Mirza Waheed was born and brought up in Srinagar, Kashmir. At 18 he moved to Delhi to study English Literature at the University of Delhi, and thereafter worked as a journalist and editor in the city for four years. In 2001, he moved to London to join the BBC’s Urdu Service in London, where he now works as an editor. Waheed briefly attended the Arvon Foundation in 2007. He has written for the Kashmir Observer and the BBC’s Urdu and English websites and appeared on BBC radio and TV as a commentator. His first novel, The Collaborator, is set in Waheed’s hometown of Kashmir during the early 1990s, and depicts the harrowing conflict between India and Pakistan and its effects on a border village in Kashmir.
Amrita Ghosh talks to the writer extensively about his first novel and his future projects.
AG: Let’s begin with the choice of subject for your first novel, The Collaborator. Tell us a little bit about how and why you came to this rather controversial subject of Kashmir as your debut novel.
MW: There’ll be a long answer to this: it’s not really controversial for me. A lot of your writing impulse comes from, if not entirely but definitely partly from your lived experience, what your influences were, what you see in your early life and so on. In many ways you can trace the commencement of your imaginative life from those early days, and if you have aspirations, delusions of becoming a writer, or if you think that you have things to say, those things will automatically influence what you have to say. Now, why I specifically ‘chose’ this subject is because the premise for me was so compelling I couldn’t really let go of it. That is the main thing— if there is a clear answer to this question that is the one. The central premise of the novel had been on my mind for a long time and one day I just started writing and I couldn’t then not write about it. I think writing, definitely some writing, should happen in that manner -- where the notion of your novel or your story is so strong that you cannot rest until it is written. So that’s in general about the novel and then the specific narrative landscape was also very strong where there are a lot of dead boys lying around unaccounted for, unnoticed, un-mourned in that specific context.
Years before I started writing I had this image on my mind. It goes back to real life. As a teenager growing up in Kashmir you would see these things, if not what I have described and portrayed in the novel, but similar things, even worse things, where violence is very banal, it’s everyday, it almost approaches a quotidian existence. It’s tense, it’s in your street, your neighborhood, the atmosphere; there is an element of violence you can discern in seemingly innocuous things. And that’s what happens in cases of extreme militarization. So, if that’s where you grow up and if that’s what you see as part of your childhood, as part of your teen age, it affects you. It leaves an indelible impression on you and eventually informs your worldview as well—as a person, as a political person, and also as a writer. And you cannot be apolitical, if that’s what your upbringing is about. So, in much of your teenage you see these images, for instance, you see dead bodies lying on the street, and you are expected to behave normally. Something like, this is what happens here so get on with it! But even if in the immediate context you do that, it is not normal. And years later, those brief, naive questions of your teenage become profound, and if not always profound but definitely disturbing questions. And that’s what probably informed my choice of the novel.
I always wrote, through college and before that, but I didn’t attempt to publish seriously as I didn’t think I was ready. I took notes and jotted things here and there and had small outlines. I also wrote some short stories during my Delhi years. Some of that work formed the backdrop of this novel. I started writing The Collabrator here in London in 2006 and going back to your question, the primary impulse was this premise of an unknown territory where there are lots and lots of dead boys lying around and I wanted to examine what it must be like to be in that state, in that atmosphere, to be in that theatre, both in terms of a literary theatre as well as the political space. Also, I wanted to examine it as a normal, everyday human space— what it must be like to see that, experience that, and live that. So, this voice of a young boy happened; it had to be told from a young person’s point of view because he is young, hesitant and naïve in some respects. I wrote this long chapter in 2006, which forms the first chapter of the novel. It was a section and then I couldn’t really stop for the next six to eight months.
AG: My next question is related to the political space of the novel that you mentioned. Given the scope and subject of your novel, how do you react to the issue of fictionalizing history? Do you see a dichotomy between fictional narrative and history in your work?
