Monday, 12 January 2015

The Half Mother by Shahnaz Bashir / Hachette India

Reviews, Vol I, Issue II

How do you tell a tale which can’t have a regular ending? As the closure we look for, eludes us even in real life. However, these stories need to be told – they are screaming to be told. To leave them untold would be such a loss for humanity- there are lessons to be learnt. Also, it’s said that one thing more difficult than the beginning of a novel is knowing how to end it. The challenges would require deft handling of the content and mastering the craft of storytelling. Shahnaz Bashir’s debut novel The Half Mother does all these and more. Published by Hachette India, the novel is set in Kashmir in the 1990s.

The novel is divided into three parts – Book I, II & III. The first two parts are narrated in the authorial voice. Book III represents the Random Notes by one of the characters in the novel, Izhar, a correspondent working for the BBC. Relegating the job of taking the narrative forward to one of the characters makes it interesting and shows the craft of the writer. Izhar as a character is both the observer and the observed, being and becoming the narrator.

The novel tells a story of a woman - Haleema - searching for her disappeared son, Imran. Haleema is the only child of Ab Jaan – real name Ghulam Rasool Joo and Boba of Natipora. Ab Jaan is an industrious man making his ends meet by dabbling into various odd jobs and finally keeping a general provision store.

At the age of eight, Haleema lost her mother Boba to tuberculosis. Haleema married a medical assistant. The marriage ended in just three months when Haleema learns that her husband is having an affair with a nurse. Imran is the child of this marriage.

Shahnaz Bashir captures the emotion of a single mother raising her child delicately:

He (Imran) did not resemble Haleema, though – the medical assistant came through in the face. He had the same long face, yet sharper and unflinching eyes. But he had Haleema’s dimples and his fingers were short and stubby like hers, with cuticles overlapping the white crescents under the nails.
Ignoring the stark similarities between him and his father, Haleema passionately and desperately lied to herself. She dismisses the similitude and likened the boy to herself, declaring that he was a part of her being. ‘See, my dimples, my fingernails’, she readily offers while praising the baby before people could begin saying that he resembled his father.

Haleema desperately erases the absent father from the frame of reference. She is resolute in claiming Imran as her and hers only and she is resolute in seeking Imran out when calamity hits.

The following paragraph captures the childhood sensibilities of Imran beautifully:

The birds that darted about the farm always brought back a painful memory for Imran. He had once let his catapult loose on a sparrow that had made her nest in a small hole on a wall. He had killed the bird to impress himself with his sharpshooting skills, which he had not believed he had until the pebble hit the bird right on its rump. He dug a tiny grave for her behind the cowshed, and after completing all funeral rites, he discovered naked chirping nestlings. He tried to redeem himself by feeding the chicks and guarding them from eagles and crows. But one by one all three of them died. To assuage his guilt, he would allow birds to bite into the collard saplings or the bottle-gourds whenever Ab Jaan wasn’t looking.

Now the tempest hits the valley and the people of Natipora. The year is 1990.

And then, suddenly, gunfire tore the still air. Two insurgents attacked the contingent from two alleys – the first attack on the army in Natipora. . . . All the other boys who were playing cricket with him immediately dispersed and ran for their lives.

. . . At dawn, Natipora sluggishly came back to life. . . .Haleema and Ab Jaan stonily surveyed for Imran.

   Imran emerged a few hours later. Haleema felt breathless while hugging him.

. . . Imran explained everything. How he had escaped to another locality he had hardly been to. How difficult, while running randomly in desperation , it had been to decide where he should have actually gone.

And then the response came from the army:

The next morning, a patrolling party led by a Major Aman Lal Kushwaha began to search the houses. Almost all the men in the neighbourhood received their share of beating in turns. The army was still angry over the attacks.

Bashir captures the humiliation and shame that the civilians have to go through in a battle between the army and the insurgents.

The army called out the male members once they were outside the gate. Ab Jaan decided to go and open the gate but Haleema didn’t let him. ‘Don’t worry, I will be all right’, Ab Jaan assured her darkly. . . .What is this? You beat everyone. There are civilians in this locality yet you burn down our shops, you snatch away our living and now you are torturing us. Don’t you have shame?’ Ab Jaan argued bravely, yet  trembling.
            ‘Shut up or I’ll kill you! Kushwaha threatened.       
. . . Three bullets were pumped into Ab Jaan. One in the neck. One in the heart. One in the stomach.

