“If there is one word the novel is all about, I would say, it is loneliness, whatever loneliness constitutes”

An academic and novelist, Shahnaz Bashir’s first book The Half Mother is set for release on June 21. He tells Safwat Zargar that the world should also know that there is a place called Kashmir where human beings live.

Shahnaz Bashir

Kashmir Life (KL): The Half Mother is your debut novel. Please tell us about it.

Shahnaz Bashir (SB)): The times I grew up in, in Kashmir, were fraught with hope and uncertainties; both ran parallel to each other. It was incredible to see people believing that something was soon going to happen but that soon would never easily come, it never came. So I lived in these times. And the basic theme of the story is also the same: that there is hope and then there are so many reasons that signify that nothing really is going to come or happen, but their not-coming and not-happening also do not prevent one from hoping. It happens naturally and that is precisely what happens in The Half Mother.

(KL): You are in academics, tell us how did the idea of writing The Half Mother spark?

(SB): I am in academics now but I would write since my childhood. For the last 15 years I have been reading seriously. Also, it took me a decade or more to learn how to write well. I always knew that there are stories which look for writers to be told, and there are writers who look for stories, and either way I was sure that I will write on something one day. The theme or storyline was not my worry at all. Earlier in my childhood, my concerns were different, not as serious as The Half Mother. I would have written about my normal teenage issues: sulking with my parents, hating a certain person. Or about some particularly interesting person in my neighbourhood.

But some five years back, when I seriously started writing, I wrote generally first, not thinking whether I was writing fiction or nonfiction, I simply kept writing. And at the same time I started exploring what I was going to write. I gradually and naturally began thinking on themes, and then there were so many themes and we had publishers who were interested in only those themes which were in season. Yet I thought in a different direction. I thought that what could be more close to me. I was very attached to my mother, so I would always in my childhood fear that if I lost my mother how unimaginably and unbearably sad her loss could make me. Later I understood that anything could happen to anyone you love the most but the question was how would one cope up with that, or how would one live with that, and that became a question to answer.

So I wouldn’t say that I once met a “half mother” somewhere and started writing about her, no, not that. It grew up within me. I had always been thinking to write some small non-fiction piece on disappearances in Kashmir. I was then in Hyderabad and had to come home on vacation. I came and started interviewing people; and unfortunately, I couldn’t meet Mougli. I went with one of my friends to her place in Habba Kadal but we found it locked because we had already learnt that she would not be home during daytime. We thought we had to either approach her in the night or very early in the morning.  And I did attempt once more but again I failed to meet her, and then I thought I would do it in my next vacation. But before I came she passed away.

And then I met Parveena Ahanger. I interviewed her thoroughly but then I decided that it was something very very serious, the issue of disappearances. I thought that every loss in Kashmir was getting lost in the general database of facts and statistics. The loss was, and still is, becoming dangerously normal, that as if people will not die, the way they die here, it will be abnormal. That if you write the stories of the disappeared as small newspaper reports maybe a hundred times over but it would look like a normal daily report, and then it all enters into our psyches. It seems somewhat normal that this person disappeared, that mother is looking for her son, that a wife is going to be remarried because her husband and couldn’t be found, so forth. And then this is my writerly politics to expand the fact as much as possible because I think that so much that is happening to us is not only unheeded but also internationally ignored. We have only statistics, you know, so I believe it is really important to expand it as much as possible and that expansion can largely be done with fiction. In fiction you would not only write about what actually happened but you would be able to write it much better, that how it happened that happened.

(KL): Where and when did you start writing the book?

(SB): In an organized way I started writing the book in the winter of 2009 in Hyderabad. I finished the final draft in early January 2013.

(KL): In how much time did you complete the book?

(SB): Four years.

(KL): What is the ratio of fiction and reality in The Half Mother? How close to real events and observations of real people is the book?

(SB): It is generally not possible for a writer or a reader to say. But fiction in general literature is, I would say, above nonfiction because fiction is nothing but extension of the reality. It is the expansion of the truth. It is the truth told more beautifully, creatively, freely, more understandably and patiently. Fiction is a freedom of non-fiction.

See I am for realistic genre, if you ask me. I have not at all researched about the book, totally not the way people do; just very little that I have met Parveena Ahanger two times. But the book is almost entirely my imagination and an outcome of what seeped into me in all these years. The relatives of the disappeared persons would mostly talk facts, that is what they can do because they are unfortunately made to narrate it endlessly, a story thousand times over and over. I was interested in knowing how it would feel and you would be surprised that each one had a different feeling to say. But they had narrated that feeling so many times that it had begun to become so clichéd. They would cut it short to facts. Parveena told me “Mae basaan sorui chhu dazaan” (I feel like everything is burning). Then I asked her to explain it but she couldn’t because this was something very difficult. I wanted to see what it means to say that everything was burning. Was it just real? No. But what does it mean metaphorically that everything was burning and how did you feel that heat; that is what I actually wanted to say and that is why I took refuge in fiction.

