Title: The Collaborator
Author: Mirza Waheed
Publisher: Penguin India
Price: Rs. 499
It was the cover that drew me in – the lone man standing on a tall wall, looking at a ring of magnificent hills. His head hangs, though, and while the image leaves one with the impression of something yearned for, there is only barren land on the other side, as if to mock the adage about grass being greener. What cinched the buy was an endorsement from Nadeem Aslam, that man who describes such horror in such lyrical prose.
The Collaborator begins with promise. One of Mirza Waheed’s strengths is his ability to convey the sense rather than the scene – he plays with language, and pulls us into the world of a boy slowly losing his mind to a hyperactive imagination. We see the visions he’s haunted by, we recoil at the smells he dreads.
The story is told by a protagonist who doesn’t truly belong anywhere, not even to Kashmir – he’s from the nomadic Gujjar community, but he grew up in a village where a caravan settled down several decades earlier; he’s seen as less Kashmiri than themselves by Kashmiris. He doesn’t feel Indian, he doesn’t feel Pakistani, and he doesn’t like either country. That said, there is a tilt towards Pakistan, with references to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir as “Azad Kashmir”, notwithstanding the puppet government installed in that region.
Swinging between the present and the past, the boy, sometimes dreamily, sometimes wistfully, sometimes starkly, conjures up a history that no one seems to truly understand. We see his bewilderment at the gradual Islamisation of a village that couldn’t care less about religion. The mullahs came, the heroes came, the soldiers came.
The heroes are boys trying to be men – all dressed up, as if they were going off to a Great War, as if they were already envisioning their triumphant reception in a land freed with the help of altruistic militants, who would then go back to their caves in Pakistan. They sport the sunglasses, the fake branded clothing and footwear, the jeans, the guns.
The book wears a patina of neutrality for some time, looking at the other side too – the trauma of the parents and sisters, the interrogation of the brothers, that the heroes left behind. One gets the impression no one can be good here. It’s a land where fathers send sons out to war and glory the prospect of their deaths, where the militants mutilate people on suspicion, and soldiers torture people on suspicion.
You expect a book that drives at authenticity, that prides itself on being a voice from the ground, to have its research right. Which is why it jars when an Army man with the designation ‘Captain’ is referred to as the Commanding Officer of a special camp. And the tone of the book changes when he begins to rant about what the Army does with the boy-soldiers, and the young men, they shoot or catch; at what they do to civilians to meet the numbers the government wants. All of this – except the error with rank – may be acceptable in a work of fiction; but there is a clash when fantasy masquerades as reality. This appears to affect the author’s style too, and Waheed perhaps puts in more explanation than necessary, which disrupts the texture of the novel.
Where he is restrained, the writing is powerful. One particular chapter, titled The Milk Beggars, is so vividly written one can see the “milk beggars”, and hear their fatigued, desperate chorus. At times, though, the writing swings in a rather disorientating manner between subtlety and drama.
The story goes beyond the ‘Kashmir question’. The narrator mulls over being the one left behind – the one who didn’t go, the one whom people expect to go next, the one whose friends didn’t want him along. What does it feel like to be the only one left behind, and not know why? How does one find peace in that situation? Poring over every possibility? Coming up with imagined reasons? Living out arguments with his friends in his head? Dreaming of joining them someday? The mixed flavours of betrayal, of self-doubt, of anger, of sorrow, of loneliness are masterfully described.
One of the things I like about the book is the way in which it dwells on the power of music – the bonds it forges, the memories it brings back, the things we associate a song with, and the effect it has on us when a person we don’t like shares our love for a particular song.
But I find the manner in which the book treats religion rather disconcerting, especially the equation of India with Hinduism, and of all things bad or evil or cruel with Hinduism. It would be understandable for the narrator to do this if there were some indication of his being a bigot, or being indoctrinated, or even raised to believe certain things; or better, if we could sense a slow shift in his beliefs that prompted him to embrace a more rigorous interpretation of Islam, to be won over to a “side” in a Pyrrhic war. However, when the narrator is portrayed as an educated boy, and more importantly, as a reasonable young man who understands the pathos and pointlessness of both “sides”, who is as vehement in his anger at Pakistan as at India, it makes the writing appear agenda-driven when “garish musical devotion” (to refer to mantras) is contrasted with “sonorous azan”.
While discussing Partition – and Kashmir – one cannot really separate religion from politics. However, a person whose writing is so nuanced in describing the events centred on the building of a mosque in the village, one thinks, should surely be able to apply a similar filter and avoid stereotyping Hindus – and the Army. Are no Muslim soldiers posted in Kashmir? Do all Hindu soldiers posted in Kashmir subscribe to a set of rituals? Would sadhus be flown in to accommodate the whims of a Commanding Officer in a camp in Kashmir? This rather generous tinge of what borders on religious chauvinism takes away from the potency of an otherwise captivating closing chapter.
When the book starts out, and later in sections, there appears to be a resolve not to play to the gallery. But when the gallery is as large as it is, perhaps that’s a little hard to resist.