The Collaborator

01 February, 2011

Kashmir in the 1990s: anonymous burials, real and fake encounters, ID card terror, the fatal exodus of young men to Pakistan. The war has reached the border village of Nowgam and its headman’s son is forced to become an unwilling collaborator when his father chooses to stay behind instead of escaping to relative safety. For it is this teenage boy’s lot to count the casualties of conflict, under the direction of a drunken Indian army captain—a job that forces him to confront the corpses of his friends both in his dreams and, potentially, in a terrible reality. Heart-wrenching and searingly honest, Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator is the first novel to tell the tale of a brutalised Kashmir. The Caravan gives you an exclusive preview.

I SAW MY FIRST DEAD BODY, before the population of dead bodies I deal with now, in that breezeless dry summer of last year. The fact that it was someone I knew made it more momentous, more shocking somehow. After the brief encounter with the curfew mothers, Baba suddenly seemed older. His beard appeared tired and elderly, rather than well trimmed and prosperous. He dressed more untidily, his large bearing somewhat unkempt, and his temper was turning jittery too. As usual, he took out most of his anger on his hookah; the pouches I brought from Noor Khan got heavier and heavier. For the first time ever, he seemed uncertain, not in control of things. He was used to order—things around him moved more or less according to his wishes, not just inside his own house but outside, in the village as well. People came to him for advice, loans, judgements, and he relished every bit of it. Ever since I could remember, I’d seen Baba like that—corner seat in the living room, two round cushions squashed behind him, small trunk by the window sill, and a pregnant-looking copper hookah in front of him, always, like another character in the room. But now, things seemed to be slipping from his hands, it was beyond his grasp.

He was losing his village, his people—even I could see that. Although I’m not too sure if even I could sense it fully then, that this was the beginning of the end. The incident with Gul Khan’s older brother, Farooq, was the first. What followed thereafter didn’t let up until it brought the end: the cessation of life as we knew it, as Baba knew it, as his elders had imagined and created in the small village in its tiny beginnings in 1947, a year of partitions and pogroms and general ruination. The discreet border hamlet nestled in the hills was about to end its brief life as a community.

The day the curfew women had come begging, Baba had emptied Noor Khan’s shop of all its milk-powder tins and handed them to each of the women and blessed them, saying, ‘Have faith in Allahtaala, He will make it easy soon, God bless you, it’s just a test, it will pass, all of us face a test at some point or other in life.’ And they had walked off in the same manner as they had appeared in the street, with the same young woman leading them out. Baba and I had looked at their receding forms and then gone home together. He kept nodding his head and sighing all the way home. It was a Saturday and I assume all of us spent the rest of the day, and the next, thinking about the women. Who were they, where had they come from, why, how? Only Noor and I discussed it at some length the next day. Noor said they must have been sent by their men, because it would have been far more dangerous for them to be searching for food, amidst the new Governor’s curfew. I wondered if perhaps they didn’t have husbands any more. Noor said that wasn’t possible.

THE ARMY JEEPS ARRIVED on a Monday morning, screeching through mini storms of dust, and sending vagabond hens fluttering high in the air. It was two weeks after the women had come and gone. A full caravan of vehicles, with LMG-mounted windowless jeeps at the front and a menacing, dark grey tank-like truck at the rear. We’d surely become news now. Noor had been right: how long could it stay hidden? After all, four of our boys had left to become militants, to wage war against the mighty Indian Army, four boys, and that too from a small, nondescript village near the LoC, under the very nose of the Bharti Fauj.

I’d come to see Noor a little early that day, and had just opened the ledger and drawn a bold line under the Choudharys’ previous monthly total—Rs170 in all, they were poor indeed—and started a fresh page for them, when we heard an approaching grunt and hum, and soon, too soon, we saw the green front of a customized army Gypsy hurtling on to the street.

There were 11 Gypsies in all, green and gleaming, some of them open-topped with black-cat commandos standing by the side bars with their machine guns hanging loose, toy-like, from their shoulders. The guns were smallish, metal grey, and seemed very sophisticated—I had never seen such weapons in my life, not even on TV. The men wore new dark green uniforms, overalls, and had tied their black scarves in a way that made the fabric form tight skullcaps on their heads, as the rest of the material flew about behind their backs. From a distance, from the angle we were looking from, they looked like a pack of animals—creatures different from ordinary people. At last I understood the name they had been given: black cats. They stopped at the mouth of the small lane leading to Gul Khan’s house on the left of the street, parked their vehicles, criss-crossed on either side, and rushed in quickly—most of them—leaving only a handful behind. Dust from the street swayed upwards in short-lived clouds. We could hear the drum of hurried  footsteps. The house stood there, imposing, even from behind the thick wall of willows, poplars and keekars lining their front courtyard. There was another rude flurry of steps and then I heard three or four loud quick blows. I guessed they were tearing the main door off its hinges. It first creaked mournfully, then cracked, and then fell with a sharp, painful sound. Birds flapped away.