The ‘truth’ of this raid by the army is reported to the world by Izhar Ahmad, the correspondent working for the BBC.

‘I was here in Natipora the whole day, recording the tragedy. I went around to the burial too. Just need some details from you, if you are willing, to substantiate the news. The truth needs to be confirmed, as you know’, he said.

In another raid, Imran is picked up by the army leaving Haleema devastated.

The trooper bundled Imran into the Gypsy and hastily leapt behind him. . . . Haleema ran in front of the vehicle and knelt in front of its bonnet, breathing hard, begging and crying for Imran’s release. A trooper dragged her aside and the Gypsy picked up speed.

Haleema pleaded,

‘What is his crime?’ What has he done? You are mistaken! You know you are mistaken! Why do you do this to me?’
. . .
“He is my only son, Sir! He. . .’ Haleema was desperate.

But for army personnel, “A man means a medal.”

This is where the search for her disappeared son begins for Haleema. She becomes a half mother.

Since we don’t know the status of your respective relatives who have disappeared... we don’t know whether they are alive or not ... we cannot describe you as widows, or whatever the case may be. We are talking legal language here, and the status matters. So, for all such uncertain cases for women whose husbands have disappeared, we will prefix their status with “Half”,’ Advocate Farooq Ahmad explained.
             Half. The word ringed in Haleema’s head. A cold pinch.
‘And what about mothers, Farooq sahib?’ Haleema asked. ‘Are they half mothers by rule?’
Everyone turned to her. Silence. . . .Whether their children were dead or alive or missing, mothers would remain mothers – but Advocate Farooq was not sure. He didn’t know how to respond to Haleema. He couldn’t be certain what status of victimhood should be attested to her.
‘So am I a half mother?’ Haleema repeated.

This legalese of being a half mother occurs, though, much later in the narrative. The frenetic and desperate search for her son becomes the reason to live for Haleema. She becomes the symbol for all the mothers who have lost their children to this barbaric, involuntary disappearance.
Haleema goes from one place to other, from prison to prison, from one army camp to other, from the prayer halls to the politicians, from one torture camp to another. However, nothing seems to help. Every small hint prepares her to search more and even more.

These expeditions bring her and the readers to the reality of the torture camps and the social-political reality of Kashmir of the 1990s.

Almost a decade later, in 1999, after a long enquiry, the army is willing to negotiate, however, the justice they offer is not justice at all. They offer monetary compensation which Haleema refuses.

‘I won’t live longer than the money I have saved. And what would I do with the money  you are offering me? Would it assuage my pain? No. I don’t want any justice from you. Not really. You are incapable of justice. If you honestly want to help me, tell me what happened to my son? What did they, I mean Major Aman Kushwaha, do with him? Is my son alive or . . . ‘ She broke down.

To assuage her feelings the colonel informs Haleema:

‘The least I can tell you is this: Major Aman Lal Kushwaha was killed long ago in an attack on the border.

Kashmir of 1990s is such a paradox that a search for the victim is also a search for the victimiser. Hearing the news of the death of Kushwaha, Haleema felt sad.

Kushwaha was her one and only hope for Imran’s whereabouts. She was stunned at hearing the news, but not relieved. She grieved at the fact that he had been the only one who could tell her what happened to Imran, and now, with the news of her death, she was half-certain about Imran too.

This is not what she has been searching for. This is not the justice she was wishing for. This is no justice at all for Haleema.

In this novel of 182 pages Shahnaz Bashir has sketched complex characters in a nuanced way to tell us the heartbreaking story of a mother’s search for her disappeared son. This novel brings us face to face with a dark period in our history, which refuses to be ignored, which we mustn't ignore.

Earlier in the novel, Imran one day requests Ab Jaan to come to his school.

‘Yes, Ab Jaan, You must come some day and talk to the principal about that. The other day our History teacher Mrs Teja Thussu tweaked my ear when I asked her a simple question . . .’
. . . ‘I asked her why we were never taught the history of Kashmir. How can one study about Mesopotamia and Indus Valley and Harappa and this and that civilization but not a bit about the place one hails from?’
. . . ‘Then I thought Kashmir had no real history, otherwise I would not have been punished.’
. . . Ab Jaan sniggered. ‘Until we stop oppressing ourselves others will never stop oppressing us. Remember this. Mark my words . . . Everything has a history. And we have a firm history. Our own history. Except the fact that it has never seen the light of day.’

