As Kashmir’s exacerbated daily calamities of encounters, civilian deaths, destruction of property and extreme military siege continue, Mirza Waheed’s novel, The Collaborator, sensitively reveals the subtle and sordid realities of life in the besieged region. Set in the early 1990s, in the village of Nowgam near the Line of Control (LoC), the novel has a nameless 17-year-old narrator as its protagonist. The son of the village sarpanch or headman, this young boy has four close friends—Hussain, Gul, Mohammed and Ashfaq.
In the relatively peaceful times preceding the militancy, the narrator spends an enjoyable childhood playing cricket on lush green fields and swimming in fresh waters with his friends without a care in the world. When the uprising begins, the narrator’s friends cross into Pakistan for arms training imparted by militant organisations. Their aim is to return and join the insurgency. The narrator is a solitary left-behind figure who recounts times spent with friends.
As militancy gains momentum, and the Indian army intensifies its counter-operations, arrests and encounters become routine for Nowgam’s inhabitants. The army arrests, tortures and kills two residents for suspected links with militants. Fearing reprisal and persecution by the soldiers, almost all the families in the village flee the Valley. The narrator dwells sadly upon the resulting isolation of his family and the novelist brings out the stark contrast between his joyful past and desolate present.
The physical beauty of the landscape for which Kashmir is famous all over the world is irrelevant. The narrator’s memories of idyllic Kashmir are subverted by descriptions of macabre ugliness that abound. When he goes down the Valley to identify militants killed by the army, he describes the “almost inhuman postures and a grotesque intermingling of broken limbs… Bare wounds, holes, dark and visceral, and limbless, armless, even headless, torsos...” with “wretched human remains [lying] on the green grass like cracked toys”.
Waheed tends to use the protagonist’s perceptions and his persona to convey a larger picture of reality. The narrator’s anonymity makes him a representative of his people, and it is through him that Waheed depicts the brutal realities of the Kashmir conflict. The young narrator’s anonymity and isolation foreground the loss of personal and social identity during a military oppression.
Compelled by circumstances to live on in a deserted village, he has no choice but to collaborate with the very force that oppressed others into fleeing. Living on in Nowgam at his father’s insistence, the narrator’s complete estrangement from the world is highlighted by the stark image of a “militarized wilderness”. This is a reflection of Kashmir’s rural hinterland since the early 1990s, wherein the armed forces intrude into and control people’s lives during its anti-insurgency operations. Both Nowgam and the protagonist are microcosmic representations of Kashmir and Kashmiris under intense military siege.
The ruthless Captain Kadian is a figure created by the novelist to highlight this intrusion and control. He approaches the narrator’s father, asking for his son to work for the army. It is an offer he dare not decline: “I knew, and my father knew, too, in that very first moment, in that very first meeting with the captain, that we had to do exactly what we were told. We just knew.” Survival was more important than resistance as the narrator became a reluctant collaborator. His job was to identify militants killed by the army as they tried to cross into Kashmir over the LoC and also to pick their belongings in an area that has explosive mines. He also fears the possibility of coming across his friends’ bodies. It is this tragic irony that the title symbolically reflects.
Ambiguities and contradictions mark the narrator’s character and actions. For one, he constantly wavers between filial responsibility and the desire to join the militants. His mind alternates between a questionable loyalty to the Indian Army and his undiminished love for his friends-turned-militant. While at work, which involves working around dismembered corpses, his mind vacillates between the macabre present and an idyllic past. He sees his employer, Kadian, as one who “has sinned, and done horrible, horrible wrong”, but he is also jolted by the knowledge that Kadian “may have killed hundreds, thousands of us, this man who makes people disappear, this man who cannot do anything but kill”. Though he is a witness to horror, he is helpless in resisting a complex situation. This sums up the dilemma of Kashmir’s populace in those days.
As the narrator grows up in his frontier village, he gradually comes to terms with the idea that the border dividing Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and [the erstwhile state of] Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), is not really a border in the conventional sense; it is an arbitrary demarcation which has not only divided the state between India and Pakistan, but has also been a scene of terrible confrontations between the two countries in the form of three wars.
The arbitrariness of this de facto border, as perceived by the Kashmiris, is reflected in the novel in the words of an elderly man named Shaban, who speaks of the land as one territory, one place, one landscape that opened up to all its inhabitants, and which now stood inexplicably fragmented, a space that two nations battle over. His thoughts are reminiscent of an episode in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, where a Kashmiri character, Tai, marches to the border where India and Pakistan are fighting over Kashmir, and asserts: “Kashmir for Kashmiris”.
