Author: Shahnaz Bashir
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Price: Rs 399
I can’t talk about that at all. I can talk about anything on earth, but not about the future of Kashmir. Its present is so confused already’ — says a character in Shahnaz Bashir’s Scattered Souls. From the little girls to grown-up men who face ‘detention and torture’, the book tells stories of the inhabitants of a Kashmir we barely know. It talks about the life we will never know.
It was the 1990s. The army descended upon Kashmir to quell a massive armed rebellion against the Indian Government. They entered not just the land, but also the lives of its people, fracturing their idea of home and punctuating their days and nights with curfews — reads the book’s synopsis. As you turn the pages of each story, you get a peek into what could possible be like living in a conflict zone, but you can only imagine it because reading about the disturbance in the region and living in it are two very different things.
This collection of 13 short stories brings together the tales of some of those people probing the quandaries of their precarious existence. There is an ex-militant whose past continues to stalk his present; the wife who begins to dress like her husband after losing him to a crossfire; a man whose love for the transistor is mistaken for spying against the Indian Army and of a woman suffering from post traumatic stress disorder because she was raped in front of her children. The stories are many and unending, just like the trauma. There is also the boy who obsessively follows now ex US President Obama’s India visit, hoping to hear him mention the ‘K’ word; and the man who wants to erase the ‘Shaheed’ (martyr) prefix to his brother’s name on his gravestone because life as a militant’s brother is difficult. The book paints the helplessness, pain and the resulting frustration of Kashmir’s people through these stories, making the reading experience slightly unnerving, especially for someone who feels for the Kashmir conflict and its people’s scattered lives.
Especially some stories in the book which give quite a detailed visual description of the ‘atrocities’ that the people of the region have gone through. While these are quite disturbing, they are not unjustified. Nothing can possibly describe their experiences exactly the way they have undergone them. So the author tries to take the reader the closest to understanding these through words. They were impervious to our responses and screams. They would just roll a cement roller on your legs, let suspended tyres drip on your bare back, pour buckets of dirty water over you and rattle you with electricity until you’d puke out some broken information,” reads one such description, narrated by an ex-militant to the author.
Unassuming and hard-hitting, Scattered Souls journeys through a destroyed Kashmir swaddled in the memories of its fragile beauty. ‘We’re all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstandings’, the author mentions a quote by Rudyard Kipling that beautifully sums up the situation in Jammu & Kashmir when it comes to the confusing and endless debates and discussions between the Indian government and the separatist groups.
Militants, or no militants, life is constantly disturbed, unpredictable and scattered for the inhabitants of the Valley. Through the chaos, the one word that is most heard and echoed in the ‘Paradise on Earth’, it is ‘Azaadi’, the author concludes through his stories.