By Shilpa Raina IANS | 4 months ago

Title - The Half Mother; Author - Shahnaz Bashir; Publisher - Hachette; Pages - 182; Price - Rs.295.

There are many untold stories from the Kashmir Valley, and the ones that have been told are merely a dot in the vast expanse of lives permanently scarred with haunted memories, bitter experiences and mournful ambiguities.

In between this unknown space is the story of Haleema - a dutiful daughter and mother who found strength in loss and continued to fight till she lost her peace of mind, but never her will.

Haleema is just one among thousands of mothers in Kashmir who have miserably tried to trace out where their sons, who are picked up by the Indian Army, are and have become invisible faces.

These are the ones that make it to the list of Kashmir's "missing people" and are long forgotten after being written about by the media. Now lying somewhere in folded papers or dust-laden magazines, or frozen forever in photo-frames, they evoke strange expectations of hope and fear.

It is within these extremes that Haleema's life oscillates after her only teenaged son Imran is picked up by the authorities.

It is an incident that leads to a frustrating, never-ending vicious cycle of chasing the authorities, facing derision, raising suspicion, spending sleepless nights and entertaining a lingering hope of seeing her son return safely.

It is this hope that gives strength to Haleema to step out of her house and move from one army camp to another, to many police stations and morgues - and different cities.

It is on these journeys that the reader accompanies her and understands the ordeal of thousands of others whose family members are missing and witnesses the simmering anger against the authorities for crimes they haven't committed but are serving life imprisonment - of waiting.

While Haleema finds strength from these experiences, she becomes an inspiration for other suffering families to raise this issue at the top-most level and create a group. Haleema, who left her studies after the death of her mother, isn't that educated but picks up English words and the useful jargon of law to continue her search.

Most importantly she learns not to mourn, but to keep her spirit alive - even though it means living a life of penury.

It might initially be easy to dismiss Shahnaz Bashir's debut novel as a visceral, predictable tale, but lyrical descriptions and minute details of settings and places in the frame of dialogue point at his ability to conjure images of that place and time.

The weakest element of Bashir's storytelling lies in his inability to add more life to his characters. Their role is limited as narrators, but very little is written about their internal struggles and state of mind.

Whether it was Bashir's decision not to give a time line in the narration that weighs heavily on time and place, it is easy for the reader to lose in the series of events. And in the absence of a time line and weaker characterisation, this decision isn't convincing.

Another drawback is that the author has used Kashmiri words in the narration. Some popular terms don't need introduction, but many unfamiliar words like 'tumbaknaers'(a musical instrument), 'bakirkhaani' (a type of bread) and a few others should have been mentioned in the footnotes.

Nevertheless, the book tells us that "half mothers" is not a recognised term like "half-widows", but any one not knowing about their loved ones' whereabouts are "half".

(Shilpa Raina can be contacted at shilpa.r@ians.in)

(Posted on 26-07-2014)

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