Book review

From the violence in Kashmir come these disturbingly intimate stories of scattered and broken lives

Interwoven tales on the trauma of assault, terrorism, and growing up amidst everyday violence.

To read Shahnaz Bashir’s collection of interlinked stories, Scattered Souls, is to experience catharsis. Sakeena, the protagonist of the story “Psychosis”, is raped one night in her shanty in Srinagar by five men, four of them soldiers of the Indian armed forces, even as “[t]he whole neighbourhood seemed to be alert and listening” and “[a] contingent of troops cordoned the shanty off.” Sakeena’s husband, Ghulam Mohiuddeen, an “ex-militant” who had “decided to strike out on his own and earn his livelihood by driving an autorickshaw”, went missing one evening. Sakeena had been expecting him back when the men barged into her house.

The Post Traumatic Stress Disorder caused due to the rape sees Sakeena end up at the Government Psychiatric Diseases Hospital, “the only one of its kind in the valley of Kashmir”, an institution “[s]he has been visiting for the last six years.” Six years of treatment for PTSD has rid Sakeena of many of her fears. She does not have nightmares of her “body rolling down the riverbank” and her “smelly shalwaar”.

Instead, Ghulam Mohiuddeen comes in her dreams, asking her to take care of herself and their daughter, Insha, and Sakeena is convinced that she has been widowed, for her “heart says [her husband] is not alive.”

Yet, there are two things the six-year-long treatment has not been able to cure Sakeena of. “The smell of sperm [has] barely [left her]” and “[e]ven pleasantly scented things smell dirty to [her]” – even after six years. The other thing Sakeena finds unable to rid herself of is Bilal, the six-year-old son she refuses to call her son because he was conceived of the rape.

Though Bilal lives with Sakeena, she calls him “[b]astard”, if only in her mind. She finds it “hard…to fight the urge to slap [Bilal]”, she has beaten him, he “was not even properly breastfed”, she had “even tried killing him.” Yet, no matter how much Sakeena hates Bilal, she cannot seem to part with him, for he is a part of her, despite being “the human shape of a painful memory.” As a child, Bilal was wary of his mother, but as he grows up, Sakeena starts loving him so much that “[f]inding out that he skipped school would upset her greatly.”

About a boy

In the story, “A Photo with Barack Obama”, Bilal – known here by his alias, Biul – is the protagonist. He is famous as “the youngest stone pelter of Batamaloo” – Batamaloo being an area in Srinagar. Bilal, here, is seen as a scarred child. All his life, he has been called a bastard.

Looking for a meaning to his life had made Bilal “[spend] most of his school year as a truant, bunking classes with his older friends.” Most times, he would just venture out alone, “his solitary expeditions…[helping] him understand himself and his existence in the world a little better.”

It is in such circumstances that the thirteen-year-old Bilal takes to stone-pelting – “[throwing] stones at police was the only vent to his frustration and the only way to give meaning to his life”.

During Barack Obama’s visit to India, Bilal pins all his hopes on Obama – who was still the President of the US then – to talk about Kashmir. “America matters”, he heard people around him say. Also, since “many believed Obama was basically a Muslim”, Bilal is hopeful that President Obama’s mentioning Kashmir would change the situation in their homeland. In his fascination for him, Bilal even creates a cutout of Obama.

Imagine Bilal’s disappointment when Obama is all “India, India and India” and “Kashmir wasn’t mentioned at all”. At the end of the story, Bilal, discarding Obama’s cutout for one of Salman Khan’s, reflects a return to a more acceptable situation – a compromise, no doubt, but acceptable.

The stories of Sakeena and Bilal speak of these numerous compromises the people in the Kashmir valley have to make. These compromises are often unspoken, accepted as a part of one’s life. In his novel, The Half Mother, Shahnaz Bashir played on the term “half-widow” – a woman whose husband has been missing for a long time, and she is not even sure whether he is alive or not – to create the term “half mother”, a woman whose son has gone missing for a long time and she is not sure whether he is alive any more.

