t the time of writing this review, the valley of Kashmir remains mired in the deep unrest that has come to be known as the ‘Burhan aftermath’, leading to a complete shutdown of the region. The iconic visuals from the funeral of the Hizbul commander have gradually faded, giving way to images of pellet-ridden faces of Kashmiri men and women. Shahnaz Bashir turns these men and women into life-sized characters in his powerful collection of short stories Scattered Souls .
Set in the 1990s,the book’s focal point is a time when the Indian army quashes a mass rebellion, changing forever the lives of the residents in the Valley. A father struggles with the idea of seeking compensation from the very government responsible for the death of his militant son. A mother battles with feelings of anger towards her child born of rape. An ideal couple’s blissful existence is shattered by a violent attack. A boy clings to the hope that American President Barack Obama’s visit to India will bring to the notice of the world the reality of the people of Kashmir.
The 13 stories in this collection are interconnected. A peripheral character in one story is likely to emerge as the lead protagonist in another. The reader may observe the connection at times, and let it go at other times. At the end, one is tempted to go back to the beginning and read the book afresh. Bashir is a skilled storyteller; his is the voice of the narrator with lived experience of the things that he writes about.
The book explores the effects of the prolonged violence and unrest on the human mind. One of the most haunting stories, ‘Psychosis’, takes us inside the Government Psychiatric Diseases’ Hospital where, apart from the lead character — a rape survivor with cycloid psychosis and PTSD — are a depressed mother who has witnessed her son’s killing and a paraplegic man given to head butting since his son was run over by an army tanker. Poignantly, among the patients is a young constable from the State Task Force, prone to seizures after he forgot to lower a waterboarded captive suspended upside down in a police torture cell, accidentally killing him. In Bashir’s stories, ex-militants and policemen seek succour in equal measure; the upholders of brutal laws are victims themselves.
The stories are an assortmentof portraits; in most, a benign beginning leads the unsuspecting reader to an unexpected revelation or conclusion. Not all the stories work as well as the others, but together, they form a brilliant narrative. Throwing light on the region’s conflicts-within-the-larger-conflict — gender, class, age — they stand out for the fact that they are nuanced and provide deep insights into the plight of the people. In ‘The Ex-Militant’, about young men who turn to militancy, it is those from affluent families who will ultimately be able to resume normal lives; the poor will languish in jail.
With its focus on personal tragedy in times of political conflict, Bashir’s writing bears shades of Manto. The stories are laced with irony and the reader is confronted with the ludicrousness of it all; whether it is a class of students who believe that the capital of Pakistan is India or the oldest person in Hawal who dies just as a strict curfew is imposed. The book leaves the reader with a sense of despair and hopelessness. There are no beautiful sunsets here; the sun ‘slumps’ behind buildings, instead.
The juxtaposition of death and squalor with the beauty of the region elucidates the darkness that has become a way of life in Kashmir. In ‘The Gravestone’, a man visiting the grave of his son observes the irises growing around it and “the first stray thought that crosses his mind is how much better it would be to replace the cacti at his home with irises.”
Janhavi Acharekar, based in Mumbai, is the author of the novelWanderers, All.
With its focus on personal tragedy in times of political conflict, Bashir’s writing bears shades of Manto