Shahnaz Bashir’s The Half Mother brings the history of Kashmir of the 1990s under focus, wrapped in a poignant tale of a mother’s search for her disappeared son.

Reviewed by Himanshu Shekhar Choudhary
Editor-in-Chief - Reviews.
He teaches at the Dept. of English, P. K. Roy Memorial College, Dhanbad.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Interview with Dr. R.K. Singh

Reviews, Vol I, Issue II
Interviewed by Varsha Singh, Managing Editor, Reviews

Brought up and educated in Varanasi, India, Dr. R.K. Singh is a university professor teaching English language skills to students of earth and mineral sciences. He has authored over 160 research articles and 170 book reviews in journals in all over the world. He has been writing poems in English for over three decades now and is widely anthologized and published in various journals and e-zines. Team Reviews is glad to feature an enriched conversation with Dr. Singh. 

VS: Sir, what started you writing poetry?

RKS: Expression of creativity is own cause. It has been a natural activity happening by itself since my teenage. I offer no justification for writing poetry.
VS: What sort of thing did you write about when you began?
RKS: I initially wrote in Hindi with my teenage imagination, both in metrical and free verse form. It was largely romantic stuff but at times, social and political too. I can safely call it ‘practice exercises’ which continued in English, too, till I discovered my own natural voice and rhythm in my early twenties. By then, I had the maturity to reflect on personal life and experiences that include various familial, social, political, cultural, psychosexual, erotic, philosophical, spiritual, and even literary and academic issues, just as there were aspects of love, loneliness, failure, frustration, and memories.
VS: Now, jumping the years, can you say, are there any themes which particularly attract you as a poet, things that you feel you would like to write about?
RKS: Such a question is relevant for poets who are good at writing about a particular subject (on demand). Since I deliberately or consciously do not write on a particular theme, I can’t say what specific theme I should write in future. I have been writing what I intimately know or understand, or what naturally occurs to my mind, as part of my living experiences. 
VS: Has there ever been a point when you thought the reader is not going to understand this? Have you ever imagined yourself in the readers’ shoes while writing?
RKS: Sometimes when I re-read my poems and find that I am not able to understand it myself as a reader, I try to rewrite it, or discard it. I do ensure that I don’t put out a poem which is not sensible to me. Sometimes certain images and metaphors may be challenging, but I do enjoy writing poems that may be “ambiguous” and/or allow more meanings than one. For example, since I hardly use titles or punctuation marks, the lines can be read differently to derive different meanings. Then, there is the use of enjambment (one line passing to the next with full period or question mark etc at the end) just as there are instances where first word of the next line plays a double role both at grammatical and semantic levels. The readers do need to be sensitive about these features of my poetry that make it simple and complex at the same time. This has been my normal style, posing difficulty to readers…. I am not writing prose as poetry!
VS: Could you speak about the use of clichés in your poetry? 
RKS: If you point to the use of sex as clichés, then I would like you to read Dr G.D. Barche’s article ‘Phoenix’ and ‘Icarus’ Reworked in the Erotic Poetry of R.K.Singh  (Creative Forum, Jan-Dec 1991) and R.S. Tiwary’s article ‘Secret of  the First Menstrual Flow: R.K.Singh’s Commitment to Fleshly Reality (Language Forum, Jan-Dec 1997). Both these articles are also available in New Indian English Poetry: An Alternative Voice (ed. I.K.Sharma, 2004) Sex is a fact of daily life and it is through sex, one can understand the truths about the individual or his/her social consciousness.
VS: You are well known for your haiku and Tanka. Can you tell me about when you first began to become interested in these forms of poetry and how it changed your perception of the writing small verses?
RKS: I have been writing haiku and tanka for over three decades. In fact I used these forms as stanzas of many of my regular poems before these could happen with the sense of ‘here and now’ as individual poems. It appears now my lyrics are limited to tanka and regular poems reduced to haiku/senryu. 
My first encounter with haiku was via Ezra Pound’s translations nearly four decades ago. In the 1980s, I tried to explore haiku in the UK and USA and read many haijins. I gladly acknowledge help from Mohammed H. Siddiqui (Baltimore), who shared with me copies of several journals and quality haiku by many good practitioners in Japan, Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. I had great support from the editor and publisher of Azami (Japan). I could successfully write and publish many haiku and tanka all over the world.
VS: How do you relate ideas to language, or aesthetics to language?
RKS:  For success in any creative genre, one needs to be not only sensitive about language but also love it. Aesthetic sense without language sense is incongruous. The process of relating it, i.e. aesthetics to language, is rather intuitive. One needs honesty to oneself.
VS: Being a Professor, you have a vast experience of teaching. How would you say your experience in the classroom has influenced your poetry?
RKS: Teaching, be it Scientific English, Grammar, Literature, or Criticism, has had no influence on my writing poetry.  I have been a different person when I teach. I am not I when I write a poem.
VS: When you finish a poem do you believe you have put order into that chaotic world of random language without a form?
RKS: With practice and experience, an idea takes the form appropriate to it.  If a poem begins well, it finds its end too. The initial chaos in the mind is resolved with the form it assumes and the end it gets.
VS: The writing of poetry is something which has been a great satisfaction to you in your life, is it?
RKS: Can’t say. But I would like to be remembered as a poet.
VS: What advice do you have for young poets/writers? 
RKS: Read what you enjoy reading. Read different poets/writers, and develop love for the language, a sense of rhythm, and sensibility.    

