Fiction & Poetry

Telling a Truth About Kashmir – In Fiction

The publication of a telling literary depiction of the most bitter period in Kashmir’s insurgency twenty years ago prompts Andrew Whitehead to consider the value to historians of fictional accounts of conflict:

‘I haven’t written a history lesson’, Mirza Waheed declared recently about his powerful first novel. The Collaborator – just published and reviewed here by Kamila Shamsie in the Guardian – is set in a remote village in Kashmir in the early 1990s. The prose is luminous and sparkling. The subject is grim and cadaverous. The theme is the curdling of the human spirit occasioned by the bitter separatist insurgency, and counter-insurgency, which flared up in Kashmir in 1989, all but consumed the region in the 1990s, and has never been resolved.

Not a history lesson, but it is nevertheless, for most of those who read it, an instructive introduction to Kashmir’s tortured recent past. There have been other Kashmir novels in English – Justine Hardy’s The Wonder House and Paro Anand’s story for teenagers No Guns at my Son’s Funeral – but these have neither the literary force of Waheed’s book, nor are they written by Kashmiris. More than that, although The Collaborator uses all the devices open to fiction, and does not seek to record hard fact, no one can read it without realising that its author has written to represent a truth, his truth, about the Kashmir conflict.

Mirza Waheed is from Srinagar, the capital of the Kashmir valley. He explained at the LSE literary festival that he had never visited anywhere resembling the far away Gujjar (a once nomadic community still sometimes seen as semi-detached from Kashmir’s political culture) settlement close to the ceasefire line which is his setting.

He also spoke of the profound impact on him of an Indian army ‘crackdown’ in Srinagar when he was a teenager. All  the men and boys in his area were ordered to gather in open ground. Lying there were the bodies of some young men, probably separatist militants. Except one wasn’t dead. That, Waheed said, had haunted him – had been a large part of the impulse for writing this novel. And indeed it is represented in an episode in the book, and perhaps explains the extraordinary pre-occupation with corpses.


Ian Jack, musing in his Guardian column as he was reading The Collaborator, commented: ‘It … raises old questions about fiction. If I wanted to “know about” the Kashmir troubles – ongoing, remote to most of us and under-reported – would I start with a novel? Or do I need to be startled first with some verifiable facts that help me believe the novelist?

Well, in conflicts such as Kashmir’s it’s not simply the territory that’s contested but the facts as well. There are plenty of books about contemporary Kashmir, most of them deeply partisan. But until Basharat Peer’s fine work of reportage Curfewed Night appeared in 2008, there was precious little about the human experience of living through more than twenty years of insurgency.

I think back to Partition in 1947, when first Saadat Hasan Manto’s short stories, then a wave of Partition novels and cinema, gave an account of the lived experience of that moment of profound rupture and brutality that had eluded historians and political scientists. It’s only in the last fifteen years or so, at the last possible moment to retrieve the memories of those who lived through 1947 as adults, that oral history has found its stride.

Will The Collaborator inform and shape the telling of Kashmir’s insurgency in the same manner that Partition literature has moulded the popular perception of that event? Good literature enlightens historians as much as anyone else. It humanises the tides and events depicted. Yet the story told needs to be interrogated as much, perhaps more, than any other historical source. Much of the literature of Partition is depairing. If there’s anger, it’s more about the common debasement of human values than the culpability of one side or another. Waheed’s novel is more focussed in its anger – the Indian army and the political machine behind it, and to a lesser extent the outside militants who maim and torture, are depicted as the guilty parties who have inflicted suffering on Kashmir and its people.


Kashmir on the ceasefire line. Photo: AW

Shashi Tharoor, one of the most liberal of Indian parliamentarians, reviewed The Collaborator for an Indian news magazine, extolling the prose but not the political  message: ‘Of course Kashmiris have suffered terribly in the militancy, but the war was not imposed on them by India. The young men so sympathetically described in The Collaborator chose to pick up arms and use them, in unwitting pursuit of a neighbour’s strategic goals [he means Pakistan]; India’s response, though hardly without flaws and failures of its own, was just that – a response to terror, and not the cause of it. The uninformed or prejudiced reader of this novel will come away moved by the writing and convinced by the righteousness of its political assumptions. That is what is so beguiling, and so dangerous, about a good political novel, and why this reviewer is impelled to both admire and reject it.’

I can see the argument, but a great strength of The Collaborator – as of Curfewed Night – is that it gives voice to what has until now been the perspective least audible, the liberal, humanist Kashmiri take on what has happened to their valley. Even in histories of Kashmir, the Kashmiri voice is often absent. For such a rich and educated culture, Kashmiris have been very quiet about their fate.

I got to know Kashmir as a news journalist, and some of the stories I heard in Baramulla and Srinagar prompted me to write a history of the origins of the Kashmir conflict in the autumn of 1947. I made my first reporting trip to Kashmir just a few weeks after the point at which this novel opens. I once accompanied India’s internal security minister to a public meeting near an army base close to the ceasefire line, a deeply uncomfortable echo of an episode in this novel. As both journalist and historian, I feel I have learnt from The Collaborator, without wishing to accept all its accompanying argument.

And it is also a wonderfully well written novel – so whether a history lesson or not, it offers the huge satisfaction of a story well told.

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