Kamila Shamsie is gripped by a debut novel that offers a devastating portrait of Kashmir
The unnamed protagonist of Mirza Waheed’s devastating debut novel grows up in “the forgotten last village before the border”. The border is not really a border but – in official parlance – the Line of Control, which divides the former princely state of Kashmir between India and Pakistan; the time period is the early 1990s, when the confrontation between the Indian state and Kashmiris demanding azaadi (freedom) turned particularly violent. Such a place, in such a time, cannot remain forgotten very long.
The early descriptions of the protagonist’s visits to the valley of corpses is written in the most haunting 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?”
Picking through corpses among the daisies would be enough to drive anyone to insanity or tears – or both – but in the case of the 19-year-old there is a possibility he faces each time he goes into the valley that makes the situation even more horrific. Might he encounter the bodies of his four childhood friends – Hussain, Gul, Ashfaq and Mohammed?
The novel is divided into three sections. The first moves between the present and the past, weaving together the story of the narrator, whose family are the only ones to have stayed in the village while everyone else has fled, with the early days of Kashmiri resistance; his friends went to train in Pakistan and left him behind. The second section charts the consequences of his friends’ departure amid the increasing brutality of the Indian crackdown in Kashmir; and the final part returns us to the story of the Collaborator and his relationship with the Indian captain who employs him.
Along the way, Waheed gives us a portrait of Kashmir itself. Away from the rhetorical posturing of India and Pakistan, he reveals, with great sensitivity and an anger that arises from compassion, what it is to live in a part of the world that is regarded by the national government as the enemy within, and by the government next door as a strategic puppet.
The book is also gripping in its narrative drama. Why has this young man become a collaborator? Why is his village empty, save for him and his parents? Why has his mother stopped speaking? Why did his four friends join the armed struggle, and why didn’t he go with them? How long can he continue to nod and listen to the drunken Indian captain, who boasts of his success in killing Kashmiri boys?
One of the most remarkable features of this novel is how much of it is concentrated around a single person, in isolation. It is only in his memories that the narrator has friends and a close-knit family he can rely on, and even within his memories those relationships start to fall away as the state of war throws up divisions and absences and speechlessness – so that when we encounter him in the present, his closest intimacies seem to be with the corpses in the field. They are the only Kashmiris of his age left in the vicinity.
Waheed is too subtle a writer to draw an explicit connection between the isolation of the 19-year-old and the isolation of Kashmir as it enters the third decade of a war forgotten or distorted by the rest of the world, but the boy’s situation can’t help but reverberate beyond his individual story. It is perhaps because his story suggests so many other stories that, even though it is almost entirely focused on one man, it is the opposite of myopic.
In Curfewed Night, his groundbreaking memoir of Kashmir, Basharat Peer talks of walking through English-language bookstores in Delhi and feeling ashamed of encountering only “the unwritten books of the Kashmir experience”. Not any more.
This book is available at liberty books