Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Shahana by Rosanne Hawke

Shahana is one of the books in the "Through My Eyes" series. It tells the story of a fourteen year old girl who has lost almost her entire family to the conflict between Pakistan and India over Kashmir. As she struggles to survive, she finds herself pressured to enter into a forced marriage to survive.

The conflict over the Kashmir region began in 1947 with the partition of India and the formation of Pakistan. Pakistan believed that the former states of Jammu and Kashmir belonged to the new nation of Pakistan but India also laid claim to them. The Kashmir people would prefer to have their own state. This has resulted in two wars between India and Pakistan, in 1947 and 1965. Militants soon became involved in the conflict; Kashmiri militants fighting India along with Pakistani trained militants as well as militants fighting for Kashmir independence. To stop the infiltration of militants into Kashmir, India has constructed a "Line of Control", a wire fence topped with concertina wire that is up to twelve feet in height and electrified.  The fencing in the Jammu and Kashmir area was completed in 2004 and has significantly reduced the infiltration of militants.

Fourteen-year-old Shahana lives in her grandfather's hut with her younger brother nine-year-old Tanveer, not far from the Line of Control, a border separating Pakistani and Indian controlled Kashmir. Shahana and Tanveer lost their brother Irfan and their mother in a gun battle. Their wooden house in the village was also destroyed in the attack. When their father found them he brought them to Nana-ji, her mother's father who lived in a hut in the forest. When Shahanna was eleven and her brother only seven, they found their father bleeding on the rocks by the Neelum river. He had tried to cross to the Kashmir side to sell his shawls and was shot by the soldiers. He died after giving them his blessing. Since that time they have struggled to survive living off the milk provided by their goat, Rani and the money Shahana earns from her embroidery.

One night they hear gunfire coming from near the Neelum River "where the Line of Control runs along the border between Azad Kashmir and Jammu and Kashmir." The next day Shahana takes her embroidery to Mr. Nadir who owns the cloth shop in the village.  At his shop, Mr. Nadir gives Shahana a grey woollen robe called a pheran to embroider. Mr. Nadir suggests that Shahana sell Tanveer to him to make rugs in his shop, but Shahana refuses as she knows she will never be able to buy him back.

After milking their goat, Rani, Shahana and Tanveer walk to the big river to fish and catch a large trout. On their way home, Tanveer spots a boy lying in the river surrounded by dogs. Tanveer insists that they help the boy and against her better judgement, Shahana relents. They drag the boy out of the river, fighting off dogs, one of which is shot by a soldier on the other side of the Line of Control.

In the morning the boy awakens and tells them he is from a village in the Kashmir Valley and that his name is Zahid Amir Kumar. Zahid is looking for his father who was taken from their home in Sringar three years ago by the Indian police. Zahid wants to learn what has happened to his father. Zahid tells Tanveer that he attempted to swim across the big river during the night but Shahana knows that the Indian and Pakistani soldiers are able to see anyone with their motion sensors and thermal imaging devices. Although she is frightened, to Shahana, Zahid looks like a simple teenage boy and not a jihadist.

Shahana is concerned about Zahid staying with her as it is haram for an unrelated male to stay in the same house. However they decide he will stay but not who he will be - brother or cousin. Tanveer takes to Zahid immediately and the two spend time together hunting. Zahid seems very frightened of the militants and out of concern for Shahana, he decides to start sleeping under her house.For one thing it is haram for him to sleep in the same room with her and he can use the rifle to protect them.

When Shahana returns to Mr. Nadir with the completed pheran, he tells her she needs to be married so that she will be protected from the militants and that he has a man who is interested in marrying her. However Shahana refuses, insisting she is too young. He gives Shahana another pheran to embroider, this time with silver thread.

On the way home, Shahana stops at the house of her friend Ayesha whose father disappeared almost two years ago. Her mother, Auntie Rabia is now called a half-widow which causes her shame. As a result she is withdrawn and has not opened the door to anyone. However this time, Ayesha comes to the door after Shahana leaves and the two girls look at each other. Shahana knows needs her friend.

Things become more complicated when a militant, carrying an AK 47 Kalashnikov and wearing a turban shows up at Shahana's home while Zahid and Tanveer are out fishing. He asks for milk from the goat and asks her about her family. Shahana tells him she has two brothers. Scared of the militant who may learn of Zahid's true identity and realizing she is in danger because of Mr. Nadir's pressure to marry, Shahana decides to reach out again to her friend Ayesha.  As she reconnects with Ayesha, Shahana begins to feel as though she has someone she can turn to. However, Mr. Nadir is determined and when Tanveer goes missing and Shahana and Zahid are injured in an avalanche, Shahana must make a difficult choice. Fortunately, help comes from an unexpected place to save Shahana from a terrible fate.


