“Women have never been secure within (or without) the nation state – they are always disproportionately affected by war, forced migration, famine, and other forms of social, political, and economic turmoil.”
Shahnaz Bashir’s debut novel The Half Mother is set in Natipora, a locality in Srinagar. The protagonist of the novel, Haleema, is the bearer of myriad symbolic meanings. She is, in a way, a metaphorical representation of a Kashmir which has seen its children succumb to war. She is an ordinary woman with extraordinary resilience, spirit and strength. Caught amidst the tempestuous times, divorced by her husband, and forced to come back to her father’s house with her only son, Imran, Haleema’s story since inception creates an atmosphere of longing and lament.
The tragedy of Haleema’s life underscores the fact that women serve as soft targets in turmoil-ridden regions, and that any form of violence, assault, or agitation on them works as a system of a political cover-up. As outlined by the lives of Haleema and other women in The Half Mother, women are often subjected to the disappearance or killing of their male-folk, resulting in an immense trauma manifested in different spheres of their lives. Haleema’s father is brutally killed in front of her eyes by a Major for mustering the courage to question the latter.
As if this was not enough, her son Imran is taken into custody by the same forces for the not-so-rare coincidence of being the namesake of a Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (an independent political organisation that believes in Kashmiri nationalism) commander in the same locality. He later vanishes into thin air. In vain, Haleema goes to each jail, detention centre and police headquarters in search of her missing son. Over the course of her quest, she comes across hard experts, modest legislators, susceptible authorities, and fanatic mediapersons. The true reason behind Imran’s disappearance is never completely revealed but is only hinted at towards the end.
Haleema’s search leads to an unimaginative, dark, and melancholic tale of a brutalised alley where she discovers that she is not the only one to have undergone the suffering of losing someone to a forced disappearance. A police official, expressing his utter disappointment at not being able to help Haleema, tells her:
“It has been a long time since we filed an FIR. A long, long time. Actually, we cannot lodge an FIR against the army. Our job is now confined to identifying, carrying and delivering dead bodies to their families.”
The policeman’s words are an indication of a torn, troubled and anarchic reality of Kashmir in the 1990s; owing to unrecognisable authority, on-going militancy, and inadequate means of justice and redressal system. It is in this situation that Haleema stands up with an intense aching for her child and declines to fear the exceedingly terrible consequences. She tries to kindle some light in the midst of all the darkness that encompasses her life by listening to Imam who tells her:
“The greatest of sufferings bring the greatest of hopes, the greatest of miseries greatest patience, and the greatest of uncertainties lead to the greatest quests.”
These words are significant and indicative of the everyday life of such women whose lives constantly dangle between the hope of finding their loved ones, and despair as they wrestle with the terrifying possibility of returning home brutalised, assaulted, and alone.
Haleema’s story reverberates past her individual story and becomes an epitome of the agony of the general population. The author has tried to give a sneak-peek into the lives of many women whose stories continue to be illustrative of sad existences in the valley. In one of the incidents, Rukhsana, whose brothers have taken up arms, is beaten and stripped in front of everyone. Her mother is also beaten. She is commanded to get her sons to surrender or Rukhsana would be seized otherwise. Since a woman’s sexual ‘purity’ is consequential in determining a family’s honour and respect in traditional societies, therefore any trace of contempt has outcomes that are not ephemeral. Thus, a constant attempt to avoid such viciousness on the bodies of women has prevented them from coming to the forefront, making resistance movements masculine and changing the whole discourse of conflict into one focusing on the male-dominant narrative.
The title of the book, The Half Mother, is indicative of the vocabulary born out of conflict in Kashmir which exists in no other part of the world. It exemplifies the uniqueness of each conflict and the subsequent impact borne by the general population which cannot be generalised.
The depiction of woman as a protagonist might have to do with the fact that women are often not considered first-hand victims of the conflict. The mainstream media has never been sensitive towards the gendered perspective which has pushed women to the periphery, thus overshadowing their exceptional valour and heroism. It is in the wake of turmoil that women are forced to step into the domain of the unconventional and blur the borders between private and public. This can be seen as a change in stereotypical gender roles but the ascribed reasons and successive impacts are not positive.
The language of the book is eloquent and powerful. The author has intricately woven a saga of unfinished and inchoate grief with delicate words that tear the reader’s heart apart. The usage of untranslated Urdu and Kashmiri words adds a flavour to the text and prevents it from getting lost in translation.
The book is a must-read because it gives a voice to the expressionless; it is a tribute to lost ones, and it reclaims the history of a tumultuous conflict zone from an insider’s view.
Nousheen Jeelani is a graduate from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree at Jamia Millia Islamia.