Who does a novel belong to? To the writer, who labors over it in loneliness? Or, to the reader who comes to it with his own world? Can a novel belong to an nation that has stammered and lisped its agonies for decades and finds the novel’s murderous landscape as its very own? It seemed so at Kashmir’s first book launch and reading when Mirza Waheed read passages from his novel, The Collaborator. It was as if the novel belonged to everyone who had come there.
On a cold afternoon in Srinagar, Mirza’s measured voice floated in the silent hall packed with people as he recited the first chapter of his novel. For Mirza, it was an emotional day. “I had told my publisher that whatever you do for promotion of the book, I will do the novel’s maiden reading at home.” It was the reading at home and the lines between fiction and non-fiction blurred completely. Mirza might have conjured up the characters for his debut novel far away ‘in a Kashmiri corner of his London home’ but in Kashmir, his character’s were more than real. People greeted the passages with silence, tears and laughter. The listeners had lived what Mirza had written and almost everyone knew what he was talking about. They walked through the luminous liquid blue corridors conspired by the mountains in Waheed’s novel and stumbled over the elaborate litter of dead boys. Some of the people listening might have even known some of the dead.
That is why at a certain point during the reading, most of the people had their heads down and many were wiping off their tears. The boys that had been lost in the forgetful nooks of memory came alive as ghosts in the room when Mirza described the dead bodies at LOC. All Kashmiris have seen dead bodies, some only parts. A retired engineer sitting in the back row stood up sobbing and urged Mirza to stop. “Please, please, we can’t take it anymore. We can all read it individually, but it is too poignant for collective reading,” he said in a sobbing voice. But Mirza, after apologizing to the old man, finished the passage and when he stopped, even the applause was shrouded in silence.
Mirza was introduced by fellow Kashmir author and journalist, Basharat Peer, who also moderated the Q & A session.Between the readings, Mirza said that as a child he had been delusional to think that he would one day write a novel and today his delusions had come true. But on a more serious note, Mirza suggested that it was the lack of a Kashmiri narrative between several contesting narratives that helped him write the novel. “People from outside used to come and tell us who we are. They used to analyze us and even tell us what we think. I have serious problems with that literature and couldn’t go beyond a few pages of Lawrence’s, “Valley of Kashmir” finding it outrageously racist,” Mirza said.
The mood in the room lifted with a passage in which the narrator describes a distinct crackdown in his village where the Governor, ‘the King of Curfew visits, himself’. “But an even bigger surprise had been kept for the last: the Minister of Sport, the man who had been replaced by the Governor as the ruler of Kashmir, walked at the back, his black Karakuli towering above everyone else. The burly politico walked like an awkward giant, his whopping cherubic cheeks shaking like meat hung from a butchers hook.” Mirza had yet to finish his sentence when the whole room burst into laughter, heads were thrown back and even a few arms went flailing up. For them, the Minister of Sport was more than a imaginary character and they loved Mirza’s fictitious description of the real.
Mirza, half smiling, went back to the beginning of his book to read out that the book was a work of fiction and all the characters were author’s imagination. “I have a son. And I don’t want to be seditioned (booked for sedition).”
For a moment, the room looked like Bakhtain’s Carnival- reputations tossed up and then down- and people laughing around a fire in cold room.