side of the story
The grim reaper
Mirza Waheed, a Kashmiri journalist, writes an important first novel about his embattled homeland
By Mehvash Amin
By Mirza Waheed
It is 1993. The setting is Nowgam, a tiny hamlet a bullet’s trajectory away from Pakistan, in Kashmir. As the Indian Army employs ever more draconian measures to quash the struggle for ‘Azaadi’, young men by the thousands trek across the Line of Control to be trained in Pakistani militant camps and to return to redress wrongs or be summarily executed and dumped in a blind gorge where yellow daisies push for survival amidst thousands of rotting corpses. Kashmir, the paradise on Earth, is fast becoming a ‘Jahannum’, where the macabre weaves its lunatic thread into the fabric of the commonplace.
The architect of this particular vale of horrors is Captain Kadian of the Indian Army, and he recruits the nameless narrator -- perhaps anonymous because he stands for the Kashmiri Everyman -- as his grim reaper, to collect identity cards that can eventually be used to demonstrate to the press Pakistan’s role in training the young men that will become cannon fodder and be left to rot in plain view of its hated army.
The 19-year old narrator is the son of the headman of Nowgam, a quiet, bookish young man whose four childhood friends -- Nassir, Mohammad, Ashfaque and Gul – think it expedient not to take him along on their trek across the border and whose demeanour encourages Kadian not only to make him do his grisly work - "it is not easy, picking stuff off dead people" – but also to become a silent audience for his drunken tirades against all Kashmiris and Pakistanis – indeed, to become a silent spectator to the Indian Army’s brutalities.
The novel takes a long time to unloop, as the protagonist revisits his happy childhood with his four buddies and agonises about their absence and the fact that he was left behind. As it progresses, we realise that in these abnormal times the collaborator is not in fact the flamboyant, radicalised Everyman, but the cautious storyteller, the one who will witness rather than perform extraordinary acts, the sensitive son who will step back from the glory of the feat because he thinks of the atrocities that will be visited on his parents -- "Oh, they will kill my father and mother too, even rape Ma!"
The first part of the novel, though elegiac in parts, suffers from this repetitious soul-searching, but once the novel picks up pace, in the second and third parts, one almost forgets to exhale. There is no lack of gut-wrenching, heartbreaking action here. The internalised rhythm of the novel and the tortured keening of the narrator’s soul are turned inside out, the hallucinatory effect of stasis amidst the horror of the valley of death (and indeed the dead are also in stasis) recedes with the furious action that now unfolds. In the reader, melancholy gives way to anger.
The decapitated head of a militant’s brother is thrown into his parents’ yard. The villagers are made to cower while the hated governor of Kashmir lands in a helicopter and gives a speech in English for the benefit of his accompanying factotums. A band of women defy the curfew to beg milk for their starving children, as the entire village, nomadic Gujjars who have only settled down a few decades ago, take to the road again to escape the violence. The cruelty of the Indian army is countermanded by the brutality of the militants, who chop off the noses and tongues and arms of suspected informants.
In the end, the collaborator does not undertake the ultimate act of courage or sacrifice to redeem himself, but only that which his nature allows. It is enough that for him, it is a cathartic act and an act of mercy on the dead that he had pilfered for their identities. It might also bring about the same dreadful consequences for him that he has imagined for his brave friends.
In the end, the same holds true for the author, Mirza Waheed, a Kashmiri journalist who now lives in London. His hatred for the Indian Army might have made his narrative too personal, the musings of his protagonist perhaps make it too slow, while some journalistic vignettes are just that, vignettes. But his enormous contribution makes these observations trivial.
That contribution lies in the fact that like a few others, including the poet Agha Shahid Ali and the memoir writer Basharat Peer, he has added his very significant and moving voice to the heartbreaking story of Kashmir, as told by a Kashmiri. In his novel the tale told by the ‘Other’ has become, imperfectly but poignantly, the voice of the Subaltern.
The Collaborator is available at Liberty Books
A novel about Kashmiri Pandits who had to abandon their homes and migrate when the struggle for an independent Kashmir began
By Bilal Ibne Rasheed
The Garden of Solitude
By Siddhartha Gigoo
Publisher: Rupa & Co.
Price: Indian Rs.195
During the last two decades, while the subsequent governments of India and Pakistan exploited the Kashmir issue for their political gains both at home and abroad, Kashmiris remained, for the most part, silent spectators. However, it is no longer the case. There is a growing awareness among Kashmiris to voice their concerns independent of any alignment either to Indian or Pakistani points of view.
