Sunday, January 30, 2011

Less Novel, More Social Document

This appeared in today's DNA.


There are two ways to read Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator. The first, as a social document throwing light on the tribulations of those in Kashmir from the early 1990s; and the second, as a novel based on the same material. The first reading yields a moving account of the brutal uprooting of a way of life with the coming of suspicion and atrocity, reminiscent of Basharat Peer’s compelling Curfewed Night. Read as a novel, however, The Collaborator is much less fulfilling.

Waheed’s debut takes us into the mind and world of a 19-year old Kashmiri narrator, son of the headman of his village on the Indian side of the Line of Control. His friends, along with most young men of the area, have fled across the border, and he continually speculates on whether they will return, whether they’re in a training camp, and whether their love of music and cricket will have been subsumed by militant activity.

The narrative circles between the narrator’s “then and now”, starting with his taking up an assignment by Captain Kadian, the area’s army officer. He’s told to venture into disputed territory, count the bodies of those shot while crossing over, and recover ID cards, arms and ammunition. Though horrified by this task, he carries it out with regularity, and Waheed provides nightmarish descriptions of the slaughter encountered as the narrator wonders who he has become: “The armed caretaker of the unknown dead, the chowkidar of my own dead ilk, the sole witness to a machine of carnage or a shameless forager of friends’ remains, a petty ID-card thief, or the grim reaper?”

The contrast between an Edenic time spent with friends and the hellish present is brought out time and again; this is a novel painted in Manichean black-and-white. As a result, characterisation suffers -- Captain Kadian, in particular, is a caricature of a hard-drinking, abuse-spewing army man. Then, there’s the all-too-common problem of the Sagging Middle: between the set-up and the drawn-out denouement, there are many passages that impede momentum. There’s even an unconvincing, half-hearted love interest.  Waheed’s prose is charged and urgent, but often becomes overwrought, sometimes stressing the obvious: “Among other things, the Line of Control also curtailed bonding of the blood, prevented contact between brothers and sisters, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, as if it were a sin.”

Where The Collaborator scores, however, is in its descriptions of the village’s daily activities that are so rudely sundered by searches, interrogations and curfews. In Waheed’s hands, many such scenes are made resonant. Take this one, for example: “What the papers said was entirely different from the evening Doordarshan news that Baba and I watched on our wood-encased, shuttered Weston TV, so I always waited for the papers, which sometimes took all day to get to us, or just tuned in, with Baba again, to the crackling BBC news on his leather-bound Philips Jai Jawan transistor.” There are other well-rendered episodes too, such as the traumatic account of the torture and subsequent fate of the elder brother of one of the village youths who has gone missing.

A challenging, but necessary, task when composing a novel based on incidents that one is close to is to step back and disengage in order to successfully reshape and fictionalise the material. Especially so if the incidents happen to be harrowing. This is a hurdle that The Collector doesn’t quite overcome; yet, it deserves to be read as an on-ground account of what the people of Kashmir have gone through.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Sterling Testimonial

This appeared in today's The Indian Express


It’s been said that a book’s style and its content are two sides of the same coin. It’s a pleasure, then, to come across a work that so completely exemplifies this. Pereira Maintains, written by Antonio Tabucchi in 1994, translated by Patrick Creagh in 1995 and now re-issued by Canongate, is a novella that owes much of its haunting power to its form: that of a testimony. But who is narrating this testimony, and to whom? This ambiguity, never fully resolved, pervades the book, especially its ending.  Indeed, the word “maintains” – earlier translated as “declares” – tolls throughout the work like a bell.

Pereira Maintains is set in Lisbon in the summer of 1938, when the spectre of fascism is stalking the continent. The city is tense because of the death of a labourer, a member of the Socialist Party, at the hands of the police. As we’re told, “the country was gagged, it had no choice, and meanwhile people were dying and the police had things all their own way”.  The eponymous Pereira, a portly, middle-aged widower, editor of the culture page of Lisboa, a faint-hearted evening paper, muses: “This City reeks of death, the whole of Europe reeks of death”.

Pereira, feasting on omelettes washed down by sweet lemonade, seems content to fill pages with translations of 19th century French authors until he meets Monteiro Rossi, a radical youth, and his girlfriend Marta. Almost against his will, he begins to support them by commissioning articles as well as with small sums of money. Monteiro and Marta, engaged in anti-authoritarian activity, continue to cast their spell on Pereira, making him wonder whether his life until now has had any meaning. Bit by bit, his conscience stirs until he is compelled to act; the dramatic ending unspools like the finale of a Costa Gavras film.

The book is rife with ironies and dualities. At one point, to justify Lisboa’s turning a blind eye to the country’s condition, Pereira says, “We are a free and independent paper and do not wish to meddle in politics”. Tabucchi also takes care to work in oppositions: between the resigned Pereira and the radical Monteiro; between Pereira’s priest and his doctor; between those who write romances and those more socially engaged. Most importantly, Tabucchi asks us to dwell on the many intersections between art and politics, on whether the former should exist separate from the latter.

At one point, Pereira recalls his uncle saying, “Philosophy appears to concern itself only with the truth, but perhaps expresses only fantasies, while literature appears to concern itself with only fantasies, but perhaps it expresses the truth”. Pereira Maintains expresses the truth, as Mohsin Hamid writes in his introduction, by conjuring “out of its small hat a vast and touching sense of the humane”. Remarkably, it does all this in less than 200 pages.