Recalling the horrors of life amid thudding boots and combing ops
Living in a militarised conflict zone, listening to the heavy thudding of army boots every day, putting up with curfews and combing operations, the humiliation of being lined up at a ground for the prying eyes of masked informers riding military jeeps and, worst of all, having to see bloodied bodies scattered around as part of your daily life, the mental scars left will never go away – one would either be engulfed by the flames of vengeance and go down an ugly path or perhaps retaining their sanity turn into a novelist.
And the latter is the case with Mirza Waheed, the author of novels ‘The Collaborator’ and ‘The Book of Gold Leaves’, who grew up in the city of Srinagar in the Indian-held Kashmir and now lives in London.
The author, who also writes for the BBC, the Guardian, Granta, Guernica, Al Jazeera English and The New York Times, spoke at a session of the Karachi Literature Festival 2017 on Saturday titled ‘Of Love in a Place of War’, moderated by author Mohammed Hanif of the ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ and ‘Our Lady of Alice Bhatti’ fame.
Both of Waheed’s novels are based on life in Kashmir; his first novel ‘The Collaborator’, in his own words, focusing more on the conflict and bitterness than his second work ‘The Book of Gold Leaves’, which is more of a Romeo and Juliet affair until the harsh realities of the valley kick into its plot.
“The cinematic representation of Kashmir is probably of the worst kind,” said Waheed. “All you see as a young person is Sharmila Tagore on a shikara [a wooden boat found on Dal Lake and other water bodies of Srinagar] or Shammi Kapoor singing wonderful songs. So they used Kashmir as a prop for decades.”
Speaking on militancy, Waheed said the problem stemmed from what young people saw in their surroundings and personally experienced. He added that usually the step towards that path was triggered by impulse and it was not well-thought-out decision. “When the playground you play cricket in turns into a graveyard, some people can’t deal with that. You have crackdowns and curfews that last not days or weeks, but months.”
He noted that when young people find themselves in such a situation, they would respond by taking violent actions.
Waheed’s decision to write too was motivated by a single moment in his life in Srinagar, when instead of a ground the locals were told to gather inside the premises of a hospital. There, he saw the bodies of a few men, probably militants killed in battle. One of them was still alive and moving. Waheed is not sure whether the dying man was asking for water or not, but that is what he made of it. That singular event remained stuck in his mind. The images of that day continued haunting him, compelling him at last to start penning down his first novel.
Hanif and Waheed also spoke about the Indian army using pellet guns as a riot control measure in Kashmir last year, causing eye injuries to hundreds of protesters.
“This doesn’t happen in the civilised world. I had never heard of people being blinded in this manner anywhere,” noted Hanif. “We had heard stories of prisoners being blinded using hot needles on the orders of Mughal emperors, but nothing like this.”
Waheed actually wrote an essay on the subject, wherein he mentioned that 972 people had suffered eye injuries because of the use of pellet guns by Indian forces.
“These pellets are used to hunt birds. And using them on people, that upset me a lot… a lot,” said Waheed, who, visibly distressed after recalling those atrocities, immediately gulped down some water to be able to speak further.