The Collaborator By Mirza Waheed
By Abhijit Dutta
22 February, 2011
A review of the recently published book The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed. Penguin|Viking, 2011
First seventy pages into The Collaborator, I begin to dread the inevitable. Mirza Waheed, it seems, will not veer from the trodden path. We have seen this before: the before and after story of Kashmir, the fall of paradise to something worse than hell. It’s all there: the familiar snow clad mountains, babbling brooks, blue blue skies, greener meadows and the innocence of childhood spent amidst such idyllic scapes. All of this set to Rafi’s timeless melodies. Tum mujhe yun bhula na paoge.
Soon enough, the scene dissolves to gruesome torture, to disappearances and death. But Waheed has already warned us. His tale begins with one Captain Kadian of the Indian Army, purveyor of death, destruction and despicability. The protagonist, who remains nameless (suggesting perhaps that this fictional tale of Nowgam, a Kashmiri town set near the LoC can be of any other town, that the story of this boy, could be of any other), is in the Captain’s employment to retrieve Identity Cards off corpses deposited into a sort of death-field where yellow flowers grow between the legs of mutilated bodies. Poignantly, this was once where our protagonist and his four friends – all of whom went sarhad paar – played cricket.
I was ready to give up.
And yet, just a few turns of page later, Waheed settles into his story and you finally begin to enter unchartered territory. The rhetoric drops off along the margins and it is this boy’s deliberations of to cross or not to cross that takes centrestage.
For all its lack of “action”, this internal struggle of a boy left flummoxed by the world around, of which the relevant aspect is simply that his best friend went across without telling him, is the most gripping. Yes, there is the usual talk of Azaadi, and who did what to who, but the most tender passages are of this boy, who’s strongest motivation to go across seems to be his loneliness, a biting feeling of being left behind. It is in these pages that Waheed creates the most powerful images and draws us in. We don’t resist.
The Collaborator forces obvious comparisons with Basharat Peer’s 2008 memoir, Curfewed Night. In terms of genre, The Collaborator is ostensibly fiction. But it is impossible to read it, treat it as that. And this to my mind is its greatest failing. The telling is much too literal and is too much of a reportage too fly as great fiction. Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown (2005) and Jaspreet Singh’s Chef (2010) are definitely better works of literature than The Collaborator.
And this is really the nub of the issue. Should we treat books coming out of Kashmir as accounts of victimhood, documentaries, or should we look at them first as literature? To me, the first option reeks of a misplaced sense of pity, an act of charity, and most patronizing. And taking this approach would do great injustice to Kashmiri artists and their art.
I must admit however that my Kashmiri friends, at this moment, are simply happy to hear their own –long suppressed – voices coming out. To them, at this stage perhaps, it matters little how Kashmir’s literary output stacks up as long as it tells the stories that they have lived for the past two decades. For now, it is simply their story, told by them.
Basharat Peer created a stir in 2008 with his memoir Curfewed Night primarily because we were hearing the story of Kashmir in a voice that – for the first time really - sounded Kashmiri. He was narrating a lived history. It was a clear break from a tradition where each of Kashmir’s celebrated chroniclers in modern history – from Walter Lawrence (The Valley of Kashmir) to Tyndale Biscoe (Light and Shade), from Michael Palin (Himalaya) to Justine Hardy (In the Valley of Mist) – have been outsiders. There are still others not worth mentioning, like Vikram Chandra’s Srinagar Conspiracy, who have added to this list of ‘narrative of others’. Yes, there is a tribe of editor-journalists like MJ Akbar (Beyond the Vale) and Prem Shankar Jha (Kashmir 1947) who have written historical accounts of the Valley but they were restrained, India-friendly, balanced recounting of a situation that has always needed more heart to narrate.
Waheed’s biggest achievement is that he continues the journey Peer (and in many ways, Agha Shahid Ali) began. Between them they have successfully paved the way for resident Kashmiris, too many of whom feel numbed by the conflict, to yet again hope in the power of words, in stories and song, to find the first outlines of redress.
Importantly too, Waheed reminds us that Kashmir has a voice of its own. It is a voice that is framed independently of Pakistan and India. In his closing pages the protagonist stares at his handiwork – an ablaze field of corpses – and thinks:
To hell with them all, to hell with the Indian, to hell with the killer dogs they send here in their millions to prey on us, to hell with all this swarming Army here, to hell with the Pakistanis. To hell with the Line of Control, to hell with Kadian and his Mehrotra Sir, to hell with India, to hell with Pakistan, to hell with Jihad, and to hell with, to burning, smouldering hell with everything! It must all end. It must all, all end.
For as long as India and Pakistan remain obdurately compulsive about their theoretical, rhetorical, positions on Kashmir, perhaps it is only in narratives like Waheed’s The Collaborator, that Kashmir will find independence.
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