Scattered Souls – An Appraisal

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by Ihsan Malik

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In the past Kashmir has seen some remarkable short story writers writing in the native language. The creative and ingenuous efforts of writers like Akthar Mohi-ud-Din, Hari Krishan Kaul, Amin Kamil, Hirday Kaul Bharati lent a distinct identity to the tradition of Kashmiri short story. In the recent past, however, some young Kashmiri writers have made commendable attempts to broaden the horizons of short story – rooted in and immediately relevant to the Kashmiri consciousness – by writing in English.

Shahnaz Bashir’s Scattered Souls, a collection of some very well-written and poignant short stories, adds a substantial dimension to the tradition which is currently in transition from one medium to the other. The most striking feature of the book is the characterial interconnection between constituent stories that makes it read like a novel. This lends to the book a definite coherence and structure making it utterly engrossing.

The book begins with the story entitled ‘Transistor’ which is a candid account of the bitter realities of the Kashmir conflict where even a petty misunderstanding is enough to claim a person’s life. This is evidenced through the tragic story of Muhammad Yousuf Dar. Yousuf, though himself a votary of justice and a staunch supporter of the freedom movement, pays the ultimate price for being the brother of the collaborative mainstream politician, Abdur Rahman Dar. Yousuf’s transistor is mistaken for a wireless set following which he is dubbed as a traitor and informer before being silenced forever. The story sets the tone for what is to follow – some more heartrending stories based on the Kashmir conflict.

In ‘The Gravestone’ the author artfully depicts how an individual’s integrity and sense of self-respect eventually give way as one has to contend with insurmountable social, psychological and economic pressures. Muhammad Sultan, a carpenter by profession and an avid supporter of the freedom struggle, has to wrestle with his conscience to convince himself that he should apply for a monetary compensation for his martyred son Mushtaq Ahmad Najar, also an advocate of sustained and organised insurgency like his father. Sultan is pushed, by circumstances, even to the extreme of knocking the word shaheed off from Mushtaq’s gravestone in order to be able to claim the compensation but ironically, in the pitch-black night, he knocks off the name Mushtaq instead.

‘Ex-Militant’ reasserts the bitter reality that once a person becomes a belligerent it is literally impossible for him to return to a normal and peaceful life, even if he gives up violence. Ghulam Mohiudeen, an ex-militant narrates his ordeal to Izhar, a writer and journalist, who is doing a story on ex-militants. The story demonstrates how individuals like Mohiuddeen are constantly hounded and humiliated by the agencies causing irreparable damage to their physical and psychological health.

‘Psychosis’ is an extension of the preceding story limning the tragic circumstances in which Sakina, the wife of ex-militant Ghulam Mohiudeen, finds herself during her husband’s detention. She has to brave all kinds of humiliation at the hands of ‘security’ forces which culminate in a barbaric and heartless gang rape. This ‘painful memory’ later takes a ‘human form’ in her son Bilal as she finds herself stuck in abysmal vortex of having to fight social stigma and ostracism on one hand and bringing up her illegitimate son on the other. In the process, she almost loses her psychological poise and is forced to consult a psychiatrist, Dr Imtiyaz.

‘Theft’ is a touching account of Insha’s struggle to lend meaning to her life as she tries to assert her existence in the face of social repression and distrust. Insha the daughter of Ghulam Mohiudeen and Sakina faces a lot of humiliation and disrespect and is even accused of theft while working as a salesgirl at a cosmetics shop.

Shahnaz Bashir

Shahnaz Bashir

‘A Photo with Barrack Obama’ typifies the indifferent attitude of the international community and in particular of America towards the problem of Kashmir. Bilal, now the most popular and skilled stone-pelter in locality,  tries to shrug off his own painful struggle of trying to earn some honour and respect in the society and fixes all his attention on the impending visit of President Obama to India. Bilal like countless other disillusioned Kashmiris expects Obama, given his seemingly emancipated and unbiased outlook on global politics, to mention Kashmir at least once in the series of speeches he is supposed to give while touring India. However, to his utter disappointment, Obama speaks about everything else except Kashmir urging him to tear to pieces the photograph which he had taken with a homemade cardboard cut-out of Obama.

