Shahnaz Bashir’s Scattered Souls, a collection of short stories, depicts the effects of the long-drawn conflict and militarization of Kashmir on its people
In one story, Gul Baaghwaan, a gardener in Srinagar, offers a bunch of red and pink roses to a group of American tourists. He declines the money offered in return, saying, “All I wants a bit of attention… We not have oil… but we have roses.”
Baaghwaan, we are informed in a passing reference in an earlier story, refused state compensation for his son’s death in a firing incident. In another piece, 13-year-old Bilal, born to his mother after she was raped by Indian soldiers, lives with social ridicule and “the guilt of his being”, and finds acceptance after gaining notoriety as a Shoaib Akhtar among young stone-pelters. Memories of police torture begin to fade from his mind as he becomes fixated with Barack Obama’s visit to India. He hopes the Black American president might just “say something about the resolution of the Kashmir issue”.
He is disappointed.
Shahnaz Bashir’s second book that comprises vignettes from Kashmir, however, succeeds in drawing attention to the human cost of the conflict, and to how draconian laws and excessive militarisation of the state have ravaged the lives of ordinary Kashmiris.
The characters in these 13 stories are drawn from a cross section of society: a half widow and rape survivor struggling with PTSD; an impoverished artisan forced to choose between honouring his dead son’s memory and arranging medicines for his sick grandchild; a homemaker who loses her mind after her husband is killed in cross-firing; a government official who gets off his high horse after his wife is accidently killed in an anti-insurgency operation; an innocent orchard owner murdered by rumours; a teacher paralysed by a stray bullet; a doctor, who after years of treating the scarred, traumatised people around him, turns into a philanthropist at personal cost; a former militant living in the shadow of fear and suspicion while trying to get on with life.
Bullets are a recurring motif. They fly thick and fast through these stories, scarring the living, and pointing to the fear, claustrophobia and fragility of life in a conflict zone. Most of the characters are related to each other in some way and turn up unexpectedly throughout. This creates the effect of looking at a larger mosaic of damage and suffering; as if you’re reading a novel of interconnected stories. The absence of the voices of Kashmir’s religious minorities seems like a significant omission. An exploration of how the oppression has dehumanized the oppressors would also have been interesting.
The stories are well-written, tightly structured and narrated simply. Bashir, who teaches narrative journalism and conflict reporting at the Central University of Kashmir in Srinagar, focuses on the inner lives of his protagonists. Some stories like ‘The Ex-militant’ (where a young man takes up arms but can never kill finds himself detained and tortured at the whim of the authorities), ‘Psychosis’ (the story of a half widow and PTSD patient torn between her hatred for her son born of rape, and guilt at her efforts to kill him with neglect), ‘A Photo with Barack Obama’ (where a bright, innocent child becomes a stone-pelter), and ‘Country-Capital’ (a scathing critique of the state’s education system) are likely to stay with the reader.
Those following the recent protests in the state and the subsequent clampdown might view these vignettes as fictionalized reportage. Given the brutality with which the unrest was suppressed, readers will wonder about the fresh stories waiting to be told: of those who died young, of those who were maimed or blinded by pellet guns, and of the homes that were destroyed.
Facts can be distorted, suppressed or muted but stories that highlight the universality of human experience and suffering cut through political propaganda, censorship and the jingoist filters through which you receive news. They open spaces for dialogue and understanding.