MW: Depends on what your project is. If you want to do a proper historical novel, then you are essentially representing history or your version of history. If you are fictionalizing events as part of your broader story and broader narrative—that, I think, is part of the creative process. So it doesn’t really present a strict dichotomy, because fundamentally you are honest to your story, to your premise and to your plot and characters. When you are trying to portray a certain period, a certain time, a moment, things will creep in, and you will fictionalize some events.
My novel is set in the early Nineties in Kashmir, which was a very dark period in my disputed homeland—a brutal, horrific period, actually; nobody knew what really happened when it happened. It would just happen every day, it was so frequent and, as I have said, so banal that you didn’t know what had hit you. It happened everywhere. I often refer to the Nineties in Kashmir as a dark decade. One week things are at least seemingly normal and the next week it’s all exploded into this horrific cycle of violence, brutal repression, and other such events. Massacres happened, people died everywhere, torture happened, such barbaric things as beheadings happened—some of those things you will find in the novel, but I wanted to see what lay beneath that darkness because that was also my youth, my teenage and I was still there in Kashmir and I wasn’t even there in the mountains. I was born and I grew up in Srinagar and I saw barbaric things even in Srinagar. One of the questions that possessed you at that time was that if this was happening in Srinagar, in this urban setting, what must it be like in the so-called wilderness, in the mountains. So, it didn’t really present a dichotomy—I did pick up real events…I either referred to them indirectly in the novel or I may have dramatized a couple of small ones, but what I didn’t want to do was rewrite or dramatize that entire period because then it would be a non-fiction fact-based book. Primarily, the premise is invented, that’s what drove the novel. The main setting is completely invented, the village is completely fictional and then real people walk into the novel and real events are there sometimes on the borders or they are in the middle of it.
AG: Shashi Tharoor in a recent review of your novel writes about being impressed by your work and yet calls it a “one-sided imagining of recent history and [the] political reality comes close to being agitprop” (Outlook India, Mar 2011). How do you react to the charge that the representation of history in The Collaborator is one-sided? In the same vein, do you think your portrayal of Indian army Captain Kadian was monolithic?
MW: (laughs) I have a simple rule on reviews -- I do not respond.
As for the captain, whether he is monolithic—yes and no! Yes, because that’s the way he is, in that when soldiers are posted in areas, they have a job—in fact, they are not even on a job, they are on an assignment. This is not only true for Kashmir but for other parts of the world. Soldiers don’t carry their lives with them; they leave their lives behind. What remains ultimately of their being in that space is their job, which is what defines them. So, in that regard—yes, but, if you ask me if it is problematic, I would say, no, because why would I want to humanize somebody whose job is to kill as many people as possible. I, however, do hint at his humanity and in my mind that was the best I could do. It goes back to that rather dated binary of ‘round’ and ‘flat’ characters from Aspects of the Novel, but it doesn’t have to be that conventional. I do think sometimes even flat characters can be fascinating and compelling. One could easily create a device and give to this Captain a life back home, throw in a flashback, a love story, family life and children or some trauma even, and there you have a character which is ‘round’. But in the world of my novel it would be completely unrealistic.
AG: In the same context, would it then be fair to say that the goal in this novel was to retrieve the silenced voices of the people of Kashmir, through the untold stories of the disappearing youth, humanize the unknown, dehumanized dead, who are caught in the crossfire between the Pakistani and Indian hegemonic discourses?
MW: It wasn’t my primary goal. I did not start this novel with this in mind -- that I must tell the story of my people because with that premise it’s slightly suspect. If you approach your work in that manner, that is if you want it to become some kind of manifesto for a group of people, then I think it might not turn out to be very good, it could be flawed, and might not even ultimately serve that purpose. You approach it from the point of view of your story, and if it so happens that it gives voice to a people who haven’t been able to put forward their story out in the so-called international or global space then that’s fine.
The other thing is when you are writing, as a novelist, you do humanize. You see, what happens in conflict is, one of the immediate casualties is the humanity of ordinary people. At the very first instance, they become statistics, mere numbers. Also, in modern day conflict—which is very brutal, more brutal perhaps than all the wars we have seen, because it combines the brutality of all the previous wars and then some more—what happens is that people cease to be people. They cease to be human and that’s the way systems of oppression want these things to be. For instance, the perpetrator of violence has to objectify the victim to the point of non-existence, only then can he inflict such enormous violence on the victim. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt in her seminal book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil—although that’s not the only thing in the book—powerful forces, states, warring countries, oppressive states or empires that subjugate a people, completely kill the spirit of a victim in order to render them completely silent and eventually, that’s how they sustain slavery of a kind. After all, what is the project of brutality, militarization and violence? The motive is it completely kills the spirit in a human being so that his/her identity is eventually erased.
So, coming back to the question—yes, I wanted to humanize those objects that are completely dehumanized as you put it in your question, and yet at the same time you don’t want to be polemical. You also want to explore what it is like; you don’t want to go with a stated project and motive—you explore, you discover things. It is quite mysterious: and as a novelist that also attracts you: you want to dive in and see what is there in this strange setting where there are these, as you put it, two dominant hegemonic discourses and in the middle is this once idyllic place called Kashmir and where people are completely powerless, living a brutalized life. If you live in the most militarized region in the world, which is Kashmir, with more than half a million Indian soldiers and more if you add the Pakistani soldiers on other side of the de facto border dividing the two parts of Kashmir, you are approaching a million soldiers. And that’s just not right, it’s not normal. I wanted to explore what happens in that space, both in terms of a political reality and political information and in terms of writing and literature. The novel does that to some extent—if you asked me if I wanted to start with this single motive, to retrieve silenced voices of the people of Kashmir—it’s on your mind, but there are also so many other things on your mind. I wanted to, for instance, examine the nature of brutality—what does it mean for the people and also, what does it feel to be in a job that requires brutality.
AG: I find it very interesting that you mention Hannah Arendt and I was also thinking of her work, The Origins of Totalitarianism where she talks about nomadic figures who pose a threat to the order of the nation-state. The nation views nomadic communities/refugees with a suspicious gaze. In this context, how significant is the fact that the protagonist of your novel is from the Gujjar community of nomadic people? Does it reflect any kind of threat to a state’s perceived understanding of loyalty towards national citizenship?
MW: That’s a very good question and a very complex question. It was one of the things I was very conscious of. To start with, it was a very simple thing: if the novel is set in this place and if this is my narrative and fictional space, which is the Line of Control, the people who would live in that setting would in all probability not be Kashmiris from the Valley, or the city, towns or even from the settled villages; they will be mountain people. The mountain people in that region are Gujjars, Bakarwals and other ethnic minorities as they are called sometimes. They are pastoral and in the context of my novel, they used to be nomads, but now they are settled into sedentary life. Now, the larger question—what do they represent—is complicated and complex. In my novel, they are the Gujjar people living on the fringes of the ‘mainstream’ Kashmiri society. They are a minority within a minority. Kashmiri Muslims are a minority fighting Indian rule and within that minority there are the Gujjars—and there are of course other minorities as well—who are nomads and are part of the social fabric; who would themselves like to be part of the larger Kashmiri society, but sometimes they are not viewed as such, which was my way of talking about the internal diversity in Kashmir.
There are differences within and sometimes you may wittingly or unwittingly discriminate against them [minority groups], because you don’t think of them as part of ‘your’ society. Tragically and ironically, the larger ruling state, for instance, the military apparatus would view them with suspicion as well. In the context of my novel, since they are nomads and because they live in the mountains, they would know the terrain very well even if they may not be scouting boys across the border into Pakistan. They will still be viewed with suspicion because they live at the border and if these things happen in the border [areas] then they must have something to do with it, or they must at least know something. So, they are at a receiving end, whichever way you look at it, so to speak.
But the Arendt context, it doesn’t work specifically in that political framework with regard to my novel. They may pose a threat to the idea of a new nation-state but only in a certain kind of politics. Even in the fictional world, if a state is formed and becomes a monolith then there would not be a lot of space for difference or ‘different’ people. It is a completely fictional framework, but I do hint at the possibility. These people are persecuted in all kinds of contexts: they suffer, primarily at the hands of a vast, brutal military machine, but also at the hands of non-state actors, militants. But one of my main concerns was that I wanted to portray them as people who wanted to belong -- they didn’t want to opt out. They suffer in both voluntary and involuntary ways; yet, they are there, they don’t want to leave—the father doesn’t want to leave, because this is what he has worked for all his life, to arrive at this place, to build a village, a life, a community, and I also briefly mention that it is going to be their second exodus, because they leave a certain part of British India in 1947, escaping the pogroms of the Partition. And here they are, settled for thirty, forty years, and they have to leave again. Even the characters themselves say they are mocked by the city people. And while some of them have been taking Kashmiri boys across the border to become militants, the narrator finds himself in in the employment of the army.
AG: I also found it very interesting that you left the narrator unnamed in the novel--was there any specific reason why you did that?
MW: (laughs) This is perhaps one of the laziest answers you will ever hear. I started writing this long chapter, which I finished in one night. So it went on and on and it didn’t stop and the impetus was the premise and this young voice— that’s all I knew. It did not happen in this perfect poetic fashion that it came to me fully formed. There was a voice and the premise and because it was the main impulse that this voice must think, see and feel like this in this grim setting which I was obsessed with, I carried on and at some point I realized the narrator doesn’t have a name. Somewhere, halfway in the novel, I decided to give him a name. But none of the names seemed to work; it was strange. It felt like I was imposing a name on this boy, it didn’t fit. There was a part of me that felt I was forcing something here. Ultimately, the decision to keep him nameless was reinforced by my editor at Penguin, (Mary Mount is one of the best literary editors in the U.K.), who didn’t miss it either. People have asked me if I had created an ‘everyman’ for Kashmir. But no—one could surely read it in many ways, but he didn’t need a name eventually. He is just there—not very active, quite passive in many parts of the novel, observing, thinking a lot and telling us a story.
AG: I am going to turn to a specific moment in the novel where the curfew women are begging for milk, which I read as a poignant moment of resistance in the novel, whereas most of the other women characters are mourners or victims of the political situation. In that context, what do you think of women’s agency in Kashmir?
MW: Women in Kashmir suffer the most, as it happens in most conflicted regions. To repeat my earlier point, they suffer in both voluntary and involuntary ways. When a conflict or armed resistance begins, or when a rebellion is born in places such as Kashmir or other parts of the world, the women are not always part of that decision. It is both tragic and disturbing but they are not always asked, at least not initially. When many boys leave to become militants, when they leave an organized, normal life to become a fighter, they don’t ask their mother. Now that brings up more questions—what kind of society is it, is it patriarchal, not patriarchal, somewhere in the middle? There’s a whole lot of complexity to that. But broadly speaking, the decision-making is not the women’s province. They are sadly, and typically, left to pick up the pieces. In the immediate sense, if your son has disappeared and has been killed at the border, or he has been picked up, put in a prison and tortured, you can’t do anything. You are left behind to mourn or wait. The other thing is, in the political project of an armed resistance in a place such as Kashmir, women are by and large expected to stay home while the men do the fighting, and it is not an act of passivity I’m talking about. When it has become too much, women of Kashmir have come out in the streets, which is both a symbolic coming out and an articulation of their politics.
As recently as last year, many women joined Kashmiri teenage boys in stone pelting because they’d had enough. Their sons had been killed brutally on the streets. There comes a point in a person’s mind when you don’t care about established norms. It is also how you define resistance, what are the terms in a specific context (Kashmir in this instance)—they don’t have to take up the gun to show resistance. Resistance is also being brave and telling the story of a rape that happened twenty years ago and refusing to be silent about it given the specific political and social context they live in. In a place where these things are not talked about much, that’s resistance. For instance, in 1991, a number of women were raped by members of the Indian armed forces in the village of Kunan-Poshpora. If women of that village have been saying that for the last many years, that’s resistance. In contemporary Kashmir, many of the civil society groups and NGOs are led by women. One of the biggest organizations that works for disappeared people is led by a woman named Parveena Ahangar whose son Javed was taken away by security forces seventeen years ago. That is their act of resistance; that’s how they make a statement.
Now, a new generation of women is writing—fiction, non-fiction, poetry. And given what conditions are like, with a curfew that lasts for months sometimes (in the summer of 2010 there was a curfew in place for a total of seventy-one days) — for a mother who has young children, to live through that and be brave and resilient in that situation and somehow manage and find ways of surviving, represents perhaps one of the bravest acts. I regard Kashmiri women as some of the bravest in the world. They have also been victims of sexual violence. In a most tragic example, there are women in Kashmir known as “half-widows”. These are women whose husbands disappeared—mostly cases of enforced disappearance—and they don’t know whether they are dead or alive. So they wait in this half-alive, half-dead state and they cannot remarry because nobody has certified that the husband is dead. The state is not saying anything, leave alone willing to do anything, and there is no way of proving that the man is dead. The half-widows are probably the greatest victims in this conflict and the world doesn’t even know about them. They cannot even mourn and there is no closure or moving ahead either. In some segments of the society there is not even total acceptance for these women. Therefore, if a “half-widow” carries on in that state, protests every month or every year, comes out in Srinagar with a headband that carries a blank outline representing the missing person, that to me is an act of courage.
AG: You were earlier talking about your experience of growing up in Srinagar. Since you have grown up and lived there for a considerable time, how much of an mnemonic narrative is your first novel?
MW: Partly, because in many ways you are affected for the rest of your life when you grow up in such a space. It’s not easy to process if the street near the neighbourhood you grew up in is a scene of a massacre. You cannot shake it off. It will live somewhere and it would form narratives in your mind. The writerly life is influenced and informed by lived experience and when you set out and have things to say, they will reemerge. I always thought about this—what does it mean for me. I didn’t talk about much the conflict during my Delhi years, perhaps because the distance wasn’t enough. It was too soon and it takes a long time to process and it is, in fact, good for fiction that it takes years to process. The gestation, as far as I am concerned, is important, especially for fiction. There is a bed of memory that plays a role in the novel in terms of going back to that time and it aids the narrative process sometimes. It will be forced if you decide you are not going to put any of it in the novel. It will find its way into the novel, especially when it’s your first; it helps with certain narrative processes, and sometimes with some images and characters.
AG: To add to the previous question, how much of a restorative role does nostalgia have in this novel, at least in the initial sections where the narrator conjures up his childhood and there seems to be an attempt to return to a bygone and idyllic time.
MW: The going back to idyllic times is to evoke the past, and in a sense a time when you are young and naïve in many ways and have a perfectly harmonious relationship with nature and nothing is hostile. It is also there, probably and hopefully, to make more effective for the reader the contrast with the horrors and violations of the present.
AG: Tell us about your writing influences. Are there writers who you would say have impacted and shaped your writing?
MW: No one (laughs)—honestly, I am quite old-fashioned in many ways, I like the classics a lot. For instance, I have this amateur theory about Sophocles. I am always fascinated by the distinct narrative art of Sophocles. You can never forget the distinctness of his story. You don’t see that in many writers. And that’s how they [the classics] have stayed with us for so long—the story is so sharp and compelling that it cuts. For me, it is the complete sharpness of the narrative that goes through you. I have also read a bit of Urdu literature and have always found Qurratulain Hyder to be brilliant, a world writer. And, I have read my small share of Naipauls and Rushdies, but I have just started and have to wait to figure out whose influence comes through.
AG: Finally, one last question: what are you working on next after The Collaborator?
MW: I am going to work on a love story. I am going to write about the love story of a young girl, set in Kashmir, Delhi and parts of Pakistan, but I haven’t done it. I am making notes here and there but don’t know what it’s going to be called.
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