The nameless protagonist of Mirza Waheed's overwhelming debut novel "The Collaborator", experiences childhood in "the forgotten last village before the border". The border mentioned here is actually the perilous Line of Control, which separates the previous regional territory of Kashmir among India and Pakistan; the timeframe is the mid-1990s, when the encounter between the Indian authorities and Kashmiris demanding azaadi turned especially brutal.
As the story unfolds, Waheed gives us a representation of Kashmir itself. Away from the narratives of India and Pakistan, he uncovers, with extraordinary affectability and a displeasure that emerges from sympathy, what it is to live in a piece of the world that is viewed by the national government as the foe inside, and by the administration nearby as a vital pawn piece.
Separated into three parts, the first part bounces between the present and the past, weaving together the account of the storyteller, whose family are the sole inhabitants to have remained in the town while every other person has fled, with the beginning of Kashmiri resistance; his companions have gone to Pakistan and left him behind. The subsequent part reveals the outcomes of his companions' flight in the midst of the expanding severity of the Indian crackdown in Kashmir; and the last part returns us to the tale of the Collaborator and his association with the Indian commander who utilises him.
The story begins when the narrator is 19, and the beautiful golden tinted days of the village have all but disappeared beneath the oppression of Indian governance. Our narrator is unwillingly employed by a captain – Kadian or KD – in the Indian army, and he is entrusted to go down into a valley near the village – which was once a paradisiac hideout for the narrator and his friends – to go and collect ID cards and weapons from the countless dead bodies strewn about festering in the valley.
The corpses are either Kashmiri militants or freedom fighters, depending on which side of the historical lens you view them from. This particular dichotomy of these young men crossing the Line of Control into Pakistan and being gunned down by the Indian army as they cross back, reverberates intensely with readers as you pause to take stock ``````of what it means when a man is stripped off his dignity, off his land and take up arms to defend himself.
How easily we label these gun-wielding, bandana-wearing stoic figures of men as terrorists. Waheed makes you stop and consider the fact that narrative is shaped to serve the selfish purpose of those with vested interests.
The description of our protagonist wading into the valley to do his job is done in stunning and moving prose. "By the way, did I mention there's a profusion of tiny yellow flowers growing among the grasses here? . . . You can see bright yellow outlines of human forms enclosing darkness inside. It makes me cry . . . In some cases, the outline has started to become fuzzy now, with the tiny plants encroaching into the space of the ever-shrinking human remains. I don't know the name of the flowers. Some kind of wild daisies, perhaps?"
The haunting blend of beauty blossoming amongst the dead and forgotten is enough to turn anyone insane. In the case of our narrator, there is the possibility he comes face to face with every time he embarks into the valley that truly causes shivers of apprehension down your spine. What if one day, while sifting through the decaying remains, he discovers the bodies of his four childhood friends – Hussain, Gul, Ashfaq and Mohammed?
One of the most striking highlights of this novel is its amount of thought around a solitary individual, in segregation. It is just in his recollections that the storyteller has companions and an affectionate family he can depend on, and even inside his recollections those connections begin to fall away as the condition of war hurls divisions, people disappearing and the cessation of conversation – so when we experience him in the present, his nearest affections appear to be with the bodies in the field. They are the only Kashmiris of his age left in the region.
Waheed evokes an ethereal string of understanding through the depiction of our isolated 19-year-old narrator in the remote village of Nowgam in Kashmir as it enters the third decade of a war forgotten or distorted by the rest of the world. It may seem a singular struggle as we watch him haunt his boyhood village, but Waheed's "The Collaborator" subtly opens the focus of the story to suggest stories of so many others through brilliantly bringing to light the harrowing realities of a war torn region.