A review of the book ‘The Half Mother’ by Shahnaz Bashir. (Published by Hachette India Pvt. Ltd in 2014)
When there is an imminent
tussle between the perpetual attempt by Kashmiris to attain the long-awaited Azaadi and the State’s wrecking-spree of
everything human, then conflict becomes inevitable. The early 90s triggered many Kashmiris to delineate
themselves with lived experiences of cruelty and barbarity through their literature.
The literature produced during that time reflects the pathos and sufferings of
the common people. Such literature, according to Palestinian author Kanafani, rejects the old sentimental outbursts and emerges with a unique
feeling of profound sadness more commensurate with the realities of the
situation. The novel, ‘The Half Mother’ is a heart-wrenching account
of a family that suffers military oppression and state-sponsored terrorism in
the 1990s. The author wields a stirring artistic expression compelling the
readers to remember the harrowing memories that terrorise the people of Kashmir
Haleema, the protagonist of the novel, symbolises the struggle of the people living under the debilitating shadows of illegitimate military occupation by the Indian State. The story deals with the death, desolation and determination of Haleema, a half mother. Her father is brutally killed before her eyes by the murderous and ruthless forces for daring to argue with the soldiers. To heighten her misery, her son, Imran, the only person left in her family and life, is subjected to enforced disappearance by the same forces. After this, Haleema’s life becomes a trail of deprivation, helplessness and oppressive loneliness, the absurdity of which was difficult to express in words
Haleema is the founding member and the President of an assemblage of persons known as APRP (Association of Relatives of Disappeared Persons), which offers a searing record contrasting the scopic regime of heavenly landscapes narrated ceaselessly by the Indian State to legitimise its occupation (p.141). There is a certain visual image which has assumed primacy in generating desire for the Valley. This image foregrounds the Valley’s landscape, and the ruin in the landscape, while it prefers to eliminate Kashmiri people, monuments in use, and homes (Kabir, 2009). Therefore, APRP’s public protests constitute a counter-visual repertoire that fundamentally challenges the scopic regime of the state. They deploy public spectacles in the form of group meetings and demonstrations to performatively reverse the “disappearing act” of enforced disappearances by “reappearing” the disappeared through the display of pictures and names of their loved ones.
APRP’s protests visually proliferate through popular photographs and is a part of a larger effort by Kashmiris to claim the public gaze that has historically tended otherwise to rest either on a de-peopled landscape or on reductive and fetishized representations of Kashmiris in Bollywood cinema. The mothers of the APDP, however, provide a different kind of evidence, evidence not forensically verifiable through photorealist claims. Instead, they offer maternal grief and anger as evidence of disappearances, tapping into a deeply naturalized regard for maternal love. For the readers to consciously register the violence of disappearances, the helplessness of female survivors is emphasized, and their suffering foregrounded (Misri, 2014).
Haleema’s sudden shift from one social role to another transgresses the concrete boundaries of private-public dichotomy. Her traumatic separation creates a psychological vacuum compelling her to talk to inanimate things, once owned by Imran. The dichotomy between her inner and outer self becomes a symbolic whole, mirroring those who could and those who could not cope up with reality. Strategies of military oppression of targeting women, public executions, fake encounters, curfew, crackdowns, raids try to build an aesthetic of politics of torture which in turn creates a common fear among masses. This militant terrorism invokes a collective conscience among people who respond with protests to raise their voice against it. These protests create a space for women to come into the public sphere as active participants and facilitators with men and children making the resistance more inclusive. Her separation engages her with the public, where she gathers social consciousness of collective suffering. She embodies all those raising placards of their disappeared ones. Conflict whether long-term or sudden often results in pushing women into public spaces, or in their initiative to carve out their own spaces in which to come to terms with the changed reality around them (Butalia, 2003).