In ‘Oil and Roses’ the author endeavours to portray Gul Baaghwaan’s cravings for contentment and satisfaction in his troubled and turbulent personal life. Gul, a gardener at Nishat Bagh, has lost his foster son, adopted by him to alleviate the bitter feeling of being childless, in a firing incident in the city. He seeks to end the bareness in his personal life, symbolised by his inability to beget a child, by trying to create a hybrid flower species. On a particular day he happens to come across a few American tourists at the garden to one of whom he offers a bunch of fresh roses telling them ironically that we have got only flowers to offer and not oil. Later in the day the same tourist gets back to him with the quip that ‘perhaps there are more complicated things in the world than oil and roses.’

‘Country Capital’ centres around a group of rustic school children who are so ignorant and gullible that they don’t even know the capital of the country they happen to be the citizens of. They also do not have an idea about the capitals of countries that surround India. The author subtly suggests how these naive children are exploited by the men in uniform under the facade of illusory exercises like operation Sadbhavana. The author also accentuates the factors that normally lead to a nexus of evil at the village level with collaborators, sarpanchs, and renegades joining hands for petty personal interests.

‘Shabaan Kaak’s Death’ reiterates the reality that in a conflict zone even the burial of the dead can pose insurmountable problems to family and friends of the deceased. Owing to a strict curfew in the valley following a teenager’s death, Shabaan Kaak the centenarian is not able to get the kind of burial he had always dreamt of. Contrary to his dream of leaving for the heavenly abode a sunny Friday with thousands attending his funeral, he dies on a bleak and gloomy Thursday with only a couple of rows of people comprising his family and the immediate neighbours offering the janaza in a narrow lane. After a lot of difficulty the family manages to give him a burial.

‘The House’ is a stark reminder of the reality that conflict has the potential to disintegrate the most compact and well-knit of households. Besides, it also has the potential to soften up and mellow down the most arrogant and conceited of individuals. This is illustrated through the falling apart of Farooq Ahmad Mir’s household following his wife’s death in army firing.

‘Some Small Things I Couldn’t Tell You’ is a poignant letter from a father who is dying of cancer to his loving son. The letter tells him about things that should matter the most in life and things he should desist from indulging in.

‘The Silent Bullet’ is a touching story centred around Muhammad Ameen, a conscientious philosophile who is having a pleasant dream where he sees himself as a denizen of heaven. In the course of his stay in heaven, he comes across a series of surprises, the most bizarre of which is to see heaven peopled with individuals whom he never expected to be there. Being a lover of philosophy he broods over the ultimate questions pertaining to human destiny and existence while trying to get his mind round the almost annoying and befuddling perfection which characterizes heaven – a place completely devoid of problems. He soon wakes up to his miserable and painful worldly existence and is reminded of how he had fallen to a stray bullet.

‘The Woman Who Became Her Own Husband’ is a tragic story that revolves around Ayesha and her loving husband Tariq Zargar, a banker by profession. Ayesha loses her husband in a tragic firing incident which ends their exemplary marital association. Ayesha is unable to overcome this shock and starts mimicking Tariq’s diurnal routine, as she slips towards madness.

Like in his last book, The Half Mother, Shahnaz has made artful use of the tragic happenings of last two and half decades, which now form a part of the Kashmiri collective conscience, to carve out another engrossing work. Shahnaz has once again allowed reality to rub shoulders with fiction, allowing his artistic prowess to facilitate a coalescence of the two into an organic and connected whole. Having said this, it would be interesting to see how creative and ingenuous the author can be when he tries his hand at writing fiction against a different or broader canvas. As far as the handling and use of language is concerned Shahnaz has surpassed himself as the graphic descriptions in the book are fraught with an air of maturity that comes only with age. The characterization is quite impressive as the author invests the recurring as well as other characters with qualities and peculiarities that a reader would normally expect them to possess. The author has made use of stirring use of the elements of metaphor, context and irony allowing them to serve (to use Cleanth Brooks’ words) as the principle of structure in a work which a reader would normally expect to be componentially heterogeneous. I am sure there is more to come from Shahnaz!

The author can be mailed at: ihsan.malik@cukasmir.ac.in

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