Kashmir’s narratives are coming to fore, with young writers writing for an international audience. After Basharat Peer’s acclaimed memoir Curfewed Night which talked of growing up in strife-torn ‘90s, non-fiction works are coming up on the scene. Kashmir Life catches up with London based broadcaster Waheed Mirza whose novel, The Collaborator is set for release this week. Mirza has studied in Delhi and works with the BBC in London since 2001. He talks in detail about his life, inspiration and the influence of growing up in Kashmir on his work in a freewheeling interview with Ibrahim Wani. Mirza’s novel has been published by Penguin. He was on a vacation in his hometown Srinagar.
Kashmir Life: You are a trained reporter, and you decided to write a novel and not non-fiction. Why?
Waheed Mirza: I have not done a lot of reporting. Yes, I was trained at the BBC to be a reporter and a producer and all those things but I have worked at the desk mostly as an editor. I find journalism to be slightly limiting. You can’t get detail and nuance into a story like Kashmir.
I do not find enough space in journalism to go into very very complex issues of the conflict. Also, the novelistic form always appealed to me on a personal level.
As a teenager, I used to believe the novelistic form is one of mankind’s greatest inventions. Because it has survived so long. You know people proclaim the death of the novel every few decades.
I once met Qurat-ul-ain Haider, arguably the greatest Urdu novelist. I was a young and hesitant reporter with literary ambitions always. I asked her about ‘Aag ka darya’. It is so massive. And it covers millennia and it works. It is very difficult to achieve that. And she looked at me and said, “Son, stories essentially never end. You close books when you write them. A plot may come to a conclusion when you write a book, but stories never end.” It is a very vague thing she said but it is very profound. Those stories never end. They exist before the book. They precede the book. They pre-exist. And they exist after the book.
Those things have always played on my mind. I did have literary ambitions. My work at the BBC is a job. It brings money to the table, bread to the table.
So yes going back to your question, reportage is brilliant. It is important. Journalism is how we record and chronicle our lives in terms of daily occurrences and in terms of the world we live in. A very busy world. A conflict-ridden world. Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan, American imperialist actions over the last century, all those things. But the literature is the long view. You report in the evening about what has happened in the day in journalism.
When you write literature you look back and have digested those incidents over a period of ten years, twenty years and then you explore larger themes. You can not do that in a report, and you can not fact check certain things.
My novel is set on the LoC. They do not let you go there. Maybe you are allowed to go now, but you are not allowed to see what happens there. So I want to explore those things.
The novel was the best form do to that. What does it mean to die on the LoC? What does it mean to be killed brutally on the LoC? What does it mean to kill on the LoC? What kind of mind is it that takes it as a job to kill as many people as possible. You know when people have to check infiltration at the border what do they do. They have to kill all of them essentially.
KL: The novel is about Kashmir. Was there one reason for you writing the novel because the realities of Kashmir are so stark and depressing? Do the writers tend to take refuge in fictionalising the face?
WM: The novel is very depressing as well. It is quite grim as far as I see it. But then if you are honest as a novelist, as a writer, you know at the time of great tragedy, if I say ok I will write about the Dal Lake and the lotuses, the houseboats, and how pretty the gardens are I won’t be happy. I do not see that as my role as a writer. This is what has happened here. This is what has happened to us. The novel is set in the early ‘90s. It is about a very brutal period in the history of Kashmir of conflict. Hundreds of boys used to go across to Pakistan to train as militants to come back and fight against the Indian army, and on the border, there were lots of deaths. Many of them were unreported. Unaccounted for is actually the word I want to use.
You only heard the top line; 30 infiltrators killed on the border. That’s all about it. That was one window, what happened on the national news, on the state news. And then you heard accounts from the people who did come back. Even though the accounts could not give much detail, because these were people who would come back and say yes they saw some bodies lying somewhere. This is how hard it is. They survived on, you know, very little food, or the grass, or all those things. So it has always been in my mind how brutal was it. And many of these boys were very young. They were not people who had considered decisions to go across.
KL: So the state of affairs in Kashmir was so crude and so depressing that fiction seems a better recourse?
