Tell-tale tales of tragedy: A review of Scattered Souls

Cover Page / Courtesy 4th Estate HarperCollins India

Tragedy, Arthur Miller – the renowned American playwright noted, must place the common man as its tragic protagonist in the modern age. Shahnaz Bashir’s collection of short stories Scattered Souls is ample proof that Miller was not off the mark. The book comprises of thirteen interlinked short stories that demonstrate the thirteen different dimensions of the hydra headed tragedy that has befallen the valley of Kashmir, courtesy armed occupation by Indian military forces. Occupation is often mistaken as some variant of an external overarching phenomenon sustained by a military apparatus. Rather, occupation as the book points out successfully creates abiding structures that permeate the very self-hood of the colonized people, and creates monstrous hybrids. Such hybrids inflect with every imaginable interaction between people manifesting in them the capacity to unleash preposterous tragedies upon a traumatized people.

Recent Kashmiri literature in English of late has gained significant ground by accurately chronicling lived experience under occupation. Scattered Souls too must be seen as another attempt towards the same, yet it also breaks new ground in terms of the stories it attempts to foreground. The usual thematic suspects are all there: Oppression by armed forces (Shabaan Kaak’s death), sexual violence (Psychosis), Custodial disappearances (Psychosis), torture (A Photo with Barack Obama), Killings (Oil and Roses, The Man Who Became her Own Husband, The Gravestone) and loot of natural resources (Country-capital).  Yet these stories are more than the usual suspects for they are more than just simple and unadulterated portrayals of an external Indian occupier, and the unsuspecting Kashmiri victim. Rather these are stories of transactions, corroborations, opportunism, hypocrisy, failures and trade-offs as the commerce of occupation is brought out in great ironic detail. The protagonists are simply unsuspecting common people who are caught in the whirlwind of conflict. These are thus narratives, not of black and white but of the grey areas. They neither glorify the struggle Kashmir has been engaged in since seven decades, nor judges its efficacy. The book offers no philosophical counters, nor charts a blueprint for future action. It simply contents itself by offering a realistic account of the immensity of it, the toil turmoil takes without taking apparent sides. As such it is neither a story about heroes nor about villains. It is about humans forced to make strange choices and conflicted by painful dilemmas like whether or not to seek compensation from an occupying state (the Graveyard) or whether to raise a child born out of rape and a perpetual reminder of the trauma of absence (Psychosis) or whether absolute denial is the best way to deal with an unbearable loss (The Woman Who Became her Own Husband). The characters are broken people, yet they don’t concede. They are heroic only in the sense that they don’t have the ability to concede completely but rather struggle tirelessly from some faint sense of human endeavour. Therefore, though the book is clearly wedded to the ideology of anti-colonialism, it resists and refuses to serve as an unqualified endorsement of any populist sentiment.

How does Shahnaz manage to walk this tight rope walk – be able to stay true to a strong ideological perspective, and yet not emerge as an ideologue? I struggled long with this question, and only ended up appreciating again the difficulty of answering simple questions. It is the most obvious phenomenon, that often defy explanations. One way of answering the question is to explore the craft of the author. Literature, howsoever realistic, still demands an artistic treatment to set it apart from a plain chronicle. It follows then that since the stories are quite gripping, they must score high on the question of craft and skill. The first hint of the skill of Shahnaz lies in his choice of the first word of its title: the adjective ‘scattered’. Scattered presupposes an originally single entity broken or distributed over random directions. The singularity of the original can be read in two ways with respect to the book: a) the book fundamentally investigates different manifestations or reincarnations of a singular tragic subject-  the ordinary common Kashmiri b) these stories are interlinked as the characters of each story are present in the lives of characters in another story. Thus for example, if Ghulam Mohiudeen is the tragic protagonist of The Ex-militant, he determines the course of the next story – Psychosis through being subjected to custodial disappearance and its devastating effect on Sakina – his wife. Similarly, her doctor – the kind psychiatrist Dr. Imtiyaz is the son of Shaban Kaak whose ignominious burial is a striking indictment of the mind-boggling diversity of human right violations by Indian armed forces. This inter-connectedness serves to give the book a novel like feel, and expand the scope of its canvas such that it can stretch into an exploration of the local collaboration in the colonizing project, without losing sense of the larger fact that colonialism itself in the first place permits and catalyses such opportunistic alliances. As a result, the stories can explore facets which largely remain invisible in discourses of glorification of counter-colonialism, and expose contradictions of Kashmiri anti-colonial movements. Yet it can attempt such an investigation without veering to the extreme tilt of condemning them as morally untenable, the favourite trick of Indian liberals.

