Millennium Post

Desolation

Desolation
The standard discourse surrounding the Kashmir Valley is usually shrouded under the dark cloud of militancy. The early ‘90s was probably the darkest period in the Valley’s history, post independence. However, amongst the numerous layers that wrap itself around the Kashmir discourse, lie stories of heart wrenching personal tragedies of those caught in the crossfire between a restive populace and brutal state. Shahnaz Bashir’s Half Mother belongs to a list of growing voices in the Valley that is willing to articulate the horrors of state repression, through the cathartic medium of fiction. This story is symbolic of those women that have lost their fathers, brothers and sons to custodial interrogation by the Indian army, only to be never found again.

The story begins in Natipora, located in the southern vicinity of Srinagar, with the Joos household at the centre of this narrative. The mundane serenity of everyday life engulfs Haleema, her father Ab Jaan and son, Imran, until 1987. The rigged state elections of 1987 lit the spark of separatism in the Valley and its people were to end up at the receiving end of brutal state violence that shook the idea of India to its very core. Bashir weaves these events through Haleema’s search for her son, who is taken into custody by the army for suspected militant activities and never found thereafter. The sheer succession of personal tragedies that befall Haleema prior to the above event, only accentuates the pain she undergoes during her search for Imran, a high school student.

The environment of fear created around Natipora, with daily curfews, during the Indian army’s presence in the Valley is palpable in Bashir’s prose. After one such ‘raid’ conducted by the army, due to a militant attack on one of its convoy, the author goes onto say, ‘He (Ab Jaan) woke up with the Quran still on his chest. He felt his body, touching each part to ascertain the tangibility of his physicality. He sensed himself with his quivering fingers, affirming whether the solidity of his existence had translated into something that, he thought, could feel like air. He checked himself for bullets and the moistness of blood but only felt the wetness if his pyjamas’. In a subsequent ‘raid’, the army barges into the Joo household, where Ab Jaan is shot dead for his protests, with Haleema and Imran shivering with fear and rage.

Without any time to mourn her father’s death, her son is taken away for ‘interrogation’. It is almost as if her frantic search for her son thereafter, numbs the pain of Ab Jaan’s death. The sheer desperation of her predicament takes her to the police, who refuse to lodge a FIR, the media, courts, army encampments, interrogation centres in an around the Valley, with one such bizarrely named Papa 1, hospitals and all the way to Tihar jail in Delhi. The narrative thereafter moulds into her search for spiritual shelter, which takes her in every time she finds clues of Imran’s whereabouts. She also finds shelter in helping out those mothers who have suffered similar fates. However, such moments of hope are intermittent at best. As Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones poignantly says, ‘If I don’t get some shelter, yeah I’m gonna fade away’. Eventually Haleema’s subsequent moments of loneliness reaches a crescendo when she begins to talk to the walls around her house.

The prose does take you into the heart of Kashmir, albeit with not enough conviction. ‘Once the summer was over, the yellowing leaves began to set up an autumnal aura in the neighbourhood of Natipora. Ferns drooping along the brims of the well withered. Cascading brooks in the orchards fell arid. The gush of torrential rills slowed down to incessant blips’, says the author. The novel is also marked by traditional Kashmiri folk poems and songs that arrive at various moments, depicting Haleema’s mood at various junctures. ‘O crescent moon, why do you hide from me? Sulking as you are, why have you kept me?’, goes one such couplet that Haleema croons, during her desolation at Imran’s absence. The essence of her existential crisis is that she is caught between the idea of suicide and the faint hope that she might find Imran someday. The pain of living life through such moments is caught rather poignantly by the author.

However, in his attempt to quicken the pace of the novel, the transition in narrative from the serenity of pre-1987 to the subsequent horrors of the insurgency-hit Valley, is rather sudden and haphazard, although there is a brief description of the army setting up sand bunkers in and around the neighbourhood. At that juncture, the sense of intrusion that Natipora’s residents feel due to the army’s presence is palpable. In the span of less than 200 pages, the novel flows past a decade, and clearly there are moments when the shift in narrative from one period to another does not flow with much coherence. However, all in all, Bashir does bring home the pain innocent Kashmiri folk endured in an era which will remain a blot on the India’s democratic spirit.
Rinchen Norbu

Rinchen Norbu

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