WM: see, essentially it is a story. It is a novel, and it is fiction. However, if you have grown up in Kashmir, in the 90s, everything that has happened around you is real. And it is personal. The people who have been killed or who have died are not people from some other land. They are the boys in your neighbourhood, or your cousin, or your relative, or so and so the person in the family who has been injured. Or so and so who has been kidnapped. These are not people, who are from some other place. They are people from your neighbourhood. Your neighbour has been a militant, or your neighbour has been killed. Or your uncle has been abducted. You know these are not stories only peculiar to me. All of us know that these are stories which have affected all of us directly. So in that regard, the account is always personal.
My novel fictionalises some of the incidents because as I said if I were to write a factual account of what happened in the ‘90s, I would do a history book. And the remedy people have attempted short histories of the conflict, or analysis of the conflict, or you know lengthy explanations of how to resolve the Kashmir conflict. I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted to go slightly deeper. Also very importantly I wanted to go beyond what was available to me. Beyond reportage, published facts, figures.
And fiction in the novelistic form was the best suited to explore those things… and to also touch upon some broad themes. What happens when brutality become a job. What happens when you are expected to behave normally even at the time of great violence. The violence in the ‘90s was so banal. It was not even profound in a sense. It was too much. There is this absurd banality to the violence of the ‘90s. Also, even this continues. The character has changed radically.
KL: So it is your personal experience of violent times?
WM: There are some images I have not been able to shake off. There are some images you are able to shake off. You are a typical Kashmiri boy, you play cricket and you read and you come back, and you steal apples from some orchard, and then suddenly one day thirty, forty, fifty people are killed on a road you have walked all your life.
You are affected.
There is the road near Islamia college, from where you go daily, and then one day suddenly dozens of people are killed in a brutal disrespectful incident to the entire Kashmir psyche. I am talking of the Mirwaiz funeral procession. I was not in the procession. I was in the neighbourhood, and I got a huge dressing down at home. I did not tell them that I was close by. They still do not know.
Not just that incident. You are a teenager and then suddenly forty people are killed. Just like that in the neighbourhood. It affects you. I tell my friends in London that there is a permanent bruise in the minds of Kashmir people which does not go away. And that bruise goes back to those events.
If there was a crackdown in my teenage life, there was something else in somebody else’s life. And that is the bruise we all share. It is this permanent sense of injury. You can never be normal again. I have never been able to see the world with the same eyes after I grew up.
You even walk differently. Even if you are not beaten up or anything, but the sense of insult and the denial of everyday dignity, those things affect your mind. Like why does this CRPF, or Policeman always hurl abuses at you? You think about these things. These are naive questions when you are young. But you grow up with these things and you process them. And then it begins to make sense. The novel is my way of engaging with what I am.
KL: Coming up with a novel is still a big decision. There must have been some basic triggers…
WM: I would always write, write, when I was 10. Like many other children do, poetry. I moved out in 93 and took my notes to with me, to Delhi and then to London. Then there was this night in London, a bleak December night. And I had been working on stories before that. I had seriously started working on short stories on Kashmir, and from Kashmir. Completely fictional. I was trying something surreal. I had worked on a few. One was about this boy who was killed and he narrates how he was killed. And then one was about this member of the armed forces who controls an area in downtown Srinagar and how did he manage that. How he runs it.
I was also working on another story set in the LoC where I wanted to see these boys. Who was crossing in and getting killed? And then there was this night in December 2006, when I just stayed up all night and I wrote this story about dead bodies dumped in a hidden valley on the LoC. It was a premise that had just come to me. Not just in the usual poetic come to my sense.
As I said I was working on a story. I wanted to see these boys. Killed, mutilated, ruptured bodies in these hidden recesses of valleys. So that was part of those collections of stories I wanted to do. But suddenly I was working on the same story and it just did not stop. I stayed up all night and finished this long piece story which is the first chapter of the novel now.
Truman capote the American writer once said that when you write and the notion is strong, it won’t let you rest until it gets written. I experience that sort of a moment where I wrote that big story I went into that imagined valley where there are dead Kashmir boys, and imagined everything. Imagined the trees, the valley, the boys, how they looked like, and then I have a writer friend and I showed it to him. And I said to him that this is beginning to look like a novel to me, and he immediately agreed. If you get an endorsement from another writer then it tells you yes you should do it.