Consider for example, the first story of the book – The Transistor that chronicles the tragedy of a middle aged farmer Mohamad Yousuf who is summarily executed in his own house by a couple of militants, on the suspicion of being an army informer. Extra-judicial killing is a regular feature of any occupied land, and Kashmir is no different. What makes Yusuf’s tale worth noting then? One, the story serves to make visible the invisible victims of extra-judicial murders not at the hands of security forces, but militants or the more common unidentified gunmen. Often, such murders are attributed to some shady background story that is thought to be yet not in public knowledge, and so the victims are dehumanized. The story shows the insidious phenomenon that leads to such dehumanization and the ubiquitous hand of occupational apparatuses in it. Sketched with tender but unsentimental and sharp detail, Yousuf emerges as a simple, middle aged, family minded farmer. Unlike his elder brother Abdul Rehman who is affiliated with mainstream politics, Yusuf is passionate about the cause of ‘azaadi’ like everyone else in his neighbourhood.  His other abiding love cherished and nurtured over the years is Radio. Over the years he has owned a rather fine collection of transistors, replacing each only when there was no other choice. It is upon this simple unsuspecting man that tragedy visits as he is summarily executed in his own house. His affiliations towards the cause of ‘azaadi’ are quite apparent, having assisted and aided armed militants by ferrying weapons, or shielding them during crackdowns. Yet, a mere allegation suffices to erase it all. One Friday, as Yusuf was just walking back to perform ablution after a morning of hard work in his orchard, he finds a neighbour Nazir Malik staring at him and his transistor. As is his habit, Yusuf has left the radio on even after the last broadcast for the session is over. The radio - a new latest model procured especially from Delhi is hissing softly in the crook of a quince tree.  Nazir bears an old grudge against the Dars as Abdul Rahman’s refused once to help his 10th dropout son to obtain a government job. He puts two and two together and arrives at five. Mistaking the transistor for a walkie-talkie, Malik starts a rumour that Yusuf is passing information about movement of militants to the army. The rumour falls on willing ears, and soon the Imam of the masjid is admonishing ‘traitors’ among the audience for betraying their kin. A few days later, a knock at the door late at night brings Yusuf to the door, where he is shot dead.

On a first reading, it is easy to judge and condemn the village for collaborating to murder an innocent man. One might also despise the villainous Nazir Malik for letting his personal bias come in the way of judgement. Yet the story raises deeper and more pertinent questions about the trauma of colonization. First, one might ask why are the villagers ready to believe that they have a Judas among them? Second, why is the resentment in Nazir Malik so strong? Why is a government job of such significance as can ultimately lead to murder? Third, is the idea of justice applicable in a society torn by conflict? Can extra-judicial punishment be ethically validated? Fourth, on whom does the burden of proving allegiance to a social code lie? The obvious answer to these questions is colonialism. Sustained exposure to violence, as well as betrayal manufactured by the colonizer will lead to mistrust. A government job is highly desirable, since it is one of the few stable structures in an atmosphere of uncertainty. The burden of proving allegiance lies on the powerless, since colonization will ensure its vassals are insulated against harm, and thus Abdul Rehman migrates to Delhi leaving the proverbial younger brother – Yousuf to pay for his ‘sins’. Shahnaz thus traces the whole discourse of mistrust without passing judgement or offering explanations. Rather he leaves the reader to come to conclusions unaided.

Such subtle exposition of mistrust as a by-product of conflict is a motif that links the stories into one monstrous tapestry of tragedy. The success of the book lies in its ability to contextualize this mistrust as a close ally of cynicism and resignation that are determined by and in turn determine various social phenomenon like class difference. In the case of Ghulam Mohiuddeen: the protagonist of The Ex-Militant, the fallout of glamourizing violence, peer pressure and class difference can clearly be outlined. Lured by the promise of the gun, he is able to transcend the handicap of his lower class birth for a brief while as he is appointed the area commander with the higher born Fayaz Shah at his command. Confronted with the real task of ambushing a posse of forces, Mohiuddeen finds himself superseded easily by Fayaz. He is unable to fire at the forces, while Fayaz who was just supposed to provide cover is able to decisively shoot a couple of men down.  The advantage of class, however, manifests itself clearly in jail as both Fayaz and Mohiuddeen find themselves in jail. Mohiuddeen languishes in Kot Bhalwal jail, far away from home rarely receiving a visitor.On the other hand, Fayaz’s father visits him regularly and manages to secure his release by bribing the prison officials generously with Burzali Almonds and Pashmina Shawls. The irony created by employing the fruit and handicraft of Kashmir (two key constituents in the construct of Kashmir as an idyllic tourist spot) as a bargaining chips provides an insightful glimpse into the thriving conflict industry, which thrives in places ravaged by war and insurgency.  Simultaneously, it also hints at the exoticisation and thence dehumanization of Kashmir in collective Indian imagination. The creation of Kashmir as an exotic tourist place is excavated from specific elements like Shikara, dry-fruit, handicrafts and fruit. The bribe, therefore, is not paid in cash but in kind that is highly desirable to the foreign colonizer. Such attention to detail serves Shahnaz well, since he is able to comment on the ideological underpinnings of conflict without rhetoric. It gives the stories a punch that permits economy so necessary to art.

