Shahnaz Bashir is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the Central University of Kashmir. His memoir, an account of “A Crackdown in Natipora” has been anthologized in Of Occupation and Resistance—Writings from Kashmir (Westland) 2013. The Half Mother, his debut work was published by Hachette. Widely lauded in literary circles for its bold new voice, the book found a mention in Forbes Magazine.
NAW- Tell us about your book, ‘The Half Mother.’ How did you get the idea for it? How long did it take to finish the book?What is it about?How did you select the title?
The Half Mother is about how loneliness settles in people’s lives. It is about the battle between despair and hope, between death and life, between barbarism and helplessness, between uncertainty and longevity.
The idea developed as I began to write generally. In the beginning I did not think it was going to be the book it is now. It took me four years to finish it. It is about Haleema – a mother and a daughter yesterday, a half mother and an orphan today; tormented by not knowing whether her son Imran is dead or alive, torn apart by her own lonely existence. While she battles for answers and seeks out torture camps, jails and morgues for any signs of her son, Kashmir burns in a war.
Those women in Kashmir whose husbands disappear in army and police custodies are called half widows. Similarly, the story of Haleema justifies why women whose sons disappear in custodies may be called half mothers.
NAW- You are from Kashmir and so how much of this book is drawn from your personal experiences? Given the turbulent environment in the valley, do you think literary voices are also a bit suppressed? I mean why are there so few books about Kashmir?
Much in the book has been drawn from my experiences of growing up in this strife-torn valley. Literature couldn’t happen in those times, times when it all ought to have been written. But in those times nobody could think of writing. Things were written only after a certain respite.
But now many have begun to write. In a few years from now we will see more locally authored books coming out of Kashmir.
NAW- Tell us about the character of Haleema. How did you develop it?
Haleema is someone who is not that open to her writer even. She is an utterly reserved person; shy, ordinary and very subtle in the beginning. But as the story progresses she would not continue to be the same person. Later she is a very sombre, uncertain, hopeful, wise and tough person. So she develops by exploring the harder places in the world just because she has a tragedy at her back.
NAW- Kashmir has faced both police and military brutality. Did you meet some actual victims while carrying out research for the book? If yes, what was their reaction?
In Kashmir everyone has been a victim in one way or the other. I grew up there so I didn’t need to meet victims. I too have been to crackdown parades when I was just a teenager.
But I still met a few relatives of the disappeared people in Kashmir, and, surprisingly, each had a new tale to tell. But I used none of that because all of them would end up telling you the facts and figures. Therefore, I had to imagine everything. I had these facts which needed to be extended, which I needed to show their anatomy. The Half Mother is the description of that anatomy.
NAW- Has the ordinary Kashmiri citizen lost out in the battle between the terrorists and the government on both sides? What are your aspirations for your state?
The ordinary Kashmiri is still fighting against oppression and injustice. I have the same concerns.
NAW- Do you carry out any research for developing your characters and your stories? How do you go about it?
For the characters in The Half Mother I did not carry out any research. As I said, it was all from my imagination and experiences. But I really work very hard on the craft. I always toil to polish my voice.
NAW- Which authors have influenced you?
Leo Tolstoy, Arundhati Roy, J M Coetzee, Anton Chekov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Guy De Maupassant, John Banville, Daniyal Mueenudin, Munshi Prem Chand have been my greatest inspirations.
NAW- Tell us about yourself. What are your hobbies? What do you do when you are not writing?
It is very difficult to talk about yourself, very complicated. I think, through my writing I am also telling myself who I am.
My hobbies are travelling, spending hours together browsing books in bookstores, fiddling with things, doing little carpentry, masonry and plumbing here and there, fixing up things, shopping for my family and parents.
I feel depressed and tend to procrastinate when not writing.
NAW- Do you have any strange writing habits (like writing while eating)?
Eating while writing. And I am very very serious once writing. While writing I can behave in any crudest way if disturbed. I wouldn’t run after a pickpocket when writing, I could easily let him go with my wallet.
NAW-Did you face any struggles early on? How did your first book get published? What is it that you don’t like about the publishing process?
I have struggled like anything for everything in my life. Regarding my book, I had several rejections in the beginning.
About publishers, many publishers publish trash of any known and solicited person who does not even have the necessary creative abilities, but they mostly reject good literature of unknown, unsolicited and ordinary persons without taking a single look, which is a very discouraging thing.
But when I write I mean it. So I never worried about getting or not getting publishers.
NAW- Which authors do you like reading the most? Are there any that have influenced your work?
Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekov, Arundhati Roy, John Banville, Daniyal Mueenudin and the list goes on. All of them have influenced me.
NAW- What are your upcoming projects?
I have finished writing my second book which is a collection of stories. Currently, I am working on my third one, which is a novella.