Reviews, Vol I, Issue II
How do you tell a tale which can’t have a regular ending? As the closure we look for, eludes us even in real life. However, these stories need to be told – they are screaming to be told. To leave them untold would be such a loss for humanity- there are lessons to be learnt. Also, it’s said that one thing more difficult than the beginning of a novel is knowing how to end it. The challenges would require deft handling of the content and mastering the craft of storytelling. Shahnaz Bashir’s debut novel The Half Mother does all these and more. Published by Hachette India, the novel is set in Kashmir in the 1990s.
The novel is divided into three parts – Book I, II & III. The first two parts are narrated in the authorial voice. Book III represents the Random Notes by one of the characters in the novel, Izhar, a correspondent working for the BBC. Relegating the job of taking the narrative forward to one of the characters makes it interesting and shows the craft of the writer. Izhar as a character is both the observer and the observed, being and becoming the narrator.
The novel tells a story of a woman - Haleema - searching for her disappeared son, Imran. Haleema is the only child of Ab Jaan – real name Ghulam Rasool Joo and Boba of Natipora. Ab Jaan is an industrious man making his ends meet by dabbling into various odd jobs and finally keeping a general provision store.
At the age of eight, Haleema lost her mother Boba to tuberculosis. Haleema married a medical assistant. The marriage ended in just three months when Haleema learns that her husband is having an affair with a nurse. Imran is the child of this marriage.
Shahnaz Bashir captures the emotion of a single mother raising her child delicately:
He (Imran) did not resemble Haleema, though – the medical assistant came through in the face. He had the same long face, yet sharper and unflinching eyes. But he had Haleema’s dimples and his fingers were short and stubby like hers, with cuticles overlapping the white crescents under the nails.
Ignoring the stark similarities between him and his father, Haleema passionately and desperately lied to herself. She dismisses the similitude and likened the boy to herself, declaring that he was a part of her being. ‘See, my dimples, my fingernails’, she readily offers while praising the baby before people could begin saying that he resembled his father.
Haleema desperately erases the absent father from the frame of reference. She is resolute in claiming Imran as her and hers only and she is resolute in seeking Imran out when calamity hits.
The following paragraph captures the childhood sensibilities of Imran beautifully:
The birds that darted about the farm always brought back a painful memory for Imran. He had once let his catapult loose on a sparrow that had made her nest in a small hole on a wall. He had killed the bird to impress himself with his sharpshooting skills, which he had not believed he had until the pebble hit the bird right on its rump. He dug a tiny grave for her behind the cowshed, and after completing all funeral rites, he discovered naked chirping nestlings. He tried to redeem himself by feeding the chicks and guarding them from eagles and crows. But one by one all three of them died. To assuage his guilt, he would allow birds to bite into the collard saplings or the bottle-gourds whenever Ab Jaan wasn’t looking.
Now the tempest hits the valley and the people of Natipora. The year is 1990.
And then, suddenly, gunfire tore the still air. Two insurgents attacked the contingent from two alleys – the first attack on the army in Natipora. . . . All the other boys who were playing cricket with him immediately dispersed and ran for their lives.
. . . At dawn, Natipora sluggishly came back to life. . . .Haleema and Ab Jaan stonily surveyed for Imran.
Imran emerged a few hours later. Haleema felt breathless while hugging him.
. . . Imran explained everything. How he had escaped to another locality he had hardly been to. How difficult, while running randomly in desperation , it had been to decide where he should have actually gone.
And then the response came from the army:
The next morning, a patrolling party led by a Major Aman Lal Kushwaha began to search the houses. Almost all the men in the neighbourhood received their share of beating in turns. The army was still angry over the attacks.
Bashir captures the humiliation and shame that the civilians have to go through in a battle between the army and the insurgents.
The army called out the male members once they were outside the gate. Ab Jaan decided to go and open the gate but Haleema didn’t let him. ‘Don’t worry, I will be all right’, Ab Jaan assured her darkly. . . .What is this? You beat everyone. There are civilians in this locality yet you burn down our shops, you snatch away our living and now you are torturing us. Don’t you have shame?’ Ab Jaan argued bravely, yet trembling.
‘Shut up or I’ll kill you! Kushwaha threatened.
. . . Three bullets were pumped into Ab Jaan. One in the neck. One in the heart. One in the stomach.
The ‘truth’ of this raid by the army is reported to the world by Izhar Ahmad, the correspondent working for the BBC.