(KL): You have chosen fiction to write about the reality of Kashmir. Throw some light on the challenges and dilemmas you faced as a writer and being a Kashmiri, simultaneously.

(SB): Ah! I think one challenge was the situation of Kashmir itself, the times when it all ought to have been written, suppose. But those were times nobody could think of writing. Things had to be written but it was only after a certain respite.

The second challenge was that there was no culture of reading and writing in Kashmiri youths that was not there so much, which could have inspired one to write. Therefore, in our situation one has to make quick choices and decisions, has to be more pragmatic and realistic, that people have to look for jobs and sources of livelihood first. Writing is a leisurely activity; it needs immense ideation, patience and time.

(KL): There are almost 8000 cases of enforced disappearances in Kashmir and The Half Mother is a story of a mother who is fighting to trace the whereabouts of her son. For whom did you write this book?

(SB): I have dedicated this book, if you see before the epigraph, to all the mothers and sons of Kashmir because not only those mothers or wives or sisters or daughters who have lost their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers have been victimised, but I think almost all Kashmiri mothers and sons are indirectly victims of this unfortunate phenomenon of enforced disappearance. Because all mothers in Kashmir fear, they are very worried about the safety of their sons. Making it home in the evening in Kashmir would be a miracle.

(KL): You talked about the fear of mothers that whether their children would return home or not, does that fear still linger?

(SB): Yes, that fear will linger always. I think to the day we have a reason not to fear.

The-Half-Mother-Cover-Page(KL): What was your intention; to inform the reader or empathize or both? How do you reach to the parents and relatives of the disappeared in Kashmir?

(SB): Primarily, I neither wanted to inform nor empathize, no. People are already informed about certain things that happen in Kashmir which are there in the book too. People are already empathizing amongst themselves. I wanted to get rid of this burden of not-writing about it all. I wanted to get rid of it, this pain, that each single fact in Kashmir should be expanded so much, and presented in a way to the world that people start rethinking about what happened here.

See, the book is in English language and many relatives of the disappeared people in Kashmir know how to read and they would definitely be interested. I was both happy and sad to read a poem written by a sister for her dead brother. Tufail Matoo’s sister yesterday wrote a poem on her brother. The sad thing about it is we already know Tufail Matoo is not there. The happy thing is that a relative is writing a poem. It is a literary expression of a sister’s grief.

So many people know how to read and write but what I would want is as much translation of my book as possible, in all the languages, because world is full of absence of the people who disappeared from it. So it is my wish that the book is translated for all the people, first in Kashmiri, then in Urdu and then in any other languages.

(KL): As a novelist, you primarily address the theme of disappearance and suffering. What are the other subjects you are trying to touch, through your novel?

(SB): I am not trying to hit at something. I have tried to place this story, this particular story, in a setting and then that setting was very important. I not only wanted to talk about a person who was looking for her son but also about what was happening around her.

The most unfortunately interesting thing about the main character Haleema is that she only got a chance to go out to places when she had a reason of tragedy. Otherwise a homely person like her in Kashmir hardly thinks of going out. There are hundreds and thousands of mothers in Kashmir who would tell you that they have never even crossed Banihaal, not to talk about Delhi. But she is going to places, all the places that usually men go to. Even all the men do not go to all those places. So she is exploring these harder places in the world just because she has a tragedy at her back.

(KL): Tell us about the literary techniques through which you have tried to express the frustrations and eternal struggle of a mother, whose only son has been disappeared by army?

(SB): I did not adopt any particular literary technique. I tried to develop my own voice but the only thing that I do is I always try to imagine as cleanly and vividly as possible, that what would a person like Haleema feel when she would be in front of a police officer, what would she feel when she would go to a place like wetland. What would she feel being alone at her home, what would she feel while walking, eating, praying, despairing, everything. When I was in Hyderabad, I was alone there, so I would lock myself up for a long time in my flat apart from my classes and lectures and I would that I was alone and I would literally try to enter into her person and try feel everything like a half mother. Try to understand what it meant to be a half mother and watch television, a very funny serial, attend a very cheerful marriage, observe Eid. So I think Hyderabad helped me to do that, because I was away from my parents, my family, my son.

