Kashmir's discontent

Kashmir's discontent

Scattered Souls
Shahnaz Bashir
Harper Collins
2016, pp 183, Rs 399

Apart from condemned to be the ‘paradise on earth’, Kashmir is also subjected to the opinions of every non-Kashmiri.

Most of us seem to have an angle or a solution to the Kashmir ‘problem’ — without ever having been there, without having read anything about its history or the origins of the conflict in the state. Shahnaz Bashir’s new book of short stories adds to the literature that can open up our minds to step out of our ill-informed, popular culture-fed, ridiculously fanciful construct of Kashmir, and the nightmares its people have to live with every day.

The stories in Scattered Souls are excerpts from the lives of Kashmiris that are not otherwise accessible in the news stories of firing or attacks. In these times of statistics and post-truth, these are stories about human beings who are otherwise merely fragments of numbers who get killed or ‘become militants’. The spectrum of the characters follows an arc of being hounded — not in the sense of some stories being more graphic or more tragic than the others, or in the sense of leaving the readers more affected than the others.

All the stories are differently painful in the commonality of lack of closure. Either the characters do not have a closure or the readers do not find a causality that could explain why things are the way they turn out to be. The arc of the stories is the different moments of unbearableness that you find the Kashmiris to be in. The book is at its most unbearable in the story Psychosis. The different stories pursue this injustice and grief in several dimensions, but I was grateful that Psychosis is not the last story in the book. It is also a part of the stories that follow the same family.

A few stories have one more thing in common — the idea of things. So the transistor or the gravestone or the house in the stories that bear these words/things as titles as well, show a unique way of dwelling. The other side to this dwelling is the shape of the mind that has to bear the consequences of everything. Psychosis , The Silent Bullet, The Woman Who Became Her Own Husband are narrations of the brutality and scars that begin to show on one’s consciousness for not being able to come to terms with the fact of survival.

The Silent Bullet is a very special story. It plays out the philosophical and intellectual drama behind the world, and the baggage of meaning that it drags with itself. And Country-Capital, possibly at the other extreme, plays out the ridiculousness of the meaning of boundaries in the world. In this messed-up world, India is the capital of Pakistan! While one is about knowledge in its purity, the other is about teaching gone haywire.

Among the silences in the stories, two stand out. While there is a perspective coming from the ‘militants’ or ‘ex-militants’, with a glimpse into their lives, there is almost nothing about the personal, emotional or intellectual conflicts of the army. This absence is very telling on the possibility of the very existence of the army’s ‘side’ to the haunting narrative of Kashmir. One more such absence is that of the problematisation of the words we use carelessly — like ‘militant’ or ‘insurgency’. Do the people called ‘militants’ see themselves as such? Shahnaz Bashir does not engage further with the politics of naming. Or, is it too late in the history and politics of Kashmir to work towards the nuances of the meaning of such names?

The specificity of the short story as a genre, among other things, lies in the moments it captures in the ‘scatteredness’ of its canvas. Bashir’s collection achieves that, and the possibility that the struggles of these characters are reflective of conflicts elsewhere too. The ordinariness of days, the suddenness of a bullet, or the randomness of impact are the universalities of pain here. Though Kashmir is the crucial thing that binds all the characters as the setting and as the co-character, the stories could be true of any other site imploding in its guns and stones.

Evidence, common sense, experience, intuition — everything tells us that reading makes us better people, giving us access to emotions, feelings and other states of mind that enhance our coefficients of empathy. That helps us understand, and more importantly, accept the fact that the world and the people around us are stranger than we think. Scattered Souls is a place to start if we wish to step out of our ignorance of how people in many parts of the world are forced to live in a constant churning of lies, fear, violence, human will to power, and human failure to rise above it.

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