In The Half Mother, his debut novel, Shahnaz Bashir has attempted to address the issue of involuntary disappearances in Kashmir, which has been engulfed by violent conflict since the late 1980s. The 182-page book focuses on the courageous Haleema, a mother, a daughter and a woman full of hope and the energy to fight against her suffering.After a childhood of poverty and hardship, Haleema quits education, and her teachers wish her "a very beautiful life." She grows up and marries a medical assistant. However, in just three months, the "marriage ends in a whimper" when Haleema learns that her husband is having an affair with a nurse. The beauty of life that her teachers had wished for her doesn’t seem likely to be fulfilled.
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From the marriage what remains is her only son, Imran, whom she brings up. On his school notebooks, the boy writes that success doesn’t matter; what matters is hard work and being a citizen of the whole earth. The book unfolds gradually, from this cheerful life of family to the wounds that remain unhealed.
After an attack in the neighbourhood of Natipora, the army stationed in the region to fight the armed rebels exercises its anger against the local civilians. The boy’s grandfather is killed and Imran is whisked away. When the army takes Imran, Haleema, while mourning her father’s killing, goes out to search for him. From the infamous torture camp Papa 2 to local army camps, she visits every place hoping to find him. Every passing day is a struggle for survival and longing.
Her lullabies for Imran change now. In his absence, she sings: "O crescent moon, why do you hide from me? Sulking as you are, why have you kept from me?"
Tabu and Shahid Kapoor in Haider.
The author has dealt with several aspects of life in Kashmir including the policies of the government, the army’s inhumane rule, the torture, the helplessness of people, and the media that is dominated by the State. This is a story that Kashmiris know. Every corner of the Valley has a story. Bashir has tried to show how it feels for a mother to lose her only son, something she never imagined would happen in her own lifetime.
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Returning with no news of Imran, his mother doesn’t stop. She moves, runs, walks, prays, and lives hoping that Imran will be with her again. Then one day, she looks into a mirror and realises that time has passed and she is getting old: Imran hasn’t returned; perhaps, he never will; perhaps life was just a dream; perhaps it was not her life but a nightmare that she couldn’t have imagined when Imran’s infant babble had made her smile.
The Half Mother tells one of the stories from Kashmir, but it is the story of thousands of mothers. This may have been written as a work of fiction but it adds to the narrative that the people of Kashmir are trying to frame about the reality of the region. The characters are complex and at some points, the language is not lucid, but the book shows what many mothers in the Valley are going through. It gives a voice to these mothers, who, like Haleema, suffer, fight, struggle and don’t give up. The Half Mother is an another addition to Kashmir’s literature by Kashmiris telling their own story.
Fahad Shah is a journalist and writer. He is the Editor of The Kashmir Walla magazine and also the editor of the anthology, Of Occupation and Resistance: Writings from Kashmir (Tranquebar, 2013)