For the next two or three minutes, Noor and I just heard screaming and shouting from the house. A low, stretched wail emerged from behind the trees. We stood nailed to a spot in front of the shop; the occupants of one of the machine-gun-mounted vehicles watched us from a distance as they closed off the lane with their backs towards it, their eyes gazing towards the shopfront and the street beyond. I felt weak. The shouting became more frantic now, as if desperate to stop something, but, at the same time, as if also aware of its own inefficacy in the face of inevitable disaster. Noor looked terrified. And soon, we saw the commandos bring someone out, with coils of rope tied around his neck and arms. His face was covered and he was stuttering forward. The wailing picked up after a brief hiatus. For the tiniest of moments, I hoped it might be Gul himself brought out of long hiding in his own house. But it was Gul’s brother instead, his big brother Farooq, the bully of our childhood, the peevish inquisitor of his younger brother; even though he was covered with a sack-like tunic over his head it was unmistakably him. It happened so quickly. Almost without drama, except for the low crying coming out of the house. They hurled him into one of the Gypsies in the middle, waited for the men who had taken positions at the mouth of the street to jump into their respective jeeps, and then screeched off immediately, as quickly as they had appeared, once again sending a few hens off into laborious flight. We had no time to take it all in. Gul’s mother came out with hands raised to the skies, crying. She was a short, stocky woman and, looking into the receding vehicles, gave a piercing cry beckoning them to stop. Gul’s father, Sharafat Khan, stood motionless near her, gazing at the storm of dust from the departing military vehicles. Noor Khan turned to me. He looked sick.

“What can I do, Chacha?” I swallowed and somehow managed to pick myself up from the shop floor and jumped into my nylon slippers. I walked towards Farooq’s stunned father and drew close to him, but not too close. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to run to Baba, to report what had just happened, to ask him if he could do something, anything, and was still trying to make up my mind and will some life into my senseless knees, when he himself appeared from the other end of the street along with Lassa Kaka.

Farooq had been taken.

No one, not even the Sarpanch himself, knew what to say, what to make of this, what to do about it, what to do about anything. Nowgam had become known, and we hadn’t realized it until that moment. Ferocious-looking military men had arrived and taken one of us with them. A few weeks earlier, when Noor Khan had tried to convince me of some mysterious nocturnal activity in the area, I had been sceptical. He had believed there was traffic through the street at night. He had heard vehicles, he said, and seen traces of sand and red brick dust here and there in the mornings until it disappeared as the day progressed.

Later, it became known that the Army had briefly questioned Farooq’s parents, before taking their older son into a separate room and shouting at him—“You want Azadi, right? We will give you Azadi, come with us, we’ll give it you!”—and then re-emerging with him bound in ropes and a black sack thrown over his head. I felt guilty for ever having made fun of him.

FAROOQ RETURNED AFTER THREE WEEKS. Tortured, he became a tourist site. Everyone came to see him. I never talked to him about his stay with the Army, but theories abounded. Some people said he was not harmed at all and he readily gave all the information about Gul and the others, and that’s why he was let off so soon. Others said he was tortured day and night by Kashmiri Pandit police officers, bent on revenge after their tragic exodus from the valley, and he had no choice but to tell them everything he knew. (What did he know?) Some even elaborated on the methods of torture used on Farooq Khan. He was made to pee on an electric heater while they threw ice-cold water over him; they pierced a red-hot knitting needle through his penis and then gave him electric shocks; they stuffed a bamboo cane with hot chilli powder and thrust it up his anus and then broke the cane; they made him drink their collective urine after keeping him thirsty for days; they ran a cricket roller over his feet and knees; no, they let loose their big dogs on him and that was the point when he broke, for he had always been scared of dogs . . . At the time I had no way of confirming if he had suffered in this way—ways which had become lore in all of Kashmir. I know now, but I felt terribly, terribly sorry for Farooq. Guilty even. He looked broken, his voice had changed; he spoke like a small girl now, in a low, squeaky whimper. The man who would walk through the village with a cassette player around his neck, often singing along loudly in his rakish manner to his favourite songs from the film Qurbani, now spoke in an almost-inaudible low voice. I went to visit him with Noor Khan one Sunday afternoon but couldn’t manage to say a single word.

“How are you doing? I hear you’re going to college; very good thing you have done, really,” he said to me, smiling meekly from his mattress. There was a stink to him, or to the mattress, or to the whole room. Without our asking, or indicating in any manner that we were curious, he lifted his kurta up and showed us the area above his groin. There were small, etched black pits all over his pubic area.

