Monday, 14 March 2011

the collaborator (mirza waheed)

I heard someone talking on the radio the other day - world service, now rediscovered as the finest the BBC has to offer - talking about the traditions of Middle Eastern literature. And how it was hard for the West to understand to what extent literature from that region is of necessity a literature of protest. He was editing a collection, which I would buy if I could remember it's name, so it felt like he knew what he was talking about. I think the point was something along the lines of the fact that the mere act of writing fiction within the context of an autocratic regime meant to potentially commit an act of transgression.

Waheed's book comes from the furthest reaches of the Middle East, the land where the Mongols built their palaces and dreamed of going to die. A land famed for its beauty, divided in two, perched in the Himalayas. The land known as Kashmir. This is also a book of protest. It tells the simple story of a young man who grows up in his Kashmiri village with his friends, near the Line of Control, only to find that his friends all leave for Pakistan in order to train to become fighters in the liberation movement, whilst he is left behind. And then how the village is taken over by the Indian army and, in the space of a few months, destroyed. A couple of acts of savage barbarism are enough to force all of the village to flee, save for the young man and his parents. The youth is coerced into working for the Indian army ad dreams of killing Captain Kadian, the man who sends him on his missions to survey the remote killing fields. It is the grimmest of rites of passage as well as a lifting of the veil on the atrocities performed on a regular basis.

When we were there, in 2009, we stayed on a houseboat on Dal Lake. The man who looked after us was one of the saddest men I'd ever met. His name, he said, was Jimmy. He was short, he shivered all the time, when he talked it left you feeling suicidal. Yet it was clear that whatever misfortune had afflicted Jimmy, he was a good man who wanted the best for you, the strangers passing through his world. Jimmy came from a village several miles from Srinigar. He talked a bit about it. He told us how it used to have electricity but now it didn't. He hinted at army brutality and tragedy. If you asked him more, he shook his head and looked away. The trauma he had lived through didn't appear to be something you could 'get over'. Jimmy was scarred for good.

Reading The Collaborator offers more of an insight into the unnamed things that Jimmy's village, in keeping with villages all over Kashmir, have suffered. The book offers what is a fictionalised account of what really happened, as seen through the eyes of a Kashmiri writer. It's not an account that the Indian government would accept or wish to see propagated. At a time when people are rebelling against repressive regimes across the Middle East and beyond, Waheed offers some insight into what they're up against and what it is like to be pushed to the point where you would rather die in the cause of freedom than soldier on under the yoke. Under these circumstances, it becomes the task of the writer to lead the way and speak out. The very act of writing becomes an act of protest.

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