Mirza Waheed: The Collaborator
The unnamed narrator of this novel is a young Kashmiri (nineteen years old) in 1993 when much of this novel is set. He lives by a valley which is used by Kashmiri freedom fighters, trying to infiltrate India. However, the area is well protected by the Indian army and many of the freedom fighters are killed in the valley by Indian machine guns. The village where they live has changed a lot. Many of the the young men have left to go to Pakistan to train to be freedom fighters. Our narrator has considered it but, as his family are Gujjars, he does not feel so committed to the Kashmir cause, even though he is Muslim, like them, the family has ceased its nomadic ways and settled there and his father has become headman. Early in the novel, we learn that the village has now been entirely abandoned, except by the narrator and his parents. Only later do we learn why he did not join the freedom fighters.
At the beginning of the novel, he is engaged by Captain Kadian, an Indian army captain, to go among the bodies lying in the valley – the beautiful valley where he and his friends used to play but now an open graveyard – and take the IDs and weapons from the corpses and bring them back to the Captain. He is paid a set fee for doing the work and a bonus for each ID and weapon he brings back. Again, only later, do we learn the real reason why he has agreed to do it. Initially, of course, he finds it repellent, dealing with the dead and decaying bodies but gradually gets used to it.
Part of the novel involves his reminiscences about the days before the Kashmir-India war. He remembers the beautiful valley and his friends. He was particularly fond of Hussain, a young man with a beautiful singing voice, and was particularly surprised when Hussain was the first young man to go over the mountain top to Pakistan to train as a freedom fighter. What surprised him was that, the night before, he, Hussain and their friend Gul were all out together and Hussain gave no indication that he was going to leave. The narrator is so devastated that he and Gul set out one evening to climb the mountain in the dark to the Gujjar village there, to see if they knew what happened to Hussain. The old man they speak to knows nothing and tells them many young men coming from the city to join the freedom fighters pass that way. Soon, all the young men, except for the narrator, will have gone to join the freedom fighters.
Much of the novel is simply often repetitive description of life in the village now, life in the village before the young men left and his dealings with Captain Kadian. Captain Kadian drinks. He does not like his job (he has been there three years and is soon to be transferred). He comes across to the narrator as something of an amiable drunk. As well as paying the narrator, he is quite friendly with him, letting take a gun for his own protection (from animals after the dead bodies) and often chatting with him. But the narrator knows the horrors of what the Captain and his men do. He only gets a glimpse of it, for example, when the Indian army have all the village squat in the square all day, while they search the houses, not giving them food or drink or even toilet breaks or when Farooq, older brother of Gul, is arrested, tortured and then decapitated. Indeed, while the narrator does not duck the horrors of the war, they definitely take second place to his description of daily events. He also shows that it not just the Indians that can be cruel but the Kashmiris can as well. However, there is not doubt which side he is on (despite his assistance to Captain Kadian) and the Indians come out as particularly cruel and ruthless.
While it is certainly interesting reading about the Kashmiri war, almost from the front line, and seeing how the village suffers and reacts during a time of war, I always had the feeling that something else was going to happen and, apart from a somewhat ambiguous ending and a few isolated incidents showing the cruelties and traumas of war, nothing much did. In other words, this is more a portrait of the front line (the Line of Control as it is officially called, at least by the Indians) and the people living there, than a a plot-driven novel. There are no heroes and even the bad guys are shown more as automata and time-servers than ruthlessly cruel (even if they are ruthlessly cruel). As we now know, he war was not really resolved and, as I can confirm, from my visit there shortly before the conflict started, the Kashmiris hate the Indians, do not particularly like the Pakistanis, were, till the conflict started, moderate in their religion and really just wanted independence and freedom to live their their own way. This book helps show why.
First published 2011 by Viking