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Shahnaz Bashir, in his debut novel The Half Mother, brings to us a tale of ordinary civilians under attack, in a war they neither want, nor support, and the tenacious struggle of a lone woman for her right to dignity and life.
Kashmir has been a disputed territory ever since its erstwhile ruler, Raja Hari Singh managed to botch up the issue of its accession to either India or Pakistan during Partition. Unrest in the valley began in the late 80s, when the eruption of violence and insurgency led to a military occupation of Kashmir. Since then, there have been many accusations against the army of misusing the rules under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, leading to human rights abuse.
Haleema, separated from her husband after just a few months of matrimony, lives with her aging father Ghulam Rasool Joo, whom she calls Ab Jaan, and her teenage son, Imran. They are simple people, who have nothing to do with the unrest breaking out around them. There are, of course, the boys next door who have grown up with Imran, who cross the border to join the insurgents.
Soon, the military men come to their gates, searching for hidden insurgents. Ab Jaan’s becomes the first death in the neighbourhood of Natipora, a portent of times to come. One day, Imran is picked up by the army on a flimsy excuse, and just disappears, beginning a nightmare for Haleema, of days of searching all avenues for her son dovetailing into each other.
Though the language sounds heavy and clunky in parts (suggestive of translation from thought processes in the writer’s native language, Kashmiri, into English – indeed, there are Kashmiri words and verses used in many places), the narrative is captivating enough with details of real places and incidents – fictionalized for the story, to hold a reader’s attention.
The arrogance of the army officers, the dread in the minds of ordinary people, the horror of torture camps. The helplessness, yet single-mindedness of a mother searching for her innocent son, the nurturing of hope against all odds. The not knowing of a loved one’s fate was the most wrenching thing – hence ‘half mother’: the term ‘half widow’ had been coined by those collecting data on the missing persons, for the wife of a man missing, yet not known if dead or alive.
Shahnaz Bashir’s book brings to mind another well-loved book on a similar backdrop – Paro Anand’s award winning No Guns At My Son’s Funeral, and is just as chilling. It would have been even more effective if a glossary had been provided for the liberally sprinkled Kashmiri words, for the convenience of the ordinary historical fiction aficionado.
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