The Half Mother will engage your mind for a very long time even after you finish reading it
‘She hated having to believe she existed, to feel she was conscious. She wished she were dead’, are the wishes of the mother whose son was one day picked up and whisked away by the Indian army.
Each passing day became a burden for Haleema whose world shattered the day her father was shot and a few days later her sixteen year old innocent son was snatched away by the armed forces.
The tale may sound as just another grim story from Kashmir but the author’s words will echo in your mind for a very long time even after you finish reading the novel Half Mother.
Kashmir has been witness to the bloodiest of conflicts throughout decades and the region has seen so much of bloodshed. The book highlights one of the major upheavals Kashmiris have gone through post the rigged elections of 1987 when the losing party was declared as winner and the trust of an ordinary Kashmiri was broken again. This rekindled Kashmiris’ quest for an independent nation and some of the youth crossed the border to fetch arms and rebel against the Indian State. The rage in the eyes was obvious and imminent.
Soon the splendid vale was covered under a blanket of Khakhi and the armed forces started taking over its nook and corner. Kids saw the troops filling nylon bags with sand, then piling them one over the other making bunkers and pickets. The author then moves on to recreate the year 1990 which was a turning point in the contemporary history of Kashmir.
The year 1990. As the insurgency in the valley intensified, the government resigned… Tears, blood, death and war followed, as did curfews, crackdowns, raids, encounters, killings, bunkers….
…The atrocities by the State started. Women too bore the brunt of this conflict as daughters were stripped in front of their family members. The portrayal of thirty two rounds of bullets being pumped into the blacksmith’s son unleashes the terror that surrounds the lives of ordinary Kashmiris till now. Such ghastly acts triggered processions and the word ‘Azaadi’ started resonating in the valley. Strangely, school children took to ‘sketching Kalashnikovs, Chinese pistols, grenades, bullets, and masked men on the back of their notebooks’.
What startles us, as a non-Kashmiri reader, is when the author bombards us with the fact that, ‘The next year, Kashmir was shut down for two hundred and seventy days’. Life comes to a standstill and people are trapped inside their homes for almost a year which we cannot ever imagine as ordinary citizens of a republic. Slowly Haleema’s story engulfs us in her turmoil and one feels helpless as the Police refuses to file an FIR for her son Imran who was taken away by the armed forces. The police simply say, ‘Our job is now confined to identifying, carrying and delivering dead bodies to their families’.
As an abandoned mother, Haleema’s life becomes a quest to find her son who is her ‘only reason to live’. She knocks on all possible doors to trace him. When the radio station refuses to narrate her story, she goes to a newspaper office, which agrees to print her son’s photo, and the story. Visits to various hospitals, where young men tortured by the army were admitted, proved futile and Haleema has to sell her cattle to gather funds for her long journey of finding her son.
On Arfa, the day before Eid, while people are cookingrista (pounded meatballs), kebabs and yakhni for Eid lunch, Haleema counts the number of days it has been since her son was taken away. On Eid, Haleema sits outside Papa 2, the infamous dreaded interrogation center which overlooked the picturesque Dal lake. While a few boys are released from Papa 2 on the occasion of Eid, Haleema keeps waiting the whole day under the tree. In the evening the security forces ask her to leave and she chases the released boys to ask about Imran’s whereabouts. The author paints such a gripping account out of the agony faced by a mother who has lost her innocent son to the worst of times.
Outside Papa 2, Haleema meets a very weak Rehbar who is being carried by his mother on her back. He recalls meeting Imran at Badami Bagh army cantonment. Rehbar explains that the barber who is the only person allowed in, can tell if Imran is still at Badami Bagh or not. Haleema’s visit to the barber’s house is touching as the auto driver refuses to take money from her. The incident makes an outsider like me realize that this story is a story of thousand of such Haleemas and the auto driver being a Kashmiri refuses the money because of the common pain and suffering every Kashmiri has been undergoing.
Haleema’s journey continues as she teams up with another couple with a lost son and they visit jails in Udhampur, Jammu and Delhi to look for their respective sons. The repercussions of the chaos in Kashmir entangle Haleema and others in Delhi too where they are refused accommodation since they are Kashmiris.
Half Mother is a story of search. The readers are taken to every corner of Kashmir to look for Imran who is partly our own lost son by now. And every evening we wait for him to come back. As Haleema’s pursuit merges with other parents’ search, we are peeping inside Indian jails far across the mountains to find them.
The story will break you at a lot of places and you might just keep the book aside and cry for an hour thinking how can one compensate a mother with money for her son’s death.
The story does not stop at a mother’s search. It brings together all the parents who are having sleepless nights and have lost the zeal to live. The story introduces us to journalists like Izhar who don’t attend press conferences for superficial perks but are really concerned about half mothers like Haleema who are fighting an already lost battle.
Half Mother is crucial in grasping the ordeal parents in Kashmir went through (and are going through), when their loved ones were picked up from their houses and who never came back. Shahnaz Bashir paints a very realistic picture without exaggerating any emotion. The story remains true to the ever-surfacing pain of the valley in the form of stone-throwers and street graffiti calling for azaadi.