And then I spent the rest of the next six to eight months working on it, on the plot, on what happens next, on the back story, on what happened before this, because the initial chapter is about this boy who is the narrator, who goes back to this valley.
Then I wrote a first rough draft in 6-8 months by autumn of 2007. I finished that in a continuous process of writing, and I had a day job which I still have. A very busy day job.
For 6-8 months I did not sleep much. I would write until four-five in the morning. Get three hours of sleep, and wake up and go to work. I wrote on the train, in a cafe, in the lunch break, on my kitchen table, in bed for those 6-8 months. It was a lot of hard work. My health was beginning to suffer. But I had to do it then. I believed in it. Which was what drove me, and then certain things surprised me. I ended up writing certain things in the novel which are extremely disturbing for me to even read now. And those are also as a novelist the joys of writing. When you leap into the unknown and you end up doing something which you had not even thought of.
KL: Any particular incidents while growing up in Kashmir?
WM: The image of a lot of dead people unaccounted for goes back to a memory of a crackdown in Srinagar when I was still a teenager. It happened in my area. There is a hospital nearby. The day before there had been an encounter. And in the morning, you know when these crackdowns happen you are supposed to go into this open field, ground, and then they make you go through this identity parade. But the previous night we had heard a lot of gunfire. In those days it was very common.
The next morning we heard this usual loud spoken announcement that you should collect in this field, and we were walking towards this ground of the hospital (at Behrar), and I remember seeing bodies just lying around. Just casually on the ground. I do not remember how many. It was a long time back. It is a very very long time back.
And as I walked. You know you are made to walk in this queue, and you are not supposed to do anything silly. You have to obey orders. Otherwise, you get into trouble, or you get taken away, never to come back in some cases. But I stopped briefly for some time because one of these people was still alive. He was probably dying, in those last breaths. I do not have an exact recollection, but I think he asked for water.
But I could not do anything about it. You are supposed to move on. Like others, I moved on. And then we sat there. Then clearly if the man was still alive he must have died. And then they took those bodies away. This image has never left my mind. One of the questions I ask myself is that if this is what happens in the city, in our urban space, in Srinagar, what must have been in far off places, in so-called unreachable areas.
I thought about it for a number of years. The image was definitely responsible for setting the novel in this hidden valley in the LoC. There is a chapter in this novel, which is called in the valley of the yellow flowers. Which is the opening chapter of the novel, which has now turned into this open mass grave? Nobody is buried. They just lie there, rotting away. That connects to the bodies I saw as a teenager.
KL: You were born in Srinagar. How could you imagine the mountains and the valleys that are far off?
WM: I have lived in the mountains. I have not lived on the LoC. None of us had seen the LoC apart from the boys who went onto becoming separatist militants. I have wonderful memories from the mountains. See that is also a part of the novelistic process. My father worked in tourism (department), we spent time in Verinag which is this post-card idyllic place. It has everything. It has the Pir Panjal range. And then there is this postcard spring, the source of our big river – the Jehlum. And then there is a Mughal Garden. My father worked there, and I lived there.
Papa was also posted in Pahalgam, in Daksum so as a family we use to move out. I love my mountains more than the rivers and the lakes. I have been a sort of mountain person. They appeared of more interest to me because they are more mysterious.
KL: Is there a bit of black humour or romance in the novel?
WM: A writer friend once told me that it is very dark. You should allow some kind of levity, some kind of breathing space in that. I tried, but it did not work. Because if you force to make your novel more readable and you throw in a bit of humour, it was forced. And I do not think that I do humour very well. Humour is not a bad thing. It is brilliant.
But it did not work for me. Romance, again you know. Such delicate things like romance and friendship are a casualty in times of brutal conflict. I have tried to show that. There is a bit of friendship. Quite a bit of it.
KL: Did you go to the LoC and meet people whose relatives had died or who had suffered?
WM: No, I did not
KL: Did you know any of the people who crossed the LoC, or died while crossing?
WM: Yeah. But I am sorry I can not name the person for obvious reasons. I knew quite a bit of people. I know people who went across. I know people who saw stuff while crossing over. I know people who survived, who came back. I also know people who came and gave up.
