Meanings of The Collaborator

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Sometime fiction tells a truth more comprehensively than elements of truth put together as anything else. Zamir Ahmed writes about The Collaborator, its author and his childhood friend Mirza Waheed and what his debut novel may mean to different readers.

I still remember that chilly winter afternoon when I, a schoolboy in sixth grade, had stepped out of our home to buy ‘Tchochwaer’ from the local baker.  Just outside, I saw a young boy, almost of my age, walking down our street with an open book in his hand—reading it while walking along. In those times our locality was abounded by vast almond orchards doubling up as play-fields, more so when the schools were closed for long winter vacations. One would regularly watch boys of all ages walking to these favourite jaunts carrying cricket bats carved out of wooden logs and sometimes even hockey sticks fashioned out of apple boughs.

A young boy in his early teens carrying a book in his hand was, therefore, a rare sight then, naturally. Being less of a sports fiend and more of a book lover myself, I always felt left out while all my peers were scoring runs and lofting long shots into the neighboring houses. My efforts at making friends were as unsuccessful as staying at the crease for long. We instantly struck a conversation which revealed that this boy was a voracious reader. Soon, we started exchanging ‘comics’, a rage among the children then. Over the years comics were replaced by storybooks and then with classics, fiction, non-fiction and more. Mirza Waheed, yes that little boy, was quite often now referred to at my home as ‘Tchyon lokut kitaabe Dos’ (Your little book-friend). He was one year junior to me.

Waheed was an extraordinary and promising kid of our locality. A true epitome of “Honhar Barva Kay Chikney Chikney Paat”! And unlike me he was equally at ease with all kinds of boys of our area. A regular topper in his school, as well as a regular ‘loiterer’. And that’s perhaps why his debut novel, the Collaborator, so beautifully recreates the aura of our growing years. Not missing a single speck while redrawing that beautiful canvas that got so violently shattered when our generation was still in its teens.

Much has been written about Waheed’s work but mostly by those who have not lived those times like we did. Being a Kashmiri, my impressions, about his work are entirely different as they would be for any of his Kashmiri readers. It offers a special treat to us since it talks about our very own lives. I remember reading Gorky’s Mother in my formative years and easily identifying with its plot. Its story resembled ours in many ways. Though mothers are universally same everywhere, Gorky’s mother was much more like our mothers. The hearth, the cold, the snow as well as the passion, the belief and the struggles mirrored ours.

For that matter, ‘The Collaborator’ is our own story told by one of us and in ways no one else could tell. Like a true classic, The Collaborator is Kaleidoscopic. It throws up scintillating yet varying views for its readers depending upon where from they look at it and where they themselves belong. To an English speaking reader, The Collaborator would be an elegant piece of fiction. Poetically eloquent, poignant and grasping. Aesthetically  emotional and moving. And as a reviewer puts it, “amongst the better first novels you are likely to read”. Waheed has a unique sense of construct.

His imagery is effortless, to say the least. And while his work has received critical acclaim and appreciation worldwide, it seems that he had not written the book for a global audience. It only seems, though. And there lies Waheed’s artistry. Most of the time, he keeps many Hindi words and exclamations untranslated as if they were a part of the English language. I am not sure whether his English readers appreciate this nuance and how. But I am sure they do discern its poetical magic, like they do with an occasional mention of “Rizwan” in Aga Shahid’s works. That’s why, perhaps, his another reviewer contends that, “Waheed’s biggest achievement is that he continues the journey Basharat Peer (and in many ways, Agha Shahid Ali) began”. That’s, but, only a half-truth.

Ask a reader from the sub-continent about his views about the book and they would be interestingly different. The impressions would oscillate between nervous appreciation and edgy posturing. Didn’t I say earlier that The Collaborator throws up kaleidoscopic vistas? It presents a dilemma to the people living in India aptly summed up by Shashi Tharoor, A politician and a writer himself.