Before he is killed in battle, Tai decries this forcible initiation of Kashmir into a seemingly irreversible imbroglio and becomes a symbolic martyr in the cause of resisting any intervention into his identity. In an almost ironic reversal of Tai’s situation, The Collaborator’s protagonist has completely lost sense of his own identity and suffers from psychological scars.
Writer and academic Claire Chambers observes that the novel is “a dark take on the Bildungsroman” as “the novel charts the boy’s ‘progress’ from shock and revulsion at the dead bodies, to communing with the dead people, even lying beside them; to not really noticing them as he becomes inured to the work.”
Waheed’s novel transcends the narrator’s story by fictionally recreating people’s lives under the shadows of insurgency and oppression. The story is as much about the narrator as about his self being the space/place he occupies. His tale becomes the story of his people, his voice echoes their voices, his descriptions resound in the perspectives of both the oppressor and the oppressed. Thus every character is a participant in a regional and political history. In this respect the novel approximates Barbara Harlow’s assertion that the resistance narrative is not only a document but also an indictment of the practices of the status quo.
Kashmir’s armed struggle brought in its wake tremendous changes in sociocultural life, especially human relations. Kashmiri cultural ethos has always placed a premium on deference to elders. Waheed’s narrator is shown to be caught in a dilemma. His life has run its course on three distinct and markedly different levels. One of living through the uncertainties and the terrors of militancy; second that his family life is marked by the father-son tussle; the third his fascination for the militants who have chosen to confront oppression. He has had to reconcile all three and in this way his life symbolises the larger political and social conflict that has overwhelmed Kashmiri society.
Instrumental in this situation are the political and military pressures brought about by the armed conflict. It is the narrator’s father who disapproves of the violent resistance of the militants: “I have seen this before, son, seen it all, nothing happens in the end, you know, nothing.” His words bring out generational differences; the older generation, including politicians, tend to be more conciliatory, more willing to endeavour within peaceful and democratic channels. This is in stark contrast to the attitudes shown by the young men who are drawn towards violence and see it as a quick solution. The protagonist’s father represents a large section of Kashmir’s older generation which is lost in venerating Sheikh Abdullah and tends to be more pacifist. The elders’ traditional values, such as deference and consensus, had sustained and perpetuated a sense of community and solidarity in Kashmir's social structure. There was a regard for shared ancestry and lineage, which largely shaped social relations.
The conflict and its gun culture, however, radically modified the traditional structures of authority. The political awareness and orientation attained by the young was far more affirmative and confrontational. The novel features another father-son duo who symbolise this dichotomy. The father, Iftikhar Ali Karra, is described as an old “Congress-wallah” who constantly disapproves of militancy because of his political inclination towards India. The son, Zulfiqar, despite his father’s disapproval and the prospects of a luxurious life, becomes a top militant, only to be killed in an encounter which he is lured into on the ruse of surrendering.
In this episode, the gun attains a symbolic significance as it is the shared weapon of both militant and the state, other than its palpable utility as a weapon. When the narrator says, “Everyone carries a gun nowadays”, it points to how the armed conflict alters the traditional hierarchical structures of Kashmiri society. It was the political struggle for a common goal and the possession of the gun which now brought a sense of solidarity and affiliation.
Waheed also traces a differential history of the armed struggle by reflecting on its underlying contradictions. These contradictions are the role of Pakistan and its encouragement of religious radicalism in the Kashmiri movement. The role of Pakistan in intervening in the Kashmiri armed struggle against India cannot be denied. It aimed to engage India by means of a proxy war. If the novel is scathing in its portrayal of the brutality of the Indian army or the Indian state, it also takes a critical and sarcastic view of Pakistan, which is described as “that goddamn country a few kilometres across the border which is never at rest and will never let anyone else rest in peace either”. It is described as the place from where the militants come trained to fight against Indian authority in Kashmir. Pakistan is said to view Kashmir as a conflict that can be resolved only through the prism of jihad and securing territory from India. Waheed’s novel thus foregrounds multiple perspectives which serve both to contest the dominant versions of mainstream writings and also to give voice to the people who have long been deprived of the right to speak for themselves.
The author is a blogger and writer based in Kashmir. The views are personal