‘India, my dear is a colossus with countless arms and limbs and tongues and claws and hands and mouth and everything else..Even if you have these small ulcers festering in various places and crevices, they don’t matter to it; it uses one of its many hands or claws to scratch at the sore, soothing the irritation and waits until the ulcer dies down on its own, or just plucks it off and throws it away.’
These days I have been reading mostly fiction; much to do with my physical and mental state, tired and exhausted with the Delhi chill getting the better of me. In the course of these reads, the first to be reviewed here for my blog is Mirza Waheed’s debut novel ‘The Collaborator’.
It is a deeply disturbing and melancholy work; a work of anger, if I may say so. The main protagonist of the novel is an unnamed 19 year old who grows up in the Gujjar ‘forgotten last village before the border’, Nowgam, during the 90’s. Growing up with his friends in the village, ‘Hussain’, (who sings Muhammad Rafi songs and is the official entertainer of the group), ‘Mohammad’ (the master craftsman of the cricket bat and stumps), ‘Gul Khan’, (the debonair) and ‘Ashfaq’ (the classic melancholic, the brooding thinker), they form the ‘famous five’. Then there is his father, the proud ‘long serving’ village headman, Noor the shop owner, Compounder Chechi, Gul’s older brother Farooq ‘Hero’ Khan, his love interest Asma and Khadim Hussain, the Islamist. Their world is turned upside down with the stirrings of insurgency in Kashmir and the arrival of the Indian security forces in the area to check infiltration and carry out counter insurgency operations. All four of his friends leave for Pakistan surreptitiously to train as ‘freedom fighters’ leaving him with a dilemma. Missing and worrying constantly about his friends, especially Hussain, he has half an urge to join them by crossing over but finally decides to stay back and not abandon his suffering parents. Post an Indian army crackdown all residents of Nowgam leave with only his family (father and mother), staying back in the ‘ghost village’.
The protagonist is employed by the heavy drinking Captain Kadian of the Indian Army to go down in the valley near the village to collect the ID cards and weapons of the dead militants who are killed crossing over the Line of Control (LOC) to be used for PR purposes. The corpses are left to rot close to the LOC as ‘dead meat’ which also serve to spite the Pakistanis who can see them from their posts across the LOC. ‘Look, look you back stabbing bastards, here is your fucking Jihad in a hideous heap, look at it and squirm.’ Ruffling through the corpses he continuously dreads that he may find one of his friend’s body in the heap. The stench of the rotting bodies strewn in the valley where he played cricket with his friends, numbs his senses and fills him with an impotent fury at his own helplessness.
A feeling of profound hopelessness pervades the entire novel where human deaths are reduced to statistics and ruthless power of the gun is all that counts, whether it is the ‘crackdown’ by the army or the cutting of the nose and ears of Shaban Khatana by the ‘jihadis’ or ‘freedom fighters’ (choose your pick, whichever side you are on), accusing him of being an army informer. Caught in a situation not of their own making, the line between the so called ‘oppressors’ and the ‘victim’ gets blurred, each consigned to play their part as the despairing situation demands. While the protagonist seethes with a staccato impotent rage at the happenings around him, Captain Kadian drowns himself in drinks and listens to Muhammad Rafi in the solitary confines of his room counting days and waiting for his ‘stint’ to end from this ‘blighted place’, so that he can go back and be with his father.
Issues of identity are also raised though fleetingly, with the Gujjars condemned as not being ‘Islamic’ and ‘Kashmiri’ enough by the valley people. Did they not side with the Indians during 1947 and were their ‘nominal’ Barelvi religious ways Islamic enough? ‘These Kafir Gujjars, they don’t even know their namaz’ was the taunt thrown at us, reminisces the protagonist. One is then forced to think as to what kind of dominant Kashmiri identity is sought to be created and will it have any place for diversity? Will Kashmir be a place where cinemas would be burnt and women harassed for dressing so called inappropriately and wearing nail polishes? And then there is irony; to escape the crackdowns of the Indian Army, residents of Nowgam flee to India. ‘The situation was almost laughable – people from my village were fleeing to escape the wrath of the Indian Security Forces and were doing that by running away to India itself, for what was Jammu, or any part of the plains beyond the mountains of Kashmir, but India? India!’ the protagonist questions.
The novel raises some serious questions if not overtly but covertly; questions about geo political games being played on the grievances, emotional vulnerability and the woolly aspirations of Kashmiris. While Pakistan uses them as cannon fodder to get even with the larger more powerful India, the latter uses all wits at its end to defend its territorial integrity, as any nation state would do. One is also forced to think as to what kind of state India wants to be for its citizens and also what kind of Kashmir, Kashmiris want for themselves? Will India live up to its constitutional principles and ensure ‘justice’, ‘equality’ and ‘fraternity’ to all its citizens? Will the much fabled ‘Kashmiriat’ finally triumph over the rabid Islamization sought to be imposed from across the border? Will the western neighbour ever change its policy of war through proxy over the bodies of Kashmiris? Will the residents of Nowgam finally return and will the protagonist’s mother who lost her voice ever speak again? I am still searching for answers.