Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed

Reviewer: Rebecca Johnson Bista (currently writing a novel set in India).

What we thought: A dark, passionately angry account of the human cost of the war for Kashmir. The unfolding horrors are seen through the eyes of a young boy growing up in a lush valley near Kashmir’s Line of Control between India and Pakistan, among corpses, army crackdowns, gunfire and fear.

Mirza Waheed is a Kashmiri now living and working in London. His first novel, The Collaborator, is written with a barely veiled rage and hatred toward the Indian army and its political masters who set military policy in Kashmir. The unnamed boy who tells his story was, in happier days, one of a small group of lads who learnt to swim in Kashmir’s crystal mountain streams, and played cricket on their banks, who wandered in the forests with their dog, and were well known in their small settlement, a village built from scratch by a tribal group of people who once roamed the mountains with their flocks. Their families build homes, shops, including an essential tobacco shop, and a mosque, before war forces the whole village, except for the narrator and his family, to flee for safety.

The boy’s friends leave first, in secret. This an abandonment and betrayal from which he never fully recovers. Much of the story is driven by the narrator’s search for his childhood companions and to find out what happened to them – something that is ultimately revealed to him only in hallucinatory dreams. He discovers that they took the dangerous route across the border, helped by a local ‘guide’, to become trainee jihadis in Pakistani-Kashmiri groups who raid the borderlands. The trauma of this loss, and his horror at the possibility that he will find their mutilated bodies somewhere in the valley where the Indian soldiers fling rebels they have killed, infects the whole story. The narrative twists and turns in repetitive, barely differing scenes between his imagination and reality, his memories and present events, in an obsessive circling that brings the reader back again and again to confront his grief, his rage, his horror in a way that mimics the process of trauma itself. For him it is made all the worse by the fact that he is forced to work for the Indian army, stripping rebel corpses of valuables, ID and weapons amid the stench of death, terrified each day that the bodies he turns over will be those of his friends. Sometimes he imagines that the corpses of his compatriots speak to him.

This was quite an intense, harrowing read, with wonderful portraits of local characters in the village, and yet for me there was one part I wished had been more explicitly outlined and justified. There is no disguising this novel’s partisanship, but the sources of the conflict in Kashmir are never discussed or explained, nor why the youths feel they have to turn against India in the first place. There is just a gut loathing. I would have liked something more nuanced, and the “bad guys “– the Indian politicians and army staff, particularly Captain Kadian, the commanding officer – to be less utterly bad and more complex and sympathetic. The viscerally felt cultural division between Muslim and Hindu is also never really explored – it just exists on the page without any justifying initial incidents or counterweight. A narrative of this type where the bad guys were all of some other single racial group would ring alarm bells that would necessitate a much subtler approach and the raising of all kinds of questions over prejudice and racism. What the narrator witnesses is horrific. His own emotional experience justifies his personal hatred. But the opposite perspective or the ideological foundations of the conflict are never adequately presented. Nevertheless, as a first-hand portrayal of the civilian experience of war, it’s gut-wrenchingly matchless.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Kamila Shamsie, Nadeem Aslam, Salman Rushdie, sensitive war stories, India.

Avoid if you don’t like: graphic descriptions of brutality, torture and death; mutilated corpses; black and white moral and political views, with baddies who literally foam at the mouth.

Ideal accompaniments: chai from a thermos or samovar; a hookah; Capstan filters; grass.

Genre: literary fiction

Available from Amazon

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