Look there is nothing peculiar to me. All of us knew people. If you were a teenager in the ‘90s you were lucky that you did not cross over yourself. No, I think I should not use the word lucky.
There was this narrative in the Indian media that some people would cross. They were not some people. They were brothers, your cousins. It was a generation. Everybody wanted to cross over. We welcomed them back as heroes for God’s sake. We garlanded them. They were not some people from some other territory, they were not mercenaries sent by Pakistan. That was later. They were your neighbours with whom you played cricket with. And most often we welcomed them to our homes.
It was a ‘mela’. And all kinds of people would cross. Most of the people did not go out of strong political conviction. We Kashmiris have to be honest about that. Everyone who went did not go out of strong political convictions. Because that is what happens in guerrilla wars.
Many people join in. Some people go out of strong political conviction. Some people go out of a feeling of anger, and with the feeling that they want to wage a war against the Indian army, and they want to free their land from the Indian army. Some people went just in the heat of the moment. And that is not something bad. If you are 17, you are not expected to have a sense of history. Seventeen year old kids went. And some people did not have anything else to do.
But the larger narrative is that the larger part of the people went because they summed up Kashmir’s historic anger with India. It does not happen over-night. It does not happen just because elections are rigged. Yes that was the immediate spark that precipitated it. We had separatist tendencies always. You know when you grow up and you read up a bit of history, and you read al-Fatah, you know people who were with al-Fatah. Somebody points out, somedays, that that person belonged to that party. And we had the students league as well.
KL: Some people would say Kashmir is about two contesting narratives. As Kashmir’s first English novelist what do you have to say about it?
WM: We should not say the first novelist. Sidharth Gigoo is also a novelist. A Kashmiri Pandit boy. It was published a few weeks before mine. I am pleased that I have come out with the novel. I do not know how it will be received. I have tried. My only sense of conviction comes from the thing that I have tried to be honest, and that is the fundamental thing you have to do as a writer. Honesty to yourself.
KL: What are the biggest faults you find with the two contesting narratives on Kashmir?
WM: The biggest fault of any narrative is that does it recognise the centrality of the Kashmiri voice. In my personal understanding and personal belief as a Kashmiri I always think that anything that starts with Kashmiris is important. Anything other than that becomes slightly suspect in my eyes. Yes there is India and Pakistan. Sometime it will be silly if someone said that it is not about India and Pakistan. No, we are a nation, we were a nation. But the current reality is there is a part of Kashmir under Pakistan, there is a part of Kashmir under India, and the dispute is between these two countries.
However, we are the primary party to the dispute, to the problem. Some of my Kashmir friends do not feel good when I refer to it as a problem. But does it really matter.
What matters to me is the recognition of the centrality of the Kashmiri people’s aspirations in any narrative. Sometime we just think that there are two contesting narratives. There are many contesting narratives. We have different narratives within the Kashmir separatist apparatus. And they have not even tried to get those narratives together and see where they go.
I do not know how to answer this question. All of this actually been abused a lot. The entire concept of do I belong there or here. It has been abused a lot, by vested people, by vested parties, and vested interests in confiscating the central narrative, diverting it somewhere else, in shifting the debate. In moving the goalposts all the time.
This is the main issue. Kashmiri people are not happy, and have not been happy for a long long time. And if something is not done, some out of the box solution is not found then we are faced with a very very bleak future. I am not optimistic of our future. And the scenario is very scary.
KL: You grew up in Kashmir, went to Delhi for studies and are now living in London. These must-have been different worlds?
WM: I spent 18 years of my life in Srinagar, in Bagwanpora. I went to a school in the neighbourhood. And then eight or so years in Delhi, studying literature, and then I worked, and it was an extremely hard time. We were not very well off. But my family was very supportive, in spite of the family conditions. My father particularly.
In Delhi for the first few years, I did not talk about Kashmir. Some people like me go silent for a few years.
But one thing I witnessed about the media there was that they reported it as a thriller. The way I had witnessed the tragedy, and what you saw on the national media or the press was that for them it was not a tragedy. It was a crime story or at best a thriller. And I used to wonder as a young man, that there is something seriously wrong with this.