Siddhartha Gigoo is a Kashmiri Pandit who migrated to India during the early 1990s because of the political turmoil and the rise of militancy in Kashmir. The Garden of Solitude is his début novel and deals with the plight of Kashmiri Pandits who had to abandon their homes and migrate when Kashmiri Muslims started the struggle for an independent Kashmir.
Sridar, the protagonist, is living a peaceful life in his ancestral home in Kashmir. As a teenager he loves reading and writing poetry and short stories. Then all of a sudden, militancy erupts and the Kashmiri Pandits are given notices to leave their homes and migrate. Although initially reluctant, Lasa, Sridar’s father, decides to migrate to Jammu with his family and elderly father Mahanandju. The state of Jammu accommodates the migrants in refugee camps. Sridar grows up in these camps and attends a camp school. After completing the school he goes to Delhi and tries to get an admission in a film school. But luck does not favour him and he decides to take up a part-time job with a film-maker. In the Delhi migrant camp he befriends Lenin, a part-time assistant to a film-maker, who encourages him to participate in an essay writing competition. Sridar’s essay wins a consolation prize of twenty-five thousand rupees and a two-week stay in Ladakh. After Ladakh, Sridar goes to see his grandfather who has, by now, lost most of his memory. Saddened, he comes back to Delhi and joins a travel and tourism website. He is sent for a one-year deputation to America where he starts collecting the stories of the displaced Pandits. After getting back from America he decides to visit Kashmir and his old family home in which now a Muslim family lives. The novel ends with the launch of Sridar’s book The Book of Ancestors.
For Pakistanis who think only Kashmiri Muslims have suffered the hardships of Indian rule, this novel is a must read. I remember growing up reading magazines which glorified the struggle for an independent Kashmir and ridiculed and resented the presence of the Indian army there. The point of view of a vast majority of Pakistanis is too simplistic and one-dimensional in this regard. To them, only Kashmiri Muslims are suffering at the hands of the Indian government and there is never any mention of Kashmiri Pandits. This novel will help them understand, though to a limited extent, the complex social ambiance, religious milieu, political developments, and cultural make-up of Kashmir.
The novel starts in a tale-telling style. The first half of the novel focuses on the problems and hardships the displaced Pandits had to face while the second half concentrates on Sridar’s nostalgia for Kashmir while he is working in Delhi. There seems to be a lot of autobiographical details in the novel. The protagonist like the author has a penchant for reading and writing poetry (Gigoo has published two poetry books) and leaves Kashmir during his mid-teens (Gigoo was fifteen when he left Kashmir). Jonathan Franzen commented on autobiographical-fiction that "the most purely autobiographical-fiction requires pure invention." Although Gigoo’s attempt is in accordance with the prevalent writing dictum, write what you know, it is the "pure invention" which is missing here. It is because of this lack of pure invention that the novel neither challenges its reader nor shakes their assumptions.
Highlighting the importance of suspense in a story, E. M. Forster writes in Aspects of the Novel, "We are all like Scheherazade’s husband, in that we want to know what happens next. That is universal." Gigoo’s narrative lacks this important aspect of a novel, becomes too predictable, and leaves the reader labouring. At times, one feels it has been overwritten.
Given the fact that he is not a native speaker of English, Gigoo has a reasonable command over the language but the prose is not very fluent and it appears he lacks facility with the language. A couple of rounds of dispassionate editing after it had, in Ernest Hemingway’s words, cooled off well would have kneaded the prose well.
Gigoo’s description of human emotions, and the subsequent thought-processes triggered by them, lacks complexity and richness. He does not capture the volatility and capriciousness of human emotions which makes his characters too simplistic and one-dimensional. Rather than exploring the contradictions in and irrationality of emotions which make the characters interesting and intriguing the author has simplified them. The paradoxes in the social and cultural milieu of Kashmir have also been neatened by the narrative.
Having said that, the novel should be read to have an idea of the predicament of the Kashmiri Pandits who were forced to abandon their homes and, more importantly, their homeland.
Palo Alto, chat and tsunami
Palo Alto, a part of Silicon Valley, is not a suburb of San Francisco as I had always believed. It is a city with all the infrastructure that is required for a place to be called a city. It has its own mayor, its own Centre of Performing Arts -- an attractive building that stands adjacent to an equally attractive Town Hall -- and it has its own newspapers.
Did you know that by the time you reach 50 your brain is only functioning at 50 per cent of its capacity? A report in the Palo Alto Weekly informs me that having tested a million and half brains, scientists have discovered that the brain suffers a greater damage than the rest of the body and when you reach the age of 50 you have a premature mental decline. Your brain power, your memory, your capacity to focus, your concentration and your ability to retain details is reduced considerably. Food -- and the intake of meat -- is one factor that is responsible. People must change their food habits; eat less meat or no meat at all, if possible.
