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  • Published 25.02.11

The Collaborator By Mirza Waheed, Viking, £12.99

When Mirza Waheed read out sections from his novel in Srinagar, a man from the audience got up and asked him to stop — the passages were too painful to hear. People cried; there was stunned silence after the reading. For the people of Srinagar, it must have been like having their memories read aloud. Memories of curfew, violence, death and fear. For many readers in other parts of India as well, it is a deeply disturbing work: Waheed is one of the first to break a long silence on certain uncomfortable truths. If a novel is to be measured by the responses to it, The Collaborator succeeds.

Waheed, who grew up in Srinagar, draws from memory as he tells the story of his nameless, 19-year-old protagonist, the “collaborator”. A Kashmiri Gujjar, the boy lives in Nowgam, a village near the line of control; he is the son of the village headman. An idyllic childhood, spent playing cricket on the banks of the statutory babbling brook and listening to the songs of Mohammad Rafi, is disrupted by the spread of the azadi movement in Kashmir in the early 1990s. His friends cross the border, become militants and join the movement. Soon, all of Nowgam is deserted except for the headman and his family. And the collaborator is left behind, counting bodies of slaughtered militants for the Indian army.

Halfway between fiction and history, the novel records the experience of a certain time. A generation of young men leaving their villages to die in the fight for azadi. People trapped in their homes, starving, as curfews stretch for weeks. People forced out of their homes as the army carries out its operations — “cordon and search”, “catch and kill”. To live in Kashmir in the early ’90s was to know fear and death. Human rights violations by the army in Kashmir have long cropped up in rumour and NGO-speak. Waheed describes them in horrifying detail. In this novel, he tells a story that has seldom been told before, not counting Vikram Chandra’s highly coloured novel, The Srinagar Conspiracy (2000). Waheed’s novel is perhaps closer to Basharat Peer’s autobiographical work, Curfewed Night (2008), about growing up in Srinagar during the insurgency. Only this is fiction, and must work within certain imperatives of the genre.

The Collaborator starts with an epigraph from Agha Shahid Ali’s poem, “I see Kashmir from New Delhi”. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Waheed went to college in New Delhi and worked there for several years. Indeed, the Kashmiri ‘voice’ that has emerged in English writing over the last few years seems to be largely fashioned by Ali’s poetry, its bleak beauty, its keen sense of loss and exile, its tortured cadences. But few can match the depth and sophistication of his poetry, neither does his lyrical elegance always translate into prose. Waheed has adjectives bubbling off the tongue with every sentence. Very often, he finds a thought and drives it home: “I missed him, missed him very much in those first days. Missed him much more than I’d thought I would.” Three hundred pages of tortured cadences may be a strain even for the most engaged reader.

The author is frequently shrill, both in his dirge for the dead and in his diatribe against the army. While the community in Nowgam is described in loving detail, there is little sense of any individual character. Kashmir, as usual, is a lost paradise scarred by bombs and bodies. However true, the image is worn through use. But maybe the importance of this novel lies elsewhere: it is an early record of and reaction to a recent history by someone who lived through it.