I didn’t know what to say. He just kept holding his kurta up and stared casually at the ceiling. I guess he had become so used to showing his bruises and injuries that he didn’t wait for us to ask. Just get it over with, he must have thought. “You want to see what they did behind . . . ?” he whispered, almost with anticipation.

I couldn’t say yes, I couldn’t say no.

Noor Khan intervened quickly and said, “No, no, beta, it’s all right, we know, we know, your father has told me everything. You don’t worry, son, it will all be fine, just takes time.” As if he knew all about third-degree interrogation methods, their after-effects and how long they took to heal. “Just take lots of rest—and anything you need from the shop, please send someone, all right?”

Compounder Chechi came and gave him penicillin injections. I looked at the kehwa-coloured liquid swinging inside the slender glass vial as he broke its tip against the edge of the tobacco box lying nearby. Noor Khan took out an envelope and left it by the mattress. Later, he told me it contained some money; he’d heard that Gul’s father had had to spend every single penny he had to get Farooq out.

Does that happen?

Of course, anything can happen now.

For three weeks, Gul’s house became a shrine. Every day somebody came to visit, to see the boy returned from army detention, to see what had happened to him, to check his torture marks, and then to sigh loudly and wish him all the best of health, while also secretly thanking God, I guessed, that it hadn’t been their son. The only person who didn’t visit, or the person I noticed by his complete absence, was Hussain’s abba. People from Farooq’s extended clan spread as far as Rajouri near Jammu—even they came to see him, but Khadim Hussain didn’t. The azans had dried up too.

While Farooq was home—and he didn’t step out of the house even once after he was released—it gave an air of excitement to the streets. Yes, people talked about the horror and terror of having to go through torture, and prayed nobody would have to meet such a fate again, but something about having a young man of theirs taken and returned in a compromised state brought some kind of self-recognition as well: We too are a part of it all.

I never saw Farooq walk after that.

AT HOME BABA, as I said, pondered endlessly, and smoked. Occasionally, he eyed me with some kind of an inquisition. See what happens.One night, after we had eaten and Baba had left the kitchen to warm up his hookah, Ma came to sit beside me. She just sat there for a long, long time. We were both silent. Then she slowly ruffled my hair and hugged me, quickly. “Would you like me to make some tea? I won’t put too much milk in it, all right?” she said, gently touching my hair again.

“Okay, Ma. Why don’t you have a cup too . . . ?”

“Yes, yes, me too . . .” She paused now, in that familiar manner of hers when she has something else on her mind. “I was thinking, beta, that maybe you shouldn’t stay up so late. I know you have to study, but you know, Baba was saying . . .” She paused again to look at me.

I decided not to betray any signs of irritation, “What was Baba saying, Ma?”

“Oh, nothing . . . Nothing much . . . He was just, he was just saying that maybe it’s not very safe having your room lit up like that all night.”

Why didn’t he say so himself ? Are you now going to send me messages through Ma? What have I done, Baba?

“He’s just concerned, beta, don’t get him wrong, he was just saying people could be wandering around at night; you know how it is these days, and if they see your room all bright . . . ? That’s all.”

Ma grabbed the kerosene stove by its twiggy brass legs and pumped life into it with a few quick shoves of the well-greased pump. The thing soon glowed with an arc of orange and blue light. Who the hell was going to circle our house in this wilderness at night, looking for a candlelit room?

“No, Ma, no, I understand. You’re right, it is not very safe. You don’t worry, hmm, what I’ll do is cover the window towards the mountain with that thick blanket Baba bought for me last year, and I’ll not study until too late, all right?”

She smiled from her chowki and pumped up the kerosene stove again, this time to a buzzing cusp of azure. Her face glowed white in the stove’s light. Ma looked pretty, as always, cheeks blushed red with regular work, two long braids dancing about on her back, and the sleeves of her pheran rolled up to reveal her strong, round arms.

She had started spending more and more time with me now, and checked with me every time I left the house. Farooq’s state, and fate perhaps, hung heavily in the crisp frown lines on her otherwise clear forehead. She was scared. And the truth is, I was very scared too. ‘You are not going anywhere else, beta, other than the shop, right?’ She also hugged me more often in those days, fed me more, made me an extra choutt for breakfast, waited for me on the balcony at the end of the day and beamed on my return from Noor’s shop, or when I’d just been hanging around the street, down in the village, alone, or sometimes hopelessly trying to chat with young kids.

Every time I left, though, she sighed a sad, suppressed sigh. Months ago, when Hussain had left, I had stayed in the house for more than a week, not even stepping out once. I had then gradually started going out again, and my parents lived with it. That’s how it had worked out then, and that’s how it continued after Farooq’s captivity and subsequent release as a living martyr. People visited him for days, just like you visit someone who returns after the Hajj.

But that was not all.

(Excerpted from The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed, forthcoming from Penguin Books India.)