The Collaborator: A fictional story too close to the reality of Kashmir

Written from the perspective of a village teenager figuring out his own future, Mirza Waheed's debut novel captures the violence and fear that continues to tear Kashmir apart.

An Indian policeman is seen through a car's damaged windshield after a shootout in Srinagar March 10, 2011. Two militants belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammad, a Pakistan based militant group, were killed in a shootout in Srinagar on Thursday, police said. REUTERS/Danish Ismail (INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CRIME LAW IMAGES OF THE DAY) *** Local Caption ***  SRI05_KASHMIR-_0310_11.JPG
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Once at an event in Srinagar, in Kashmir, a sobbing man asked Mirza Waheed to stop reading from The Collaborator, the writer's first novel. The story, set in a village on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC) in the early 1990s, was too real; the man was overcome. This remarkable anecdote is also the sort of titbit that may attach itself to a book's reputation like a garish award emblem, inhibiting a fuller consideration of literary merits. So what kind of a novel is The Collaborator? The crying-man episode is, in fact, revealing, for the book belongs to a subgenre of what could be crudely labelled "representational fiction" - literature as impassioned documentary, illuminating the plight of a benighted people.

The Collaborator includes a number of notes and acknowledgements that confirm its political impulse. A dedication reads: "For the people of Kashmir." An afterword cites statistics of 70,000 killed in Kashmir since 1989 as well as the number of people disappeared, orphaned, and imprisoned; the afterword ends with the remark that "the government of India disputes these figures". Contrary to many western writers, who vocally divorce themselves from any political readings of their work, Waheed, a native of Srinagar, accepts this perspective. "Fiction should agitate people, make them sit up and think," he has said. He's an avowed fan of Arundathi Roy, calling her "a very important voice, as a writer and an activist". Roy, meanwhile, has praised The Collaborator.

Waheed's story opens in 1993, with Kashmiri militancy at a peak, and Indian and Pakistani forces (and their proxies) launching frequent attacks against one another across the LoC. The novel is narrated by the unnamed 19-year-old son of the Sarpanch (headman) of Nowgam, a village that, owing to its position near the LoC, is a thoroughfare for militants crossing the border from both sides. Nowgam is a ghost town. After some of its young men - including the narrator's four best friends - snuck across the LoC into Pakistani territory for paramilitary training, the Indian army swept in to clamp down on the movement of weapons and people. Abuses inevitably followed, as did an exodus of Nowgam's population, most of whom are Gujjars, former nomads who settled there permanently after the Partition. But Nowgam's headman refuses to leave, and his son is forced into the service of Captain Kadian, an alcoholic Indian army officer who has the young man descend daily into the nearby valley, which has turned into an abattoir as militants are mowed down trying to sneak back into Indian-held Kashmir. There the boy must strip the corpses of IDs and weapons.

The novel takes frequent excursions into the recent past. As the narrator and his friends grow up, their world fractures over the questions surrounding militancy: to become a freedom fighter, or not? And how? ("Which group would I join? JKLF, I guess; they were smart, cool.") One question is lost on them: what are the consequences of going to fight? Later, as our protagonist remains in Nowgam and watches its people suffer, particularly those whose sons have left, his rebellious instincts become tangled with a sense of filial responsibility.

The man in Srinagar was right: The Collaborator is a searing, disturbing novel. Barbarous violence appears suddenly, shockingly. In Nowgam, there are no easy answers; sometimes it is not even clear who has committed the latest atrocity. The book's boldfaced title may not actually refer to anyone, much less the 19-year-old protagonist, who displays a moral drive and a burgeoning emotional maturity. Still, his sensitivity is of little help; his frightening relationship with Captain Kadian may drive him to murder or insanity. So, too, has his family suffered for his father's obstinate decision to stay in Nowgam. The narrator's mother "hasn't seen another woman for more than a year now" and rarely speaks; the headman fills his days with shisha smoke and cowers in the face of the Indian occupiers.

Waheed's choice of narrator can be limiting, at times to the novel's benefit. The protagonist's naiveté only contributes to his shock when his friends, without telling him, sneak across the border to join militant groups. The boy is shaken, wondering what makes him unworthy as a confidant or brother-in-arms. As he seeks information about his friends, bits of Kashmiri and Gujjar history arrive obliquely, through comments like this one from a Nowgam elder: "We have always gone across the mountains; they are ours, you see, they are our land."

However, by linking the narrator's own coming of age to the gradual destruction of his community's way of life, a binary construction is put in place whereby everything before the Indian army arrived is viewed as good and everything after bad. Surely this is, by and large, true: life in Nowgam becomes so unbearable under the Indian military - with its arbitrary detentions, torture, and night-time raids - that nearly all of its population leaves. But The Collaborator would benefit from a more objective depiction of pre-uprising Nowgam. Instead, Waheed offers a number of rhapsodic descriptions of the narrator's childhood: cricket games, singing, romping through the jungle.

This complaint - relatively minor in the overall scheme of the novel - is raised because Waheed generally excels at elucidating the shifting landscape of Nowgam, in which much is hidden behind a scrim of secrecy and the inherent conservatism of rural society. The chapter on the townspeople's growing religiosity illustrates the appeal of Islam in a time of uncertainty, and the narrator links the development to increased Islamist violence in other areas. But Waheed later undercuts this initial perception, by showing that, at least in Nowgam, militancy and Islam are two largely separate matters. Many of the young men who sneak across the border do so because of a desire for adventure, the social pressure of flaunting one's masculinity and bravery (something the narrator feels acutely), or in response to the boisterous calls for "azadi" (freedom). In Nowgam, religious observance is largely the province of older men, and many of those eventually revealed as most active in militancy are those who spend the least time at the mosque. This irony is not lost on Waheed - the strange calculus of militancy and counterinsurgency, which creates misleading signifiers of guilt (like religiosity), is a principal concern of the novel - and yet the ironic effect is heightened when some of those who suffer dearest are those villagers who attempt to lead more pious lives.

The Collaborator shows some of the rough-around-the-edges quality common to first novels. Despite colourful use of Hindi and Urdu, the narrative voice can be uneven, shifting unexpectedly into a lyrical register that doesn't fit even the most bookish 19-year-old. The story would also benefit from the occasional panoramic glimpse of the region. But the novel's virtues are overflowing. Waheed has opened a window into Kashmiri life: the view is both discomfiting and necessary.

Jacob Silverman is a contributing online editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The New Republic.