Creating fiction set in a theatre of conflict is a precarious tightrope act. The story of the individual must be kept unique enough not to become representative of a collective median of the population. At the same time, the turmoil in the backdrop must be depicted with full justice to all its intensity, violence, horror and the mandatory terrible beauty of the landscape or the architecture. Like the road to hell, the novelist’s path in this strife-torn world—be it Kashmir or be it across the LoC, Pakistan—is paved with good intentions. Whether he ends up in literary jahannum (hell) or jannat (heaven) is, of course, a function of how adroitly he can walk that tightrope.
It’s hard to say whether it is the brutality and bloodshed or the boom in books by fellow travellers that has provoked the recent raft of writing set in Kashmir. Ever since Basharat Peer opened the floodgates with his remarkable work of non-fiction, Curfewed Nights, in 2007, there have been at least half a dozen novels in English set in the cradle of the conflict in the state. So, while the analyst’s pen continues to probe Kashmir—for instance, there’s Ananya Jahanara Kabir’s Territory of Desire: Representing the Valley of Kashmir—fiction is becoming a louder voice for telling the Valley’s story.
Invitation: By Shehryar Fazli, Tranquebar, 385 pages, Rs495.
There’s Siddharth Gigoo’s Garden of Solitude, about the plight of the Kashmiri Pandit forced to flee his home. There’s Jaspreet Singh’s Chef, where the focus is not directly on guns amid roses, but where Kashmir is a ubiquitous character. There are even thrillers such as Bharat Wakhlu’s Close Call in Kashmir and Abhay Nandan Sapru’s In the Valley of Shadows. Unlike Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown—where the Muslim husband of the Hindu dancer turned to terrorism in retaliation for acts of betrayal—few of these can distance themselves enough from the horrors of life in the state to rise above the need to not just depict reality, but also tell a unique tale. One of the latest in this line, Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator, is no exception.
To be fair, it would be ridiculous to expect someone who has grown up on, and lived through, the unrelenting cycle of violence, death, retribution and revolt in the valley to talk only of houseboats and rista (meatballs). And Waheed’s opening pages alone demonstrate what an imaginative observer can do even to the most familiar of truths: The protagonist is sent on a mission by a cardboard cut-out of an Indian Army officer to collect the identity cards of corpses of young men who had sneaked across the line from the other Kashmir to wage a war of terror. As the young man describes the macabre scene, it comes alive, ironically, in a way that perhaps not the tersest of journalistic reports could have.
The rest of the novel, however, adds only a thin layer of fiction to the grim realities of Kashmir in 1993, the period when it was, arguably, passing through one of its worst phases. Perhaps it is axiomatic that political fiction must take sides, and Waheed is no exception in showing his solidarity with the people of Kashmir against the forces of both New Delhi and Islamabad. However, fiction also needs characters who are more than embodiments of a single identity—in this case, the almost clichéd phrase “Kashmiri youth” springs to mind far too readily.
A troubled paradise: The Dal Lake in Srinagar. (Javedg Shah/Mint)
Waheed writes with both passion and tenderness, sometimes overwriting as a result—what should have been taut becomes a little too emotional—and the story of the simpleton whose friends went across the LoC to train for a fight that he himself also longed to be part of, but was not accepted into, is a moving one. But at no point do the conflicts within the nameless young man—is he meant to be Kashmir’s everyman?—rise above the typical pressures as seen through the journalist’s fact-seeking eye.
Compared to the blend of distinctive characterization, uniqueness of inner conflict and juxtaposition of the larger political landscape in novels such as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon or Samaresh Basu’s Mahakaal-er Rather Ghora (The Horsemen of Eternity’s Chariot), the mix in Waheed’s debut is a little too blandly factual. And yet the wounds of Kashmir bleed still, which makes his novel worth reading. For, as fact or as fiction, this is a story that needs to be told again and again.
Across the border among Pakistan’s novelists, the despair at a promise gone awry, at hope destroyed, at a destiny so grotesquely unfulfilled, is as strong as in Kashmir. And perhaps the novel is proving to be the intermediate step between journalism and history. Just as a certain distance in time was necessary to produce the latest novel about Kashmir, so too did the passage of three decades between the action and the writing prove vital for Shehryar Fazli’s Invitation. Since comparisons with Waheed are inevitable if only because both are first-time novelists, it must be said that Fazli’s is a decidedly more assured voice.
The Collaborator: By Mirza Waheed, Penguin/Viking, 308 pages, Rs499.
Invitation is that rare breed of English writing from the subcontinent—genuine noir work. The seamy underbelly of Karachi is both the setting and the metaphor for Pakistan of 1970, just before and after the general election that was designed to take power from the army and hand it back to a democratically elected government. The political presence is a palpable one in this story of Shahbaz, who is back from Paris after 19 years to prevent the sale of an orchard that belongs to the family. But it is never the point of the story, or the raison d’ etre of the characters, who nevertheless find themselves thoroughly involved in modes ranging from passive compliance to active conspiring.
The conflict over the orchard, occupied by squatters, may or may not be a metaphor for the battle in what was still West Pakistan over what to do with the aspirations of independence in what was then East Pakistan. But Fazli tells a sprawling story populated by opium, dilapidated hotels and hovels, loveless coupling, physical ugliness, unpleasant behaviour, body odour, cabarets, corruption and bootlegged whisky—a heady cocktail of darkness that conveys the murkiness of a nation’s fabric. A real history of Pakistan oozes from its pores, one where the lives of people intersect with larger, political events, but also remain in their own petty trajectories of survival.
It is a strangely fascinating story, as all noir is, both attracting and repelling at once, the lure of the festering pustule on the skin. What Invitation proves, of course, is that the canon of gritty writing in Pakistan is getting better with every passing novel—building on the works of Mohammed Hanif, Nadeem Aslam and Kamila Shamsie, for instance.
Both in Kashmir and in Pakistan, instability, violence, uncertainty and insecurity have lent an urgency to fiction that English writing from elsewhere in the subcontinent definitely lacks. Perhaps the upwardly mobile economy that much of India aspires to becoming poses the kind of questions of survival that make for clever curriculum vitaes and statements of purpose, not of throbbing, driving, storytelling. The tragedy is that it needed death and destruction—of lives, hearts and dreams—to produce this literature.
Arunava Sinha is currently translating works of political fiction by Samaresh Basu and Samaresh Majumdar.
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