“Kashmir will haunt India the way Algeria haunts France.” Remember that from ten years ago, on one of those early e-groups, the provocation almost buried in the dense threads that made up conversation there. “It will haunt Indian intellectuals”, the young Kashmiri correspondent had promised darkly, “in the way Algeria continues to haunt the French”. From its first pages, as the eponymous young narrator of The Collaborator walks us into the heart of his terrors, and introduces us to his hell, Mirza Waheed’s novel gives notice that the long overdue time of that haunting may be upon us. The book is set somewhere in the mountains of Kashmir, but not the unchanging, pastoral idyll of Bollywood cinema, of Gulmarg’s meadow and Pahalgam’s river; nor the ordered beauty of the Mughal imagination, of Shalimar and Nishat bagh. Instead it’s located in the present, in its “militarized wilderness”, in Nowgam, a “new village” settled in the violent aftermath of 1947. The mortal cut of the partition of Kashmir between India and Pakistan put a sudden end to the nomadic life of this community of Gujjar pastoralists, and Nowgam has grown in the way scarred tissue forms over wounds. Almost half a century later, sandwiched between the belligerence of those two nations, in the shadow of Koh-i-gham, the mountain of sorrow, the sound of heavy artillery fire being exchanged across these rugged peaks has become routine.
The time is the early 1990s, and a new war is brewing. “Paradisiacal visions of freedom”, and an independent Kashmir, drift like faint smoke in the air, imperceptibly drawing people with its almost narcotic hold. The camps where young Kashmiris are being trained for this war are just across the densely forested ranges, in Pakistan controlled Kashmir. In this unfolding war, the Gujjars, “border boys”, have their part written out for them, because they know the mountain passes well, and are privy to secrets that make nothing of the Line of Control. Like drops of an unseen coagulant dropped in a tank of clear liquid, stray whispers have begun to cloud the transparent village air, gradually snatching away the intimate circle of friends that makes up the adolescent world of our unnamed narrator—one by one, silently and without notice. He alone stays on, perhaps because his father, his taciturn Baba, is the headman who founded Nowgam; or because he has read too many books, and compromised his ability to rebel. Or simply because he wants to stay alive, “stay with Ma and Baba, live another day”.
Alone, and vulnerable, he is ready to be pushed across his “personal Hades”, marked by the stream bordering his village, the one that carries “childhood dreams, unfulfilled wishes, and bloated corpses. Blood too”. Its threshold lies at the local Indian Army camp, ruled by the drink sodden Capt. Kadian. This is our 19-year-old narrator’s rite of passage into adulthood, into the brutalised world of those who inhabit the mountain fastnesses of the Kashmir valley. His task is to cross the stream to a strip of land where the detritus of the border crossings, its “infiltration residue”, is washed up. There is a wage too, and for that he must reach into the rotting remains of the slaughtered, mostly very young and raw militants, and retrieve their weapons and identity cards. The ID cards have considerably more value than the guns, because they bolster the claims that will be made before television cameras, as evidence for the “catch and kill” policy that Capt. Kadian has made the sword-arm of his somewhat deranged crusade to save Kashmir for India.