‘I was here in Natipora the whole day, recording the tragedy. I went around to the burial too. Just need some details from you, if you are willing, to substantiate the news. The truth needs to be confirmed, as you know’, he said.
In another raid, Imran is picked up by the army leaving Haleema devastated.
The trooper bundled Imran into the Gypsy and hastily leapt behind him. . . . Haleema ran in front of the vehicle and knelt in front of its bonnet, breathing hard, begging and crying for Imran’s release. A trooper dragged her aside and the Gypsy picked up speed.
‘What is his crime?’ What has he done? You are mistaken! You know you are mistaken! Why do you do this to me?’
. . .
“He is my only son, Sir! He. . .’ Haleema was desperate.
But for army personnel, “A man means a medal.”
This is where the search for her disappeared son begins for Haleema. She becomes a half mother.
‘Since we don’t know the status of your respective relatives who have disappeared... we don’t know whether they are alive or not ... we cannot describe you as widows, or whatever the case may be. We are talking legal language here, and the status matters. So, for all such uncertain cases for women whose husbands have disappeared, we will prefix their status with “Half”,’ Advocate Farooq Ahmad explained.
Half. The word ringed in Haleema’s head. A cold pinch.
‘And what about mothers, Farooq sahib?’ Haleema asked. ‘Are they half mothers by rule?’
Everyone turned to her. Silence. . . .Whether their children were dead or alive or missing, mothers would remain mothers – but Advocate Farooq was not sure. He didn’t know how to respond to Haleema. He couldn’t be certain what status of victimhood should be attested to her.
‘So am I a half mother?’ Haleema repeated.
This legalese of being a half mother occurs, though, much later in the narrative. The frenetic and desperate search for her son becomes the reason to live for Haleema. She becomes the symbol for all the mothers who have lost their children to this barbaric, involuntary disappearance.
Haleema goes from one place to other, from prison to prison, from one army camp to other, from the prayer halls to the politicians, from one torture camp to another. However, nothing seems to help. Every small hint prepares her to search more and even more.
These expeditions bring her and the readers to the reality of the torture camps and the social-political reality of Kashmir of the 1990s.
Almost a decade later, in 1999, after a long enquiry, the army is willing to negotiate, however, the justice they offer is not justice at all. They offer monetary compensation which Haleema refuses.
‘I won’t live longer than the money I have saved. And what would I do with the money you are offering me? Would it assuage my pain? No. I don’t want any justice from you. Not really. You are incapable of justice. If you honestly want to help me, tell me what happened to my son? What did they, I mean Major Aman Kushwaha, do with him? Is my son alive or . . . ‘ She broke down.
To assuage her feelings the colonel informs Haleema:
‘The least I can tell you is this: Major Aman Lal Kushwaha was killed long ago in an attack on the border.’
Kashmir of 1990s is such a paradox that a search for the victim is also a search for the victimiser. Hearing the news of the death of Kushwaha, Haleema felt sad.
Kushwaha was her one and only hope for Imran’s whereabouts. She was stunned at hearing the news, but not relieved. She grieved at the fact that he had been the only one who could tell her what happened to Imran, and now, with the news of her death, she was half-certain about Imran too.
This is not what she has been searching for. This is not the justice she was wishing for. This is no justice at all for Haleema.
In this novel of 182 pages Shahnaz Bashir has sketched complex characters in a nuanced way to tell us the heartbreaking story of a mother’s search for her disappeared son. This novel brings us face to face with a dark period in our history, which refuses to be ignored, which we mustn't ignore.
Earlier in the novel, Imran one day requests Ab Jaan to come to his school.
‘Yes, Ab Jaan, You must come some day and talk to the principal about that. The other day our History teacher Mrs Teja Thussu tweaked my ear when I asked her a simple question . . .’
. . . ‘I asked her why we were never taught the history of Kashmir. How can one study about Mesopotamia and Indus Valley and Harappa and this and that civilization but not a bit about the place one hails from?’
. . . ‘Then I thought Kashmir had no real history, otherwise I would not have been punished.’
. . . Ab Jaan sniggered. ‘Until we stop oppressing ourselves others will never stop oppressing us. Remember this. Mark my words . . . Everything has a history. And we have a firm history. Our own history. Except the fact that it has never seen the light of day.’
Shahnaz Bashir’s The Half Mother brings the history of Kashmir of the 1990s under focus, wrapped in a poignant tale of a mother’s search for her disappeared son.
Reviewed by Himanshu Shekhar Choudhary
Editor-in-Chief - Reviews.
He teaches at the Dept. of English, P. K. Roy Memorial College, Dhanbad.