October 21, 2011 by markstani
Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator (pub. Penguin/Viking) shines a light on the often forgotten Kashmiri conflict through the eyes of a teenage boy who grows up in the remote village of Nowgam on the disputed Line of Control.
Waheed tells a harrowing story of long-standing, senseless violence in a beautiful land of precipitous valleys and high peaks, ‘some shining, some white, some brown, like layers of piled up fabrics’.
Born and brought up in Srinagar, Kashmir, the author handles such a sensitive subject well, framing the crushing brutality within a very human tale of betrayal as the narrator’s three close friends disappear over the border to join the militant struggle:
Two years ago, Hussain was the first to disappear from the village. The musically possessed, the gentlest and the noblest of the group, was the first to fall.
We had met as usual in the street on a Sunday evening, and had bantered away into the night. But the next evening, he was gone. Vanished. That evening he had looked calm, relaxed, as usual, moving from one foot to the other as he always did, while he listened to Gul Khan’s retelling of his latest infatuation. Gul had taken a liking to Nuzhat, Commander Chechi’s dimwit daughter, or more accurately, her swelling chest, and was trying hard to make his anecdote funny to give us the impression that he wasn’t too serious about the girl. Like the rest of us that sweet October evening, Hussain listened, and laughed, but the next evening he was gone.
Stranded in his village, the narrator is forced to collaborate with the Indian forces and is given the thankless job of heading into the valley to count the corpses and loot their personal effects, fearing each day that he will discover the bodies of his friends among them.
‘The Collaborator’, longlisted for the Guardian First Book award, is a brave first novel. If it occasionally falters – the boy’s tormentor, Captain Kadian, is a drunk, bloodthirsty tyrant whose total lack of redeeming features makes his frequent, profanity-spilled rants a struggle – Waheed’s plot remains admirably free from cliché.
Since Aravind Adiga won the Booker Prize for ‘White Tiger’, it has become almost fashionable to embrace bright new fiction from the sub-continent. Yet many have failed: strip away their vividity, and they have precious little left to say. The same accusation cannot be levelled at Waheed. ‘The Collaborator’ is as important as it is engrossing, and its author most certainly one to watch.