Well nothing would not compensate Haleema. I tried to extract as much feeling from that experience of loneliness as possible. If there is one word the novel is all about, I would say, it is loneliness, whatever loneliness constitutes: hope, uncertainty, disbelief, memory, frustration, everything. That is what loneliness is.

(KL): When does the pain of a Half Mother end? Is living with a hope for return of a disappeared son/husband/father more painful than dying without justice? Or is dying a better option than struggling against the system?

(SB): It never ends, and I also think even if the sons return the pain wouldn’t end because the mothers would need more than the sons to end their pain, that’s what I feel.

If you ask this question to Haleema in my novel she would say the same. But as author I would say that it is of course very easy not to hope, it is easy to die, it is very easy to not to believe but the challenges and courage lie in to do the opposites.

(KL): In a way The Half Mother is a metaphor of what unfolded in Kashmir in last 67 years engulfing all the generations – elders, young, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, children, sisters and brothers. Your novel revolves around the characters of Ghulam Rasool Joo, his daughter Haleema and her son Imran. Why did you decide Haleema, the mother, as a main protagonist? Does all the pain convulse in Haleema? What were your criteria for a character’s selection?

(SB): I didn’t have a list to choose from. And I’d to have a point of view. So for my point of view I am also tracing Imran with Haleema.

So it was not a choice it was like somewhere you had to make a decision and it’s very random, and there might be a subconscious reason as well. One would be that what you thought about the character you should have to do justice with the act it has to do. So you decide it accordingly. Haleema is a character who is not that open to the writer even. She would not tell me certain things I’d have needed to tell about her. It is very complicated you see, though she being my creation, I could have told anything I liked about her but she is a very sombre, cultural, subtle, tough, uncertain, hopeful, wise, reserved person and so on. I will ruin her as character if I project her as someone she is not.

You, myself, so many other people have already written about half mothers and half widows because this is a shared pain.

(KL): How much did you evolve as a writer during the period of writing this book?

(SB): I am evolving. And, I think, if you were to ask me this question on the last day of my life on earth I will have the same response—I am evolving.

(KL): What changes you experienced as an individual while living with your characters?

(SB): That’s a very interesting question. Earlier I had a lot of noise in my mind. But if you ask me now, I cannot believe that there was no person like Haleema or Imran or Ab Jaan in my life, rather I have started living with them. Everything is on my mind, as fresh as yesterday.

(KL): You start your novel with a poetic couplet from Baal-e-Jibreel of famous 20th century Islamic philosopher and intellectual Sir Muhammad Iqbal and not from any other poets like Agha Shahid Ali, Mahmoud Darwish or Pablo Neruda who seem to be more relevant to the theme of book than Iqbal. Any specific reason(s)?

(SB): It just happened so that while writing the book I was working on something else as well. I was looking at Iqbal’s poetry and then I came across this couplet (epigraph of the book). I had not decided that this couplet would become the epigraph. But I just read the background of the couplet and I came to know that this poem Judaai (Separation) has been written by Sir Iqbal for his mother. Though the theme of the couplet varies from couplet to couplet, but this struck me. Everything: stars, moon, the whole universe—it is all silent out there, watching indifferently what happens. So in a way, we do not know whether they know it or not, that what it means to them, or metaphorically to the world, to know what happens to the human beings.

Like if something happens to me here right now, I do not know what this wall would feel. It is not the question of being living or non-living but I am just talking in universal terms. I would really be interested in knowing that whether the moon would continue to be indifferent. Whether the sun and stars would continue to be indifferent. Or they would change their shine? They would change their light? Like we say that universe also responds to these things. Because already Iqbal has put a challenge for all these universal things, so he says that “what would they know of separation’s indelible scars?” Invisible scars which you cannot wipe out. Scars cannot disappear. So it struck me like anything.

(KL): What is the role of a writer in a place like Kashmir?

(SB): The role of a writer in Kashmir is never bigger than the other roles. Rather, in the list of roles, a writer should be placed somewhere on the bottom. There are so many other important roles. Those lawyers, journalists, activists, doctors, teachers, ordinary men and women, whoever in Kashmir fights against injustice are much above than anyone else. And they must be respected. A writer would be the last.

Undoubtedly, the impact of writing would be there. It might be sometimes much more than all else but writing is a very personal and private act. There are roles which involve higher risks.

(KL): What is the difference between The Half Mother and previously noted works like Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator and Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night. And what is common in them?

(SB): I think it is not wise to compare books, generally. Each book is different as is each story. All these books are not only on Kashmir but for Kashmir. So mine is too for Kashmir primarily. The difference is for the readers to see.

(KL): You are exploring a highly painful yet ‘deliberately sidelined’ reality of Kashmir; did you fear any reaction from the people who don’t want to talk about this brutal side of Indian state in Kashmir?