Grotesque at first, and infinitely violent, the macabre harvest from Kadian’s “farm” is in some ways the centerpiece of the challenge that The Collaborator lays before its readers, placing its terror squarely before us, with a relentless, stomach-turning intensity. But much like the tiny yellow flowers that carpet this Golgotha, which form “bright yellow outlines of human forms enclosing darkness within”, Mirza Waheed proceeds to surround this darkness with great tenderness too, filling it with a complex texture of family and friendship, adolescent ambition and uncertainty. Through the book, the narrator’s preoccupation with his Ma, his wonder at her beauty and strength —and his concern at her loneliness—is rendered with an almost breathtaking lack of self-consciousness. So too with friendships: on a trip into the forest to meet a wondrous, multi-hued, magical shepherd, the narrator listens to his friend sing: “He continued to hold my The harrowing recall of what Kashmiris have been through is not the signal accomplishment of this book. Its real achievement is that it manages to take us beyond (or behind) all that, to the stoops of village-homes, and their smoky kitchens; to the cricket pitch and the village shop; places where people slowly mull over what is happening to them, and why. By locating Nowgam far away from the city, away from the overt politics of the movement for azadi, in a sort of political tabula rasa, Mirza Waheed is able to unravel the complex ways in which people in Kashmir were drawn into the movement. So that even the most neutral amongst them—the Gujjars, for example—were in a short time transformed into implacable (if silent and sullen) foes of the Indian military hand though, gripping it harder with each crest of the tune. I remember watching his closed eyes and the trembling of the eyelashes.” Beguiling though such moments are, Mirza Waheed is sometimes indulgent with these frequent returns to a world of innocence. This basking in the warm glow of friendship and family runs the risk of becoming cloying, and makes you want to step back into the chill air of real life. But it serves its purpose, which is to confound the brutality that is about to overcome Nowgam. Those memories are now forever leavened with dread, with the fear that one of his friends will turn up in the pile of mangled bodies that lie across the water. It’s here that Waheed recovers a language of deeply disturbing beauty and power, as the narrator materialises his worst nightmare: that he will find his friends all together, “even in dismembered death”. As he dips into the waters of the stream, he sees them, fearsome, mutilated, underwater apparitions. He alone is the outsider, the Collaborator. Without once averting his gaze from the desecration of young lives in this morbid dump, the narrator eventually leads us back towards humanity, artfully, and with the gentlest of cues. The long dead Rouf’s “stare is dry”, but the ticking of his wrist-watch can still trigger a conversation, as this pampered young son of a wealthy fruit trader from Sopore tells us how he found his way here. At other times objects—blessed amulets, a compass, pocket combs—do the telling. (Quite literally in one bizarre instance, speaking out through a digital audio Qur’an). As he forages in this open-air charnel house, as he grows accustomed to its infernal smells, and reflects on what brought these men here, you can sense a slow inner strength emerging. The grotesque groping is employed to fine effect, to delicately suggest the formation of another kind of political agency. Not the one that drew his mates to disappear into the bloody swamp of guerilla warfare perhaps, but a newer, more complex intercession. This transformation does not necessarily need broken bloodied bodies. It can also come from an injury to self-respect, to autonomy, to pride and honour. Early in the book, when an innocent expedition to steal apples goes wrong, and all five friends nearly fall into the clutches of a local ruffian, young Mohammad explains his decision to stop, and confront, and resist. “It was a question of ghairat, brother.” Honour. It comes to us again, when Nowgam is going through relentless curfews and crackdowns, endless wasted weeks spent cooped up indoors, whole days spent squatting in front of their tormentors. “The field appeared like a graveyard from a distance. Scattered in the middle were half-slouched figures, as if they were fallen gravestones. Grey, grey, grey.” Into this graveyard of honour arrives the Governor of Kashmir, in a bullying gust of helicopters, to celebrate India’s Republic Day, and to distribute blankets to a population terrorised by weeks of a clampdown. In a tableau of stunning power, this “King of Curfew” deliver a deranged monologue, the essence of which is the impossibility of freedom for Kashmiris. As “fourteen army officers and eleven journalists cheered and clapped”, a woman breaks down.