Play Review: Ismat Apa Ke Naam

Reviews, Vol I, Issue II

If Ismat apa were alive today, she would have felt appreciative and humble towards Naseeruddin Shah and the family to bring out her stories, written in an age of repression and hypocrisy, to life nearly after a century. Ismat apa wrote these stories in 20’s and 30’s which triggered the public debate and caused a panic during those years due to the stories being marginally sexually disposed.

Ismat Apa Ke Naam is a fine blend of three stories written by the late feminist, Ismat Chugtai. The three stories are performed by each performer in a narrative style. The use of lighting all along these three plays is judicious so much so that it conveys the change in the scene and the mood of the character.

Although the setting remains the same, lighting effects that keep changing intermittently bring each story alive on the stage. 

Chhui    Mui (Touch Me Not) is the first story narrated by Nasseerduin Shah’s daughter, Heeba Shah. The setting of this story is a special compartment attached to the train. The story contrasts a pregnant upper class woman (Bhabijaan), whose marriage depends on her getting through her pregnancy and delivering a healthy male heir to her husband. This is in contrast to an unmarried woman who shamelessly gives birth in the same train compartment without breaking much of a sweat. Heeba Shah really hits her stride when she gets into the characters and physically engages with the story. Her voice is clear and concise and easy to follow.

Mughal Baccha (Progeny of the Mughals) is recited by Ratna Pathak Shah, and tells us the story of a stubborn husband– Kaley Miyaan, and Gori bi and their very difficult marriage. Kaley Miyaan abandons his wife early (really early) in the marriage, and the thing that prevents them from consummating it. Pathak Shah Ratna expertly conveys the two characters using her voice and intonation.

Gharwali (Mistress of the House) is about the relationship between Mirza, a bachelor and his maid (soon to be his prostitute), the stunningly beautiful Laajo. Naseer Shah brought the most physical element to his performance, really giving you a sense of who Laajo and Mirza are. The story is witty, and yes a little bit bawdy, but definitely a fantastic finale.

Reviewed by Kiran Patil
Kiran Patil is a Bangalore based freelance writer and journalist. 

'रंगरसिया'- कला का यह अलग रंग

प्रकाशित - Reviews, Vol I, Issue II

-        प्रियदर्शन
वरिष्ठ पत्रकार और एनडीटीवी के न्यूज़ एडिटर  
इसे आप चाहें तो कैनवास पर उकेरी कलाकृति कह सकते हैं।  
आप चाहें तो इसे कला और कलाकार के द्वंद्व की एक कविता कह सकते हैं।
आप चाहें तो इसे अभिव्यक्ति और कठमुल्लेपन के बीच टकराव की एक कहानी कह सकते हैं।
और आप चाहें तो इसे राजा रवि वर्मा नाम के अद्वितीय चित्रकार पर बनी एक पीरियड फिल्म की तरह देख सकते हैं।
और अगर आपके पास निगाह हो तो आप घुलतेमिलतेबिखरतेपसरते रंगों के खेल में अपने भीतर आकार लेती एक कोमल कला को भी पहचान सकते हैं।