Haleema is the commanding figure in protests in Pratap Park and Lal Chowk. She devotes herself spiritually to come up with myriad ways to make her protests successful. The knowledge that she is not the lone victim of enforced disappearances makes her passionate about the collective cause as she is not only struggling for her son but for all those who have disappeared. Another crucial thing that the author achieves is to overcome the tendency to powerlessly victimise the women and invisibilize their agency hence, Kashmiri women emerge as the speaking subaltern. Haleema vehemently faces brutal authorities, vulgar politicians, unaided civil officials, amputated justice system, and partisan media. She has transformed herself from a psychological and subjective being into a historical agent actively taking part in the historical action (Shameem, 2017). “Whenever I see Haleema speaking on behalf of her ilk, she immediately looks more robust, vibrant, vigorous.” (p. 175). She meticulously carves out for herself a space in the otherwise hyper-masculine arena of resistance.
The subtle theme of dreariness and misery in the background which haunts Kashmir throughout the novel limns and highlights the new routine, the new setting and the new melody of Kashmir, which stands in crisp contradiction against the rest of the nation. At every corner stands a trooper with his finger on the trigger and the sounds of war, to which Haleema is now indifferent, forms the new music of Kashmir. It is not only the state but the citizens that inhabit it, and have turned uninterested and dispassionate towards it. Whether it’s finding a room or calling a friend, their identity is always subject to suspicion and dubiety. Haleema and her companions have to endure this humiliation throughout their journey because she knows that since Kashmiris are unwelcome everywhere outside of our lands, a complaint might harm us more (p. 119).
The lust of integration politics and geographical benefit has made the state churn out a narrative that is seconded by hegemonic structures and common sense and is consumed and reproduced by ordinary people, hence they become the archetype for Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. This narrative helps in building the national imagination of the public and is also necessary for the state to maintain its justification to rule and oppress the people.
The media, on the other hand, has been preoccupied in exoticizing the Kashmiri land as a battlefield in itself. Beyond politics and reasoning, it has been portrayed as a realm that is home to indiscriminate killing by the aggressive Muslims of the land. The figure of the Kashmiri male militant or street protester is popularised. In the media, it is the pro-Azadi Kashmiri whose humanity poses a threat and must therefore be disappeared from view. Hence, for years, police and military photographers have circulated pictures of dead Kashmiri militants that show them dishevelled and bloodied, with torn clothes, presenting the figure of the Kashmiri rebel as a wild, hunted criminal with the intent to criminalize their thoughts and bodies, and show them as existing beyond the pale of society and humanity (Misri, 2019). Thus, they need a strong parental State to command and control them from self-destruction. “For the sake of relative mercy, the army had promised to release boys pressed on venial charges. It was an ‘Independence Day gift’, the army told said in its presser to the media.” It is important to note that Kashmiris marked the day as a ‘Black Day’, and observed blackouts at night. The manifestation of such adulterated history is seen in pan-Indian celebrations of the murder of Kashmiri civilians by the army which they declare as a huge success (p. 97).
In conclusion, the novel attempts to mirror a legitimate image of Kashmir wherein the army has been given free license to kill, search, detain and terrorise civilians without any accountability. The author has skilfully woven fiction with slices of familiar reality (Based on credible sources). Besides, the novel unveils the façade of the justice system that is impotent to provide justice to hundreds of cases like Imran. Bashir’s political awareness, originality and social responsibility permeate through his artistic expression. He has brought to surface delicate narratives like individuality, dissent, travails and subjugation which are usually missing from the narrative thought of Kashmir.
As Natasha Kaul, the Kashmiri author states in respect to the women in Kashmir, both alive and dead, “the women of Kashmir are in the tens of thousands of widows and half-widows; wives of killed and disappeared men; as well as mothers and grandmothers of missing children. Vulnerable, often impoverished, the sorrows, struggles and humiliation of these women of Kashmir are a catalogue of charges against the occupation of Kashmir.”
The agony and torment which is internalised in the language of the novel guilt the conscience of every non-Kashmiri reader. It uncovers the fact we are doubly removed from the reality of Kashmir, we have the comfort of keeping the book down and escaping to our comfortable and convenient materiality, where there are no army trucks or Kalashnikov holding militants. A harrowing tale for most but a perpetual reality for Kashmiris.
Bio: Saloni Mishra is a student of law and is interested in writing and researching about socialist politics and literature.
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