The Half Mother – Book Review by Asha Seth

Author: Shahnaz Bashir | Genre: Indian Literature | Pages: 182 | Publisher: Hachette India

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The night is tired now, the old moon, hanging in the dark sky, is tired too. It is the 1990s and Kashmir’s long war has begun to claim its first victims. Among them are Ghulam Rasool Joo, Haleema’s father and her teenage son Imran, who is picked up by the authorities only to disappear into the void of Kashmir’s missing people. The Half Mother is the story of Haleema-a mother and a daughter yesterday, a ‘half mother’ and an orphan today, tormented by not knowing whether Imran is dead or alive, torn apart by her own lonely existence. While she battles for answers and seeks out torture camps, jails and morgues for any signs of Imran, Kashmir burns in a war that will haunt it for years to come. 

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Loss and hope are two sides of the same coin. No writer could have illustrated it better than Shahnaz Bashir. Life is horrifying in the valleys of Kashmir, and just how dreadful it all is, lies at the heart of this novel ‘The Half Mother’, narrated through the story of a mother on an endless journey to tracing her son abducted by the army in the valley in 1980s.

In a way, this longing, this pain of waiting, was like preparing for hope. The pain of expecting was an education too, an exposure to what life held and meant.

The war of Kashmir took off from Haleema’s humble abode in the valleys the day her father is brutally murdered, and later that same night when her son is taken away. Her life since then has been a long day of failed attempts, mounting desperation, dejection, half-truths, atrocities by people in power, equally-helpless acquaintances, etc. making her life a living nightmare of sorts with nothing getting her any closer to knowing the one truth she seeks. Written with abject candor, draped in fiction, the stories within this saga of life in Kashmir during the 80s, opens doors to a horrid world where everything one can’t even imagine is a reality oozing out of every roof, every home, every man, every corner of the valley, and that’s what makes it utterly gut-wrenching. The author hasn’t spared the reader any detail and almost revels in revealing this reality that has been under covers for decades. That his own heart is aching and bleeding at the end of it all, would be an understatement.

Until we stop oppressing ourselves others will never stop oppressing us. Remember this.

The writing deserves a special mention. The prose revels in its honesty, in its unrefined candidness, the pain throbbing under its words, emotions spilling off the diction, and evocative imagery that brings it all together to paint a canvas that’s as real, as heart-breaking, as its burning muse. Through the brilliant crafting, the author can’t hold himself from letting out volumes of his own itch, the urge to amend, the urgency to reverse, the haste for closures, and therein lies the beauty of this novel that leaves you gasping for breath. One can’t wait to know if Haleema finally meets her son, what’s happened with her boy, and what fate has in store for her, and the end of that mystery is elusive as ever.

Everything has a history. And we have a firm history. Our own history. Except the fact that it has never seen the light of the day. Because some people don’t want it to be there. Not a bit of it. They don’t want us to know ourselves. They don’t want us to learn about who we are.

The valley has long yelled, protested, begged, cried, to be heard, to be seen, to be held, to be healed. Decades after decades Kashmiris have returned empty-handed when seeking for justice, but more so when asking for a decent life, a livable life, for themselves, for their progeny, with a hope to recover what was lost, what was rightfully theirs – their home, their heartland. When will something be done? The catastrophe that is the life of the people of Kashmir, is still an unanswered conundrum that the author has passionately tried to divert attention to once again. Haleema is not just a half-mother looking for her son. She is ‘Kashmir’, looking for freedom from hell.

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The Half Mother is the story of every Kashmiri who has lost someone very dear and have been struggling in vain to make meaning of what remains. And not just Kashmir, but of all those countries and regions, that have been scarred by years of injustice, trying hard to make a war-torn life become bearable. Read this book to live with them, and share their pain, for the least we can do is acknowledge their tragedy and raise a voice for them.

Have you read ‘The Half Mother’? Do share your thoughts in the comments below.

Happy reading till we meet next. Until then, carpe diem! 

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