, Kausar Jan comes across as hundreds and thousands of such women who are caught in this conflict and are left with no choice but to play the role of survivors and resistors by sometimes coping with the situation and defying at other times. This is the same ordeal that hundreds of women go through in daily routine if their sons or kiths and kins have joined militancy and they have to pay a heavy price for it. Again, when she goes to meet her younger son Firdous who is studying in Doda district, she stays in a Government dormitory which is meant for destitute women and also houses some half-widows – the women whose husbands have gone missing in the conflict and now it is an endless wait for their wives who do not know if they are alive or dead.

The novel which won Tata Literature Live!  First Book Award-Fiction at The Sixth Mumbai International Literary Festival, very beautifully portrays Kausar Jan as a mother who changes many descriptions- from being a militant’s mother to a half mother to a policeman’s mother to finally not being a mother at all when she loses all of her three sons to the bloody conflict.

“If Firdous was torn between his personal battles of existence, so was Kausar Jan. Now she was also known as the mother of an SPO, a far cry from the time

when she has been known as the mother of mujahids…(Page 242)”

The award winning fiction beautifully sums up the female protagonist who has suffered immense pain and trauma in just two paragraphs:

“Kausar Jan was being ripped apart at the dilemma of being the mother of two mujahids and a third who was an SPO, fighting against the Tanzeem. Her loyalty was being pulled in opposite directions; she was being pricked by a million needles of guilty love, and her endurance was reaching its threshold. No mother could ever choose between her sons. There was no way that she could let any one of them leave her.

She had become a metaphor for Kashmir, the coveted vale of the conflict. She was the battle between the mujahids and soldiers. She was being wooed and humiliated at the same time. She was the vast meadow of a million blooming flowers and she was the land strewn with deadly thorns. She was the mother of all disputes. She was victim and aggressor, terrorist and soldier, jannat and jahanum, Firdous and Shakeel…..She was both the witness and the perpetrator, responsible for turning the maize red. (Page 243)

In Red Maize, by creating Kausar Jan, Danesh Rana has created a stereotype of women belonging to conflict ridden areas. All the similar tribulations, exploitations and sexploitations experiences by all the women studies in these three literary works make it concretely apparent that there is a crystal clear analogy between their social positions and sufferings. (The author who is Director and Head, Department of Lifelong Learning, University of Jammu and Member, J&K State Commission for Women, can be reached at