Sunday, April 03, 2011

Another Kashmir story


There are two versions of the Kashmir story that dominate the popular imagination. The Pakistani version depicts Kashmir as an unfinished agenda of the Partition, and as an essentially Hindu-Muslim issue. The other, the Indian one, sees it as a very important Indian territory, which India must protect from the prying eyes of its mischievous neighbour. Between these two streams of narratives, what has been lost is Kashmir's own counter-narrative, the lack of which is one of the many reasons that have turned this heaven on earth into the centre point of a bloody conflict.
Set in the same simmering Kashmir of 1990s, the narrator of Mirza Waheed's haunting debut novel The Collaborator is a 19-year-old Kashmiri boy who lives in a village near the Line of Control. Son of the headman of his village, he is the only young man left in his village. It is early 1990 and all his friends have disappeared across the border to get armed training for waging ‘ Jihad' against the Indian army. In between, an Indian army officer, Captain Kadian, coerces him to take up the job of counting the bodies of militants killed while crossing the border. He also has to collect Identity cards, arms, etc. from those unknown corpses. While performing this horrid job, there always lurks a frightening possibility that one day he might find one of his friends among the dead. This makes him question his own moral position, and at times, he yearns to follow 
the footprints of his Rafi-loving friend Hussain across the border.

Ground realities
In this book, the author has highlighted the harrowing realities of insurgency-infested Kashmir of 1990s. One can feel the ordeal the Kashmiris went through during those days of army crackdowns. On the strength of his descriptions, Waheed is able to transport you to the middle of a valley full of dead bodies, and you see the protagonist counting the dead. And, nowhere does it try to justify or romanticise violence. It is not sympathetic to anybody peddling violence, be it the Indian army or Pakistan or the militants.
The identity of central character is also an interesting aspect of this novel. Coming from Gujjar community, mostly post-Partition Muslim migrants from Jammu region, the protagonist is aware of the fact that other Kashmiris consider him a half-Kashmiri. He is supposed to have no qualms about dealing with India like other members of his community. This adds complexity to the story. The character of Captain Kadian, however, would have been more credible if the author has painted him in a greyish shade instead showing him as a caricature of an F-word spouting, ultranationalist, drunkard army officer.
The novel has a wonderful opening and the story moves swiftly. But, in the middle, it begins to lose its tautness and the descriptions become repetitive, badly affecting the pace of the story. Later, the novel again gains velocity taking us to a satisfying denouement. It ends with the Surah Al-Fatiha, the opening chapter of the holy Quran where the protagonist prays to God to ‘guide him to the straightway, the way of those whom God have blessed.' Somewhere in this prayer is a hint of a solution to the Kashmir conflict; the conflict that has taken the lives of thousands of people and forced thousands of Kashmiri Pandits to live in a perpetual exile. We hope that one day we will again be able to recite the words of Mughal emperor Jahangir about Kashmir which says: ‘Gar firdaus ba ruh-e-zamin ast, hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast' (‘If there is paradise anywhere on earth, It is here, it is here, it is here'). Till then we must pray for Kashmir. Amen.