(SB): Not yet. Interestingly, few days back I went to Lal Chowk to buy a newspaper at a news stand where I met a police officer purchasing books and newspapers. He shook my hand very firmly and I could see the honesty in his eyes while he congratulated me. I was surprised that first time I met a police officer who really wished me luck and congratulated me and said that he was very proud that Kashmiris were writing internationally.

(KL): You have of course played a lot with the language in the book and at many places used Kashmiri words like Waan, Gari-peth, Tsaalan, Kehwa, Waaza, a luxury for a Kashmiri reader and envied by a non-Kashmiri reader. What was the purpose behind it?

(SB): The purpose behind it was that I primarily wrote it for Kashmiris. This is for Kashmiris first and then for anyone in the whole universe. There were ten times more Kashmiri words- with translation even – in the draft than there are now in the book. Those had to be edited, for the reader outside Kashmir had to be considered.

(KL): By using Kashmiri words, was your objective to give a Kashmiri characteristic to the expression and at the same time invoke a sense of inquiry in the non-Kashmiri readers?

(SB): I have provided translations. I also want the world to know what “wott” from Kashmiri means. Why should we always tell Kashmiris what world means by this or that word? There has to happen a reverse phenomenon.

(KL): Have you been able to elevate the native language’s role in articulating the pain more powerfully?  

(SB): I wish I knew how to write in Kashmiri. If I knew how to write in Kashmiri, English would have been the last choice as language, rather it wouldn’t have even been the last choice either. My only choice would have been writing in Kashmiri. Now you would ask why I couldn’t. The times when we were learning English, there was nothing like learn-Kashmiri in the air here, like there was nobody who could think why we shouldn’t have learned Kashmiri, because the situation was so glum, horrid and sorrowful that people wouldn’t think or care about which languages were being taught or learnt. Now, we are coming to learn about the essence and value of Kashmiri language.

You will be surprised to know that I do not think in English when I write but in Kashmiri and I translate it in my mind to English, and then I write in English. I cannot think in English and write directly in English, that’s not possible for me.

(KL): What do you expect of Kashmiri reader by reading The Half Mother?

(SB): To pray for me and to love me that I should write more and more stories about Kashmir to the world.

(KL): Obviously, the novel will be perceived differently outside Kashmir. What is the common thread, through which you want to attract every reader in the world; both Kashmiri as well as non-Kashmiri readers?

(SB): The common thread is the challenge the novel poses. That apart from all the chaos that is there, apart from all the international real politics that goes on, apart from everything that goes on, the world should also know that there is some place called Kashmir. Apart from the places which have oil, the world should also know that there is a place called Kashmir where human beings live. This is the most important thing.

As an ordinary Kashmiri, I don’t think, that as much as we Kashmiris have felt, talked or protested about the pain of peoples, who live in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or in any other strife-torn place, they have not. I don’t want reciprocation or a trade of support or a balancing act. But I am happy and so proud about this fact that we have been much more sympathetic to people who should have been equally sympathetic to us.

(KL): You have divided the novel into three sections titled ‘Book I, II and III’ totalling 18 chapters. The story is told in a third person narrative till chapter 17 and then a character narrates about Haleema in the last chapter in first person; which like a book within the book. Please tell us about the switching of narrative. What did you want to achieve with this?

(SB): The story ends with Haleema, which is around year 2004-05, but I actually also wanted to give an epilogue or what-could-happen-after-that aspect, from a different point of view. It was all through my perspective as a writer and Book III is also through my perspective as a writer but I also wanted to get a character who could be as informed as a person going to places, different places, knowing about different things in Kashmir as that character does know. I wanted to create a possibility from a possibility.

(KL): How is your family perceiving The Half Mother?

(SB): My father is not that well versed in English language. But he is the first reader of my published book. He is reading it, stumblingly though, and simultaneously translating and narrating it to my mother in Kashmiri. That feeling, seeing my mother listening patiently to the story, is something out of this world. My wife is very excited and my first author copies came as her birthday gift.

(KL): One book which all of us should read?

(SB): I think in the beginning we all should read everything we come across, as much and voraciously as possible. Then there will be a time everyone will be able to name books everyone else should read. For now, if you ask me, I would say The Half Mother [Smiles].

(KL): Any message you would like to give to young Kashmiri readers and writers?

(SB): I don’t have a message but a request: read as much as you can and please keep telling your stories. And more essentially encourage each other, help each other, talk to each other instead of talking about each other; nobody is perfect here, try to see good in each other. Then there will be a day, I promise you, world will talk to us.


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