No wonder I saw that the ‘Chat House’, an Indian vegetarian restaurant, choc-a-bloc full of not just Indians but 50ish-looking Americans as well.
Some years ago, I was taken to a chat place in Los Angeles. It was a small room no bigger than a tailor’s shop in Mehmoodabad. You placed your order at the counter and they packed it for you. Outside the shop was a verandah where the shop owners had placed a small table and two chairs for those who wanted to eat there. The chairs were occupied by American ladies, without any make-up, who were hurriedly wolfing down their dossas. At the time I had thought of them as Hare-Krishna devotees.
The ‘Chat House’ that I visited is situated on Camino Real, California’s historic royal road. I was intrigued to be driven along this road because of Tennessee Williams’ somewhat surrealistic play of that name. I remember Elia Kazan, the renowned Method director, telling me that it was the most unsuccessful production he had ever staged.
When the play was first presented on Broadway in 1949, it was a flop. The critics dismissed it as a drama full of "black and appalling images." When it was revived two decades later, it was a huge success. Clive Barnes, the drama critic of New York Times thought it was the best play Williams has ever written. A glowing review of a play in the New York Times often ensured a box office success.
Camino Real has been revived several times since 1970, not only in America but in Europe and the rest of the world. Williams himself described his work as "nothing more nor less than my conception of the time and the world I live in."
But I digress. Camino Real, the road, has now become the premier destination for Indian food, particularly South Indian food. Strictly speaking, the diner that I visited served Maharashtrian food. To distinguish themselves from the competition the ‘Chat House’ has had to specialise in chat -- small plates of crunchy spicy and sweet snacks -- must be eaten immediately. Wait more than a few minutes and the whole thing is a soggy mess. Chat is made of wheat and chick-pea flour, beans, multi-grained pancakes and roasted lentil flour. For those who wish to stop ‘mental decline’ it has the added appeal because it is made without meat.
The big question in Palo Alto (when I was there last weeks) was: can it happen here? The question, of course, referred to the terrible disaster in Japan. The headline in one local newspaper was: "Could a Quake Hit Palo Alto? You Bet!"
Scores of people are already involved in trying to get Palo Alto and surrounding communities better prepared for floods, earthquake and other calamities. They have improved communication systems -- a fast telephone dial-up warning system has already been installed -- but there is serious concern, according to the newspaper, that the communities are far from being truly prepared. Families as well as individuals are not ready in terms of having emergency drinking water and food set aside. A major emergency preparedness ‘fair’ is in the process of being organised in Palo Alto.
The pictures of Japan affected by the earthquake, tsunami and radiation leaks, flashed on television screens of most news channels, were heartbreaking but, in a curious way, extremely ennobling. The disaster had not caused the Japanese society to come apart at the seams. In fact, it had been knit together more tightly than ever. The selflessness, the stoicism and discipline in Japan were epitomised by the workers at the nuclear radiation plant, uncomplainingly, risking their lives as they struggled to prevent a complete meltdown.
Fox News showed an incredible scene. Having endured impossible hardships, some two thousands people were assembled in a huge warehouse. They had not had any food for three days. A relief worker who had been working round the clock told them over the loudspeaker that owing to severe food shortage they could only be given one bowl of rice but it would have to be shared by two people. The dignity and grace with which the starving mob accepted this announcement was a sight that still brings a lump to my throat. They didn’t howl, they didn’t scream, they stood in a line, patiently, and accepted the bowl meant for two people. A boy not more than nine or ten had taken a mouthful with his head bent. When he lifted his head a tear dribbled down to his chin and you could see that he looked crestfallen because he had betrayed his frustration.
In the most affected areas where all you could see was rubble and rising smoke from fires smouldering here and there, an English reporter bravely picked her way through a mound of bricks to reach a store that had withstood the quake. The youngish reporter turned to the camera and told us that there hadn’t been a single incident of any looting anywhere in the town.
Nicholas Kristof, who was once the Tokyo bureau chief of the New York Times, recalls that when he covered the devastating earthquake in Kobe, 15 years ago, he looked everywhere for an example of people looting merchandise from one of the many shops with shattered windows. Finally, he came across a mini-mart owner who had actually seen three young men grab food from his shop and run away. Kristof asked the shop owner if he was surprised that his fellow Japanese could stoop so low. "No, you misunderstand," the shop owner told him, "These looters weren’t Japanese. They were foreigners."
The Japanese must be the most magnificent people on earth.