Rosanne Hawke has crafted an engaging novel for teens, about a little known conflict in a little known part of the world called Kashmir. The partition of India in 1947 had serious repercussions for both Muslims and Hindus. The partition itself was chaotic and violent, leaving many families separated and suffering the loss of loved ones. The Kashmir conflict was another situation that developed out of the partition and it has continued to divide this part of the world, affecting families and especially children.

In this novel, Hawke, who was an aid worker in the Middle East, attempts to portray the effect the long standing conflict over Kashmir has on the children of this region. This is done through the young characters, all of whom have suffered a loss in some way. Shahana has lost her brother, mother and father and almost loses her younger brother Tanveer. Ayesha has lost her father who disappears and is believed to have become a militant. Zahid has lost his brother who was shot by the soldiers. To get the bounty for shooting a militant, the soldiers claimed his brother was one. His father marched in protest and he was taken away three years ago.  His beautiful sister Nissa was taken by the militants.

For Shahana, the loss of her parents places her in a vulnerable situation from both the villagers and the militants. Shahana worries about the militants who kidnap young boys and make them into soldiers. They might take Tanveer. Shahana worries about the coming winter and about the wild dogs. must support herself and her brother who also needs medicine. She attempts to do this by doing embroidery for Mr. Nadir. However, Nadir recognizes Shahana's precarious situation and takes advantage of her by kidnapping her brother to work in his store making rugs and by blackmailing Shahana into being sold in marriage. In addition to these losses, Shahana is unable to attend school because her tent school was destroyed by the militants. She wants to continue school but there is no school and she cannot make money by going to school.

Hawke does an excellent job of portraying how stressful the conflict is for Shahana. When Ayesha encourages her to tell the world via the internet about what is happening to her, Shahana feels overwhelmed and begins to cry. "She cries for Tanveer, for herself because of Mr. Nadir, and out of fear. What if the militant steals Tanveer, or if someone finds out about Zahid? She will be worse than a half-widow. She hiccups. At least no one will want to marry her then. But could something worse happen?"

Hawke uses her characters to explain how the young people of the Kashmir region feel about the conflict. When Zahid and Shahana first meet they share how the conflict has affect their families, Zahid states, "They should ask us what we think of war..."  Shahana thinks to herself that she would have much to say. Amaan Khan states to Shahana that despite being a militant he no longer agrees with the jihad. Like other young people in the region he simply wants to live his life in peace.  Amaan tells her,  "Innocent children are caught in the crossfire. It is not why I joined. I came so Muslim brothers and sisters would have freedom, but we are killing them, destroying their culture, not freeing them." When pressured to respond, Shahana tells Amaan, "I think there should not be militants or the army here. That the governments should make peace, so children's lives aren't destroyed. There should be no fence dividing us." 

Map showing the disputed territory and the Line of Control
Zahid explains to Shahana that many peaceful groups simply want freedom from India but that the Pakistani militants are fierce and are attempting to change their ways. Shahana tells him that her village is Kashmir not Pakistani. However Zahid states that "We were a state with a maharajah, never part of India to be handed over to Pakistan at Partition or to China. When India and Kashmir were divided into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan in 1947 the two states went to war to control Kashmir. Since then this conflict hasn't stopped."

Shahana's friend Ayesha explains to her how she can let the world know what she things and how the conflict is impacting her life. Ayesha tells her about a website "for children about peace." The site tells children what they can do to make a difference. "They are meeting with a minister from the government after the winter. He will come to the Neelum Valley and hear children's stories and see their artwork." Ayesha encourages Shahana to tell her story and to share it.

From all of these characters, readers get a real sense of how they are impacted by the war, the militants and those like Mr. Nadir who take advantage of children who are orphaned and living precariously.

To aid readers in further understanding the story, the author has included a map of the region showing Shahana's village and the village of Zahid in relation to the Line of Control. Included at the back of the novel is an Author's Note which provides some information about the Kashmir conflict, a timeline of events related to Kashmir, a glossary words used in the  novel and a limited reading list to learn more.

Shahana is a well-written and informative story that engages younger readers about an ongoing but little known conflict. I highly recommend this short novel to readers interested in other cultures and the lives of young people in areas of conflict.

Book Details:

Shahana by Rosanne Hawke
Crows Nest, New South Wales, Australia    2013
206 pp.


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