‘My novel is an imagined convergence of all the half mothers in the world’
Growing up in the Kashmir of the1990s, when the Valley plunged into the darkness of insurgency, Shahnaz Bashir’s The Half Mother adds a nuanced layer to the local narrative, caught in the uncertainty of life and death. Bashir has painted the pain of Haleema, one among the thousands of relatives of missing people in Kashmir, in his debut novel. Excerpts from an interview to Hardnews
Souzeina S Mushtaq Srinagar
The Half Mother is a story of a mother drawn into a battle for justice. How do you see the contribution of women to the Kashmir cause?
Kashmiri women have been struggling for the Kashmir cause in no different way from Kashmiri men. In certain cases, they have had to suffer all their lives, like the protagonist of my novel.
Writing from a woman’s perspective, do you think you have done justice to her emotions?
I cannot claim to have done absolute justice to any character in the book. For that matter, no writer can. But I would like to believe I have tried my best to frame a character like Haleema’s.
Haleema is transformed from a simple homely woman to a strong-willed fighter. How much does the story relate to Parveena Ahangar, who has been fighting for the cause of disappeared persons, including
I’d say very little, and very much at the same time. I met Parveenaji only twice. But the book is almost entirely my imagination and an outcome of what seeped into me in all these years. Since Parveena is one of the “half mothers” and a senior representative of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, there are certain things in the book which coincide, and must with her. The Half Mother is an imagined convergence of all the “half mothers” out there in the world.
The relatives of the disappeared persons in Kashmir mostly cut the story down to facts, because they have been asked to narrate their stories countless times, each story a hundred times over. I was not interested in the facts, I knew them. In one of our two meetings, Parveena told me, “Mae baasaansoruichhudazaan (It feels like everything is burning)”. I asked her to explain that phrase in detail but she couldn’t. I wanted to know what it meant to say that everything was burning. Was it just real? No. But what does it mean metaphorically that everything is burning and how does one feel that heat.
How much of the book is autobiographical?
A few things here and there in the book are directly related to my personal life but in a twisted way. That is the specialty of writing fiction: the slices of experience from your own real life could not be written as they are or were. One picks up from a certain memory, a stray experience, a half-forgotten idea, a photograph from the family album, a smell, a flavour. Then you place these slices somewhere else and weave a new story.
What inspired you to become a writer?
Nothing as such. I just found it in myself. One interesting thing that I always vividly remember from my schooldays is that I was very weak in mathematics, even though it interested me immensely. But I was very quick to respond to usage of words in sentences in the English language classes. I would always be the first in my class to respond to the teacher’s “word” call with an abrupt “sentence”. I found over a period of time that I could write meaningfully, use ideas in paragraphs. Over time, my reading of diverse stuff transformed me into the writer that I am now. Thus the journey began.
You have mentioned that the book is about loneliness. We have seen women in shrines crying and talking to the walls, trying to find solace. Do you see this as a connection with your protagonist who also begins talking to the walls?
Whispering prayers and soliloquies in prolonged loneliness are two different things. Remember Wilson the volleyball in Robert Zemeckis’s Cast Away. The most intriguing reality of Tom Hanks’s (Chuck Noland’s) loneliness on the island he is marooned on is how he develops a relationship and a process of communication with a volleyball that becomes his only companion for the four years he spends in isolation. The climax might look funny when he imperils his only chance, after four long lonely years, to catch the attention of a passing ship by swimming back up shore to retrieve the floating volleyball. But that is where Zemeckis is essentially serious about human beings and their inherent nature to long for company. That longing so very well determines Noland’s solemn relationship with the inanimate volleyball called Wilson, that he could pass the golden opportunity to catch the ship but would not let the volleyball go. As the film picks up in the beginning, the viewer begins to see Wilson as animate, which is something greatly amazing and astonishing.
Among all her tragedies, the loneliness of Haleema was one more. In prolonged loneliness, people personify inanimate things and begin talking to them, talk the objects’ parts of conversations themselves too and believe it to be the objects’ version only. It is frustrating not to have anyone to talk to, and more frustrating not to talk unto oneself even. When Dostoevsky was serving his sentence in cold Siberia, the jail guards outside the jail, as a part of the punishment, would wear velvet-soled shoes to deprive him of even the “least comfort” of shoe-clicking sounds. The punishment was called “silent treatment”, meant to frustrate the prisoner with absolute silence. That torturous experience gave birth to Notes from the Underground.
I tried as much as possible to imagine what Haleema would do in her loneliness. She would talk to herself and to the inanimate things around herself. That is what she did.
People all over India and the world are reading your book. What do you want readers to see?
Each reader is unique as is each writer. Apart from a general perception of a theme and various ideas and descriptions in a piece of literature, each reader relates to something particular in it. Each reader likes and/or dislikes a book for various reasons. Reader A might like what Reader B dislikes, and Reader C might neither like nor dislike it. Reader A might give a different meaning to an idea in the book than Reader B who might give it a twist and draw another meaning from the same with a diametrically opposite notion. And for Reader C nothing might matter. And then might come Reader D who would astound all other readers with his or her unique views, which might open an entirely new meaning for critics.
First of all, I think, The Half Mother is an attempt to introduce Kashmir and its serious problems to the world, to those who have either been poisoned by the misinformation and distortion campaigns of the mainstream media about it or to those to whom the only way to reach Kashmiris is through fiction.
The book also mentions Izhar, a BBC journalist. Is that your tribute to Izhar Wani?
It is absolutely not the great late Izhar Wani. Izhar in The Half Mother is an original character, named so because Izhar means “expression” which is what ideal journalism in a nutshell is all about.
Your earlier essay and the book both have Natipora as the central place. Any special reasons?
Not only that I was born there but I wanted to locate the story in a place I knew well and understood best. And what better than the place I belong to. Natipora. I am so glad to see Natipora on the literary map of the world.
What are your future projects? We hear your next work is a collection of short stories.
I have just finished writing a collection of interlinked, multi-voiced short stories. It is all stashed up for some time, something that I always do after finishing a work, only to be returned to later, with a different pair of eyes, a critical reader’s eyes, and not the sympathetic writer’s. My next project is something between a novel and narrative non-fiction.