A Review of: The Half Widow, by Shafi Ahmad, Published by Power Publishers, India, (2012)
Shafi Ahmad's The Half Widow is an important addition to the handful of historical fiction novels that have portrayed the troublesome lives, in recent times, of the residents in the picturesque state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Ever since Kipling's notable novels, "Kim" and "The Man Who Would be King," readers have been fascinated with this region located high up in the Himalayan mountain range. Most would be looking forward to more novels set in that romantic vale. However, the romanticism soon ends when one reads about, and watches on TV, the heart wrenching problems faced by the people of J&K state.
This novel begins, much like in the opening scene of a movie, showing a woman scrubbing pots and pans in a kitchen late at night. Her son questions the reason for their move from the village to the city, where the life is so different and the family she works for takes their dinner so late. The novel proceeds to depict the plight of the half-widows [women whose husband have disappeared and cannot be traced. [Recently, the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) reported that there are between 2,000 - 2,500 half-widows in the Kashmir valley].
Shafi Ahmad has used the tools of a historical fiction novelist, admirably, to blend in the story of a fictional half-widow, Salma, with real events that occur around her and affect her profoundly. Her husband, Aslam, is taken away one night by gunmen, while waiting at a bus stop, in a car without number plates. Later, Salma is informed that someone saw Aslam in the district jail. It is not clear why Aslam was imprisoned, for he was a government worker and not a militant. He was a loving husband and father of three children. He lived in a decent house and even owned a car. He was well liked by others and had once rescued his neighbor from being beaten up by a gang of militants who considered him to be a Mukhbir - a police informant.
The background and the events surrounding Salama's life and her quest for locating Aslam are told from the point of view of numerous characters. A college professor provides the important historical details of the events leading up to the militant uprising in the 1990s. Foremost amongst them is how the Raja of Jammu purchased Kashmir (in 1846) for a paltry sum of Rs.7,500,000 from the British East India Company, and his descendent later acceded it to India, at the time of the 1947 partition. The commitments by the last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, Prime Minister Nehru and subsequent UN resolutions to hold a plebiscite, to determine the fate of the J&K state by the will of its people, and the reneging on holding this referendum are covered in some detail. The story lines of the frustrated students, Ishaq, Naved, Hanif and Yasir (plus some others) provide an insight into the uprising, and their crossing the LoC into Pakistan to train in military camps. Following their return to Srinagar and Jammu cities, their attacks on the Indian military establishments are narrated vividly. The harsh reprisals by the Indian forces, particularly their molestations of young women, are described at some length that would raise some eyebrows.
Shafi Ahmad has attempted to provide a balanced approach in recounting the historic events. It was shown that not all the youth were mujahids, and some had taken up the Kalashnikovs merely out of showmanship the girls will feel as if a superstar is coming. And, if the girls weren t responsive, these deviants also resorted to rape and murder. Such miss-directed youth turned their guns not only on other innocent Muslims, but also on minority groups whom they considered to be Mukhbirs. The mass exodus of the Pandits from the Kashmir valley is covered through the eyes of a Muslim engineer, who visits his former Pundit neighbor in Jammu. He is grieved to see their young son, Rajat, who called him uncle, in a mentally depressed state due to the dislocation, and resorts to sleeping all day, being afraid of daylight.
It is not difficult to perceive that the blameless Kashmiri's would be caught between the militants and the police warring factions. Salma is among the guiltless. With her husband disappeared, she is left without any income. The government refuses to pay her the missing Aslam s wages. The novel renders empathetically the endearing love of a woman for her husband. Salma s efforts and the sacrifices she makes in attempting to locate her husband, would bring tears to many readers' eyes.
This novel is on the shorter side (232 pages). Considering the cast of numerous actors, it could have been longer, which would have enabled developing the characters more fully, and providing us more vivid descriptions of the picturesque valley, its charming lakes, forests and snowcapped mountains. Although this debut novel reads as if it is an English translation, the writing is clear and understandable. In places, people speak in the local dialogue (with English in brackets) that adds to the flavor of the location. Nevertheless, the book will be of much interest, not only to readers in the sub-continent, but particularly to those in the West, who may not be fully familiar with the Kashmir issues. The Half Widow is highly recommended.
Reviewed from an Advance Review Copy.
Reviewer's Additional Comments:
On 7 August 2012, the BBC News presented a summary on the Kashmir dispute and noted that: " while relations between India and Pakistan in general warmed from 2000 onwards, tension again resurfaced with the Mumbai (Bombay) attacks of November, 2008 in which gunmen from Pakistan killed 165 people. But there have been signs over the past decade that things are improving .While violent demonstrations and curfews no longer take place on a daily basis, this "tinder box effect" on the streets of Srinagar and other towns in Indian-administered Kashmir - in which angry crowds take to the streets often without much notice - is still a feature of life.
It is heartening to note that India and Pakistan have, since 2010, resumed peace talks.
On 8 September 2012, the well-known Indian newspaper, The Hindu, (among others) reported on the recent bilateral talks between India and Pakistan. In the joint press conference, the Pakistan Foreign Minister Ms. Nina Rabbani Khar asserted that: the two have both brought up issues dearest to their own countries without acrimony; least in public. Where she raised the Kashmir issue underscoring the need to involve the Kashmiris in the dialogue progress Mr. Krishna [Indian External Affairs Minister] brought up the need to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attacks case to book . Conceding that the path ahead was not an easy one, Mr. Krishna said both countries were committed to writing a new chapter in bilateral ties. No doubt, the people of J&K, along with the rest of the subcontinent residents, and indeed the whole world, will be eagerly awaiting the outcome of future negotiations between India and Pakistan. It is hoped that historians will be able to record that peace was finally established in that troubled region.
Waheed Rabbani was born in India, and is presently resident in Canada. He is a historical fiction author. His novels are available on Amazon and elsewhere.