In doing so, Bashir narrated a tale of a peculiarly placed hope in the face of extreme pain, sorrow and difficulty. In one way, it was like giving a voice to the several “half mothers” whose stories died somewhere along the way as only reports of violence and politics came out into the world from Kashmir. In creating The Half Mother, Shahnaz Bashir crafted an appropriate ambience for an unabashed tear-jerker, both gripping and extremely powerful.

The lives of others

In Scattered Souls, Shahnaz Bashir gives voice to other people, other souls, trapped in the turmoil in Kashmir. Sakeena and Bilal are just two of these. Besides them, there is, for instance, Muhammad Yousuf Dar, the protagonist of the story “The Transistor”, who is a supporter of “Azaadi” for Kashmir, who “[smoked] cigarettes and [cracked] jokes with insurgents”, who “[hid the insurgents] in his attic during crackdowns”, who “[helped the insurgents] transport their weapons under his pheran” – and who is shot dead by those same insurgents because his elder brother “was a mainstream politician greatly despised for his anti-freedom-movement position”. Yousuf Dar’s neighbours thought his tiny transistor to be some kind of a communications device with which he reported the activities of the insurgents to the Indian armed forces.

In “The Ex-militant”, Ghulam Mohiuddeen, the father from the stories “Psychosis” and “A Photo with Barack Obama” and an ex-militant who tries to rehabilitate himself and return to the mainstream by driving an autorickshaw around Srinagar, is shocked to learn that one of his former militant friends, who came from a privileged family and was sent by his rich father to study at an engineering college in Bangalore, has, “like many ex-militants, slid into mainstream politics” and that Mohiuddeen would have to meet this militant-turned-politician friend of his in order to get his daughter Insha’s school fees waived.

On the way from Mohiuddeen’s youth as a militant to his middle age as an autorickshaw driver, there is a story which begins with a hope for a newer day, but ends with reality hitting hard. Mohiuddeen’s youth was spent with dreams of Azaadi in a Kashmir where “[e]lderly women would kiss the brows of the boys leaving their homes to cross the mountains into Pakistan” and “[b]ack home, militants would strut around like soldiers, with Kalashnikovs slung across their shoulders”.

The dream disappears, and Mohiuddeen’s youth ends amidst torture at the hands of the Indian Army in “Papa 2, the main interrogation centre in Srinagar” where the Army had even “squeezed [Mohiuddeen’s] organ and tried to crush [his] balls.” When he is finally released, Mohiuddeen is a disillusioned man who “took…nearly two years to grow accustomed to the estranged neighbourhood.”

In the story, “Country-Capital”, there are the teenage students of a school in a village in Kashmir who are taken in a Volvo bus to Delhi and Agra on a “Watan Ki Sair / Aman Ki Yatra” (A journey around the nation / A journey of peace) by the 122 Battalion Sadbhavna Rifles, but that “Bharat Darshan” only serves as a photo-op for the captain of the battalion and an opportunity for the village Sarpanch to seek help from the captain in the coming panchayat elections. For the students, despite having seen “Taj Mahal, Qutab Minar and Red Fort”, still answer “India” on being asked to name the capital of Jammu and Kashmir!

In “The Gravestone”, a father tries to strike out the word “shaheed” before his dead son’s name on his gravestone because the son, who “followed a group of local militants”, had been killed in a firing by the army, and the word would ruin any chance the father has of receiving a compensation of Rs one lakh from the government of India. And in the disturbingly touching “The Woman Who Became Her Own Husband”, the young Ayesha slowly starts taking the form of her loving husband, Tariq, after his death in a gunfight outside his office on Residency Road in Srinagar.

The stories in Scattered Souls talk of lives beyond the newspaper and television headlines. Shahnaz Bashir’s exploration of souls and bodies torn apart by politics, militancy and social mores in the Kashmir valley is touching, disturbing, and frighteningly intimate.

Scattered Souls, Shahnaz Bashir, Fourth Estate

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