A Q&A with Celebrated Kashmiri-British Author, Mirza Waheed on His International Bestseller “The Collaborator” - AmNews Curtain Raiser


Tuesday, June 4, 2024

A Q&A with Celebrated Kashmiri-British Author, Mirza Waheed on His International Bestseller “The Collaborator”

Courtesy of Mulberry Films, LLC

“The Collaborator” 

Now Adapted as a Major Motion Picture 

Acclaimed Indian Kashmiri-British author Mirza Waheed, who has written award-winning and critically praised novels such as his debut “The Collaborator”, and “The Book of Gold Leaves” and “Tell Her Everything”, is being discussed frequently these days for his 2011 debut novel, which has been adapted for the screen by the same name as a major motion picture.

An international bestseller and a finalist for the Guardian First Book Award and India’s Shakti Bhatt Prize, “The Collaborator” is based on the decades of conflict between India and Pakistan on the border dispute issue of the political state of Kashmir. Set in the early 1990s on the Indian side of the Line of Control that separates India Kashmir from Pakistan Kashmir, the story is a first-person account of a young man – or “The Boy” as he’s referred to in the book – who is forced to work with the Indian army by counting the number of dead militants killed in encounters with the Indian army. Waheed, born and raised in Srinagar, Kashmir, and now lives in London, received international applause from critics for his debut novel’s storytelling prowess. The Guardian described “The Collaborator” as “Devastating…haunting…gripping in its narrative drama.”

The feature film adaptation - readying for its film festival run – is written by Travis Hodgkins (American Underdog) who has also directed the film, and is produced by Rashaana Shah (American Underdog, IFC's Bollywood Hero) and Cristy Coors Beasley (American Underdog, The Westsiders, Lonelygirl15). It stars well-known British-born actor Rudi Dharmalingam (The Lazarus Project, Wakefield), who is of Indian-Trinidadian and Sri Lankan heritage, veteran Bollywood actor Vikram Kapadia (Kapoor & Sons, Made in Heaven), and rising actor Nikhil Singh Rai, who is first generation British-Indian.

Waheed, who has also written for publications such as The New York Times, Al Jazeera English, and the BBC, recently spoke to New York Amsterdam News about the origins of his debut novel, the feature adaptation, and what inspires him as a writer. 

Amsterdam News: Your debut Novel “The Collaborator”, is a first-person account based on the 1990 insurgence in Kashmir along the line of control that separates India Kashmir and Pakistan Kashmir – a result of the mass uprising of the Kashmiri people at the time. What or who influenced you to embark on writing “The Collaborator” and what was your process as a first-time novelist to weave it into a book?

Mirza Waheed: When I was a teenager in Kashmir, the Indian armed forces would often lay siege to entire neighborhoods as part of their operations to apprehend militants. It was a common thing in those days and people suffered enormously. The army would round up all the men and boys and force them to sit in the open for entire days while they conducted house-to-house searches. They would then make us walk past army vehicles in which a masked informer sat. If the informer signaled to the army officer next to him, you would be instantly taken away. Many men disappeared like that and some never came back. Like all boys of my age and above, I was caught in these sieges and identity parades a few times. Some of it no doubt influenced the novel, in particular, those older men sitting on their haunches on the ground waiting to be allowed to go home, dreading the moment when a son or brother or cousin might be whisked away. Those old men, including my father for whom every moment, as I went for my turn before the masked informer, must have been limitlessly agonizing. And the women waiting at home, including my mother, counting the men as they came back in the evening – all these people and their unforgettable faces probably influenced the novel. The germ of an idea for the first novel had stayed with me for many years, and one winter in London I simply started writing it. My process was simple: sit down and write until it’s done. I wrote about three drafts over two years and then made some excellent edits with my editor at Penguin [publishing company]. I stayed with the premise and the structure throughout the writing of the book. 

AN: “The Collaborator” has now been adapted for the screen as a feature film by the same name by filmmaker Travis Hodgkins. What did you love about the screenplay adaptation?

MW: I loved its pace and perhaps because it’s the first time I’ve had a book adapted it was fascinating to see some of the scenes transformed for the screen. I also liked a twist the screenwriter has written but I can’t reveal what it is. I was pleased to see that the screenplay remained faithful to the core of the novel. I’m yet to see the film.

AN: Was writing “The Collaborator” a cathartic experience for you?

MW: All these years later, I’m still not sure what catharsis means for people who grow up with memories of horrific violence and its many traumas. The story of this teenage boy faced with horrifying choices, the story of friendships and love torn asunder under the boots of a military campaign, of what happens to such tender things as music and singing and beauty when war arrives at your doorstep, was the only one I wanted to write at the time. Kashmir is not one story; “The Collaborator” is just one of them. Many Kashmiri writers have written wonderful books since then, novels, memoirs, short-story collections, and non-fiction accounts – they’re all stories of what happens in places such as Kashmir. What I do know is that for me it was necessary and satisfying to write from the point of view of the people inside the war, from the perspective of the victims and the survivors.

AN: Was there any part of ‘The Boy’ – the protagonist of the story – that was you, as a younger Mirza? And why didn’t you give ‘The Boy’ a name?

MW: The part where a teenager sees corpses in front of him is the only part that is me. One of the central ideas of the novel came from a single image from my early years in Kashmir. When I was in a siege in our neighborhood, we were made to walk in file not far from the bodies of a few Kashmiri militants, boys like me, perhaps a bit older, who’d been killed the previous night. The banality of that moment, the ordinariness of that image, and the idea that we were expected to walk on and take our seats on the ground as if it were all a perfectly normal occurrence – all this stayed with me for a long time. Later, