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The valley of fears

entertainment Updated: Mar 04, 2011 21:14 IST

For a conflict that has consumed the imaginations of two countries, and whose tragic proportions have - if somewhat belatedly - received wide acknowledgment, the tragedy of Kashmir has received surprisingly little attention from writers of fiction. Mirza Waheed's The Collaborator is the first attempt to write an unflinchingly realist fictional account of the early years of the insurgency.

The title character, and the novel's narrator, is a young Gujjar man, confronted with a diabolical choice that is a microcosm of the choices inflicted on all Kashmiris of his generation. Either he must run away to Azad Kashmir to enlist as a jihadi, as his closest friends have done; alternatively, he stays behind in his village and assists the occupying force, the Indian army, as a "collaborator" who collects ID cards and rifles. Radicalised by a mullah who has been imported for this very purpose, the young men of the village overwhelmingly choose the former path.

Unwilling to leave his family, the nameless narrator stays behind, and is consequently made to pay for his life with a suffering that is egregious, but purely moral.

A novelist writing in English of characters who speak to each other in Kashmiri and Urdu sets himself an especially difficult task. The dialogue in The Collaborator often sounds stilted and forced, with an awkward diction that is neither English as it would naturally be spoken nor a convincing translation. "Curse on this cross-border drama," the narrator's mother says. The sentiment of this lament is convincing, but the odd, clunky phrasing deprives it of real potency. Throughout the novel, characters speak in this constructed - and thus constricted - manner.

The novel continually combines the narrator's role as witness to tragedy with his clear-eyed, unfiltered self-reflection. Throughout, he is a thoughtful and perceptive guide, although his voice is inconsistent: at times genuinely elegiac and eloquent, at others inordinately matter-of-fact ("valleys are beautiful", he declares) and, especially towards the end of the novel, fulsome and lush. With a tragedy of such enormity, excesses of prose can at times diminish rather than appropriately convey human excesses. The major part of the book, after the departure of the narrator's friends, consists of his interrogation of his own dilemma between taking up jihad or remaining to collaborate.

This indecision does not paralyse the novel so much as it liberates it from the urge to "take sides". The narrator's indecision between equally untenable alternatives and the book's plague-on-all-your-houses conclusion reflects the profound and unrelenting isolation and helplessness of the Kashmiri people. This is a book of remarkable political sensitivity, one that simultaneously recognises the futility of jihad, the callous high-handedness of India and the spurious promises of Pakistan.

It is a shame, then, that the characters representing two of these sides - the radical mullah and Captain Kadian of the Indian army - exist principally in caricature. The mullah's exhortations tend to be depressingly tame and familiar, while Kadian is a dehumanised and absurd creation. Seemingly incapable either of rational thought or sentiment, his speech full of token expletives (once again, the English rendering of Hindustani speech is faulty) and his breath continually stinking of liquor, he is as real as a traditional Bollywood villain with none of the comic value.

Waheed is to be commended for a deeply felt novel written from the under-represented and fascinating perspective of a Gujjar. The ideas in The Collaborator are let down by the language and poor editing. Given the lack of plot, the novel is somewhat long, and there are frequent errors of grammar and tense, but it remains a worthwhile and powerful account of the Kashmir tragedy.

Keshava D Guha is a student at Harvard University