To a large extent it still is the same in Delhi. But there has been a change, a significant one. Now there are sections of Indian society and media who are trying to engage truthfully. That is all that Kashmiris sometimes want or expect from the media.
In London it is a totally different world. When BBC train you, induct you, they have principles on impartiality and objectivity. It sometimes gets boring, because there is very little space for comment or opinion. We do analysis and background, and trying to report as objectively as possible.
So there have been three phases to my life. Wonderful childhood and nightmarish teenage in Srinagar, but that is not just me. That is the all of us. I am from a generation that took up the gun. I am slightly younger than those who became commanders and everything.
I used to go for tuitions in Srinagar. And one day I was part of this huge gathering that welcomed Hamid Sheikh (JKLF commander) and others when they were released. I was there, I was studying in 11th class at that time. And there was widespread celebration. That was a huge moment. So I am from that generation.
Then the Delhi part.
I hid it from my family from sometime that I was studying literature. They thought that I was doing science. Because arts was frowned upon by Kashmiris which is very regressive, because how else do we create an intellectual legacy. I know a man who was a wonderfully gifted singer, and he is a dentist now. There is something wrong with this system. I escaped. It was not out my own sheer will. Something conspired to help me escape.
I would not be dishonest about this. I did prepare for entrance exams. Because that is what you are supposed to do here. My grandfather was a papier-machie artist, a very good one, and he has won a number of awards for that.
I remember some days getting frustrated and I used to hide a small paperback inside the textbooks. So if someone came to see, they thought that I was studying the physics textbook. But that was not a regular practice.
We had books in the family. And as a child, if you see books in the family that makes a crucial difference. My younger uncle used to read a bit. He used to buy books. Like ‘If I am assassinated’ a Bhutto’s book, I had seen that in my childhood. I used to buy a lot of comics with my pocket money.
KL: Why is that not many people from Kashmir are into writing books?
WM: That is a tragedy. For example, you could make a great archaeologist if you are interested in it. But your parents, or your uncles or your entire clan will tell you that you have to go to Russia (for MBBS). If you have a top 5 list of things that have damaged Kashmir, this is among the top 5. And people do not understand it still. It has ruined generations.
KL: Usually in a strife-torn society, the arts get better, literature prospers. But why is this not the case in Kashmir?
WM: It takes time. Good literature takes time to emerge. For people to come to terms with what has happened, and then their own personal responses to what has happened. You can not do it overnight, or in two years.
You look at other places in the world. The Middle East has produced great writers. I am hopeful. There is a generation of young Kashmiri boys who are taking themselves seriously and they have a sense of history. And they have to read more. You have to read and spend more time with books.
KL: So who has been your source of inspiration?
WM: My family is part of the inspiration. I love them to bits. And we are a very close-knit family. Some good friends in the BBC particularly. A very close Pakistani writer friend, Mohammad Hanief. I would not say that he is an inspiration, but he is a very good help. Also some good writers I have read.
KL: Any idea of how many young writers are trying to write?
WM: Going by all the social media thing, and it is not a reliable measuring scale, it is just a bubble. I have been told that there are some young boys who are writing fiction or trying to write fiction. Who are in their late twenties.
There is another sort of theory I have. We have to speak to the world directly. For the last twenty years, we have been spoken about. Written about. Explained, analysed. People tell us, we will tell you what you mean. It is very important to get that out of the way, and we have to be equipped to do that.
KL: What to do in Kashmir to get more people interested in writing?
WM: Read more. Reading begets writing and writing begets reading. There are people who will love to read your stuff. I am told that people here are trying to establish reading rooms, and telling people how to write and so on.
Basharat Peer’s book was also very important that way. It was a breakthrough book. And a very good book. In a sense that it is a book about me, That was my first response when I read the book. That book was a book about all of us. Basharat is a close friend. His book sort of getting noticed. As Basharat says that the boys have grown up and they are writing back. And I quite like what he says. There are other people who are writing. I have a friend who lives in the states – Ather Zia.
KL: Collaborator is out. What next?
WM: I want to write another one. And then another one. And then keep writing. I do not know if I will be able to do that very soon, because the family situation has changed. I have a child now. I have to have a day job. I have to find the means and time to write again. I am thinking of the something for the future.
But the second novel will be definitely set in Kashmir.