कहने की ज़रूरत नहीं कि केतन मेहता की 'रंगरसिया' एक बड़ी फिल्म हैऐसी फिल्म जो इतिहास में जाती है और एक चित्रकार की कहानी इस तरह उठा लाती है कि वह हमारे लिए भी प्रासंगिक हो उठती है।

उन्नीसवीं सदी के अंत में काम कर रहे एक बड़े भारतीय कलाकार के रूप में राजा रवि वर्मा की प्रतिष्ठा पुरानी है और यह जानकारी भी कि उन्होंने हमारे देवीदेवताओं के चित्र बनाए, उन्हें जनजन तक पहुंचाया। लेकिन यह बेहद सामान्य सी लगने वाली जानकारी उस दौर के लिहाज से कितनी अहम रही होगी, इसका एहसास फिल्म देखते हुए होता है।

राजा रवि वर्मा ने देवताओं को मंदिरों और पुरोहितों की क़ैद से निकाला और कैलेंडरों और चित्रों की शक्ल में घरघर पहुंचा दिया। अपनी देवमाला को हम पहली बार इस तरह साकार देख रहे थे।

राजा रवि वर्मा ने भारतीय समग्रता और सुंदरता को नए आयाम और स्पर्श दिए। लेकिन यह काम आसान नहीं था। उन पर अश्लीलता के आरोप लगे, उनके ख़िलाफ़ धार्मिक संगठन खड़े हुए, उनका प्रिंटिंग प्रेस जलाया गया, उनकी मॉडल बनी प्रेमिका को सरेआम बेइज़्ज़त किया गया, उन पर हमले हुए, उन्हें अदालतों में घसीटा गया।

इन सबके बीच राजा रवि वर्मा बचे रहे, क्योंकि ये एहसास बचा रहा कि कला सबसे बड़ी होती हैसब ख़त्म हो जाता है, झर जाता है, कला बची रहती है।

यह एक आसान फिल्म नहीं हैं। इसे बनाते हुए कारोबारी सफलता के बड़े आसान प्रलोभन निर्देशक को घेरते रहे होंगे। लेकिन उन्होंने बहुत सावधानी से अपनी फिल्म को सतही क़िस्म के देहप्रदर्शन से बचाए रखा। राजा रवि वर्मा की प्रेमिका बहुत खुलती हैफिल्म में प्रेम के बहुत सुंदर दृश्य हैंलेकिन वे किसी सस्ते से दृश्य की उम्मीद में पहुंचे दर्शकों की निगाह को भी यह मौक़ा नहीं देते कि वह इनमें किसी स्थूल मांसलता का आनंद ले। जैसे देह भले अनावृत्त हो रही हो एक आत्मा उसे ढंक ले रही है। कला का अपना अध्यात्म उसे एक परालौकिक अनुभव में बदल दे रहा है। सौंदर्य की अपनी पवित्रता इस कला को पूजा का रूप दे रही है।
इस बहुत पवित्र संसार और संबंध को एक अश्लील सांसारिकता ने घेर रखा है जो उसका इस्तेमाल भी करती है और उससे क्रूर प्रतिशोध भी लेती है। कला की प्रेरणा और कलाकार के बीच जो खाई पैदा होती है और अंतत जिस परिणति तक पहुंचती है वह एक बड़ी हूक पैदा करती हैकाश ऐसा होता। लेकिन कला का शाप शायद यही होता है कि उसे जीवन की सज़ा भुगतनी पड़ती है।

इस फ़िल्म का एक समकालीन पाठ भी है। धर्म और संस्कृति के नाम पर, परंपरा और सभ्यता के नाम पर एक भयानक क़िस्म का सतहीपन और औसतपन हर तरफ़ दिखता है जो सारी कलाओें और अभिव्यक्ति के सारे माध्यमों को अपने ढंग से अनुकूलित करना चाहता है। समकालीनता का यह पाठ फिल्म में कतई अलक्षित नहीं रह जाता और इसीलिए यह फिल्म समकालीन समय की सत्ता को भी डराती है।