After jail, Mohiuddeen finds himself cheated out of ancestral property by his brothers, and is barely able to build a tin shed on a piece of land in a colony founded on an encroached river bed along with other social outcasts. The description of garbage that can be found near the house is particularly suggestive of the myriad phenomenon colonialism has wrought: “egg shells, orange-rind, chicken entrails, insulin syringes and discarded condoms”. Notice every item in the list is of a product exported from outside the state. Shahnaz addresses the steady attack on the local industry and productivity of the valley in a quiet, subtle manner. The last two items on the list are particularly suggestive as they hint towards the internal pressures wrought by claustrophobic conflict. The first suggests the direct relation between disease and violence, also strikingly explored in more painful detail in Psychosis and The Silent Bullet. In the same story, Mohiuddeen talks about the local chemist’s shop being thronged by hypertension patients. Both are diseases occasioned by a stressful lifestyle to a great extent. The descent of Kashmir into unmitigated violence has led to an explosion of these diseases, and Shahnaz quietly alludes to this facet of occupation. Similarly, discarded condoms – the markers of ‘illicit sex’ alludes to another fundamental dilemma: How do a people who draw their primary identity from religion reconcile to expression of sexual desire? How are sexual transactions especially non normative ones like same-sex desires, negotiated in a place that neither has the luxury of time to reflect on it, nor the freedom of thought offered by stability? Yet, such transactions are enacted, even if in hushed secretive modes invisible to the public eye.

Such scrupulous attention to detail is hardly an exception. The stories all reflect a fascinating attention to detail at the minutest level possible. For example, Psychosis shows a little ten-year-old Insha, wearing hennaed ducks on both her palms. While the detail itself is not significantly important for the story, this anecdotal evidence points out the painstaking level of familiarity that the author has wrought with his characters. The usual henna decoration is the almond paisley. However, since Insha lives on a river bank it is natural she should choose an image she is most familiar with, and hence ducks. It helps that Shahnaz allows his narrators speak in terse, inornate ‘journalistic’ prose’. Such detached narration has earned Shahnaz a comparison with Manto, and it is rather a well-deserved comparison. The book might well be read as a text book paradigm of unrelieved irony.

One could select any story, and read it as one chapter in the daily lives of people: Psychosis, for example, could not only be read as the aftermath of sexual violence, but also the intersection of patriarchy with a complete lack of support structure to help deal with trauma. A Photograph with Barack Obama may be read as a text book case of the global apathy towards the Kashmir tragedy and helplessness it has bred in the hearts of generations born and raised in conflict. It could equally be read as a case study of the strategies adopted by armed forces to keep the pot of conflict boiling, and ensure there is no way out of conflict. There is a strong suggestion of sexual abuse in the story, which would ironically serve as another common thread between mother and son. The House may be read as a manifestation of the lack of avenues, industry and growth that catalyses a brain drain leaving the already impoverished society more impoverished. One could analyse each and every story, yet the only result will be reaffirming that at the centre of this complex web of dystopic mess lies the stark fact of military and ideological occupation.

Possibly, that is one reason why the book feels longer than the 183 pages it actually is. It wears one down with its obstinate yet detached engagement with the narratives of ordinary lives that one erases every day in order to survive. Through intricate detail, the book evokes an abiding impression of horrified pity. Since these are not stories about heroes or villains, but everyday people on streets they evoke a paradigm that is too sulphurous to be slotted under neat categories. Rather, these stories reek of the putrefying scent of a torn, bleeding and outclassed land riddled with contradictions. The unrelieved horror they evoke is a natural consequence of the truth of occupation, and must move very conscientious reader to register protest at the grand tragedy played out in the scattered souls of Kashmir.

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