A dilemma between appreciating a work of art and denouncing its message.  “As a writer myself”, he says, “I found myself with much to admire and value in Mirza Waheed’s first novel, The Collaborator; but as an Indian Politician I found it impossible not to feel profound discomfort with the political sympathies the work seeks to evoke.”  That’s, however, for the politicised Indian who is either ignorant of the history of the subcontinent or chooses to wish away most of its parts. For a common reader, the book is ‘gripping in its narrative drama’. For a discerning reader, it becomes clear that Waheed deftly “gives a portrait of Kashmir” while keeping himself  “away from rhetorical posturing of India and Pakistan”.

Having said that, The Collaborator, for an ordinary Kashmiri, is totally in an altogether different genre. Only those who were growing up in the years forming the plot of the book can fully fathom its essence. No one else can! Waheed has been repeatedly saying that his work is not a history book. It certainly is not. It is much more. It is not even fiction, dare I say. It is much else. We have listened to the real stories of how people in far away villages in our recent history, have consigned their memories to paper, wrapped those tomes in plastic and buried them beneath the ground, preserving them, thus, for posterity. The Collaborator is one such work. It dispenses away the need for preserving your memories through crude means. It presents a much aesthetic alternative.

A profound and gripping narrative of our times, its narrator is a teenage boy, living near the Line of Control (LoC), in a village that first saw its youngmen disappearing from their homes to cross the LoC and afterwards its whole population leave the village for ever. What happens to the Narrator in between? Does he follow his friends to the other side of LoC or accompanies his fellow villagers down into the plains? What he has to go through all these years and how he and his own parents “adjust” to the abrupt change in their lives and constantly changing events? All this is so beautifully captured by Waheed and I will play a spoil sport if I answer all these questions.

Waheed’s sense of societal memory is immense. Equally sharp is his own memory. Through the eyes of the protagonist of his novel, he makes us see things which we had long consigned to oblivion. The Weston TV, for example. Or the heavy curtain made out of an old grey blanket.  Or the P-Mark mustard oil, the copper bushqaba, the ‘monaco biscuits’, the soggy turban like Jajeer gand, the sweet smelling fresh naphthalene on the woolen pheran. Or “the Lifebuoy and OK and Hamam soaps….Relaxo nylon slippers and plastic shoes, Parle G Glucose biscuits”. All these are not just names or objects.

These and the “Crocin, Combiflam and the occasional Alprax tablets are, in fact, pieces of our history. Pages from our recent past. As are the many incidents either experienced or observed by the Novel’s protagonist whom Waheed has not named. He could be any of us yet he could be none of us. The same is the case with his four friends whom Waheed has fortunately named for us. Otherwise, while going through the book, you start identifying with them, one at a time and secretly believe that it is your own story being told by the master storyteller.  It would be naive of me to talk about the plot of book and how it progresses through its 300 pages. The taste of the feast is in its having.

Waheed , fortunately for us, launched his book here in Kashmir. While he was reading from the book, one could hear sobs constantly being unsuccessfully stifled by many in the audience. Waheed, like Aga Shahid, has ardent fans all over the world but their works would draw tears from our eyes alone. The rest of the world may marvel at their creativity but only we will know what that means to us. And to them as well. For the world may remember “Rizwan” as the young man, the news of whose death at the border, Shahid could not break to his father. But only we know who Rizwan was. Yes, I still remember him as our illustrious senior in the college. And I remember what his sudden death meant to us and his friends.

While reading the book, I was surprised to know that the narrator of the book, living in a remote village, studying in a public school, could lay his hands on ‘I’m OK. You’re OK” that pioneering book on Transactional Analysis. I remembered that Waheed had introduced me to that book and even loaned it to me till I got my own copy. I, however, could not quite recall when and how he passed that book to that Gujjar Boy from Nowgam. How conveniently could I forgotten that “The Collaborator” was just a ‘piece of fiction.’?

About Author

A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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