She sobs uncontrollably, and the young narrator, squatting with his cheeks pressed between his knees, can catch only one word. Ghairat, honour. As he prays for “a hail of rockets and grenades and a rain of bullets from somewhere behind the trees”, the link between honour and rage is made, and his wish for “burning, scorching, thundering projectiles from the dense trees” becomes unexpectedly clear. Of course the domain of this honour does not recognise the Line of Control either. When the ferocious fighters from across the border, the guest militants, eventually turn on one of the best of the border “guides”, Rehman. his arm is broken, his father battered, his motherís tongue sliced off. The wound to the ghairat is clearly no less deep. ?When I first picked up The Collaborator, its cover image provoked a stab of anxiety. Anticipating a novel about Kashmir, I saw this young man, possibly the protagonist, looking out towards an endlessly parched landscape that was certainly more Afghanistan, than Kashmir. Perhaps the publishers were trying to blur the borders of cultural specificity, to aim for an audience increasingly made nervous by (and therefore interested in) a new region that is being called Af-Pak. But Mirza Waheed does not fail us, and The Collaborator retains a very specific challenge to the very particular silence on Kashmir. Simply by taking his place amidst the Gujjars, a community traditionally rendered as bystanders, even by Kashmiri Muslims of the Valley, he already makes it difficult to place the mask of old certainties on the story of the valley. Nothing exemplifies this better than his rendering of the slow shifts in the place of faith, and religion, in the life of Nowgam. The first concrete mosque in the village significantly comes as a response to the troubles, not, as we have been told, the other way around. (Of course, “once built, everyone rushed to it to make up for a lifetime of lost blessings”.) Equally, the place that is made for women in the narrative helps to trip up the conventional wisdom that “Azadi” was little more than a smart cosmopolitan jacket worn by jehadis, or in a more contemporary idiom, the Taliban. ?The response to The Collaborator in India will be telling. If it is taken note of by the establishment in India, by its universe of influential liberal-progressive opinion makers—with their well-concealed opacity to almost anything that has Kashmir in it—they will probably bypass its self-assured voice and literary ambitions. Or at best, awkwardly acknowledge it, and then set it aside. Instead it will be parsed for its facts, and measured up against the official version. (Is there some manual that government spokespersons turn to when cornered on Kashmir? A Standard Version?) An Indian newsmagazine mirrored this perfectly when they enlisted the clout of a former minister to respond to The Collaborator. (“What the Brook Saw”, Shashi Tharoor, Outlook, 7 March 2011) Although the minister’s review came prefaced with a perfunctory nod to its literary quality, the truncheon of official veracity was quickly brought out. Because it doesn’t conform to the Official Truth on Kashmir, it’s a threat. The novel as a carrier of politics has always had this potential to be both steel and smoke, and Mirza Waheed makes excellent use of that ambiguity to permanently crease and mark that archaic book of approved answers. So chary was the minister about the “danger” of a good political novel’s ability to “beguile”, that in the length of one nervous closing sentence he managed to trip up his own admiration for the book with a blunt call to “reject”it!?From its early pages, The Collaborator is dominated by the bellicose bravado of Capt. Kadian, and the drunken officer’s bluster often comes across as overwrought, a somewhat unredeemed and uncomplicated character. On that plywood cutout, even the otherwise lucid and evocative precision of Waheed’s prose appears to flap about somewhat loosely.
But The Collaborator eventually transcends the banal evil of the Captain to provide us a moving, universal story, and one that pulls off the sensitive task of leading us into the complex narrative of Kashmir. In an act of generosity, the delicate confederacy of all his other characters eventually manage to carry along the wooden carcass of Capt. Kadian, even to the end of the book, when he is still ranting about what he believes he is defending. “India, my dear, is a sister-fucking giant, a colossus with countless arms and limbs, and tongues and claws and hands and mouths.” ?As you make your way through to its complex denouement, I felt that Mirza Waheed had serendipitously paid heed to my Kashmiri friend of ten years ago, the one who had promised (or threatened) us hauntings. In a penultimate chapter just two pages long, we see the narrator preparing a set of graves, “Graves They Will Find”. Its an oddly hopeful act, because we already know he has walked away from the other option, away from the desire to avenge, away from maddened Capt.
Kadian, his twisted cohorts, or the faceless soldiers who inflict the damage on his village and his people. Instead he wants to leave “some record, some evidence, of what they have done here”. By inscribing the evidence of his nightmares into the earth, the Collaborator is ensuring that they live into the future, a permanent reminder.
Memory, as we know, is at the root of future change, and Mirza Waheed’s remarkably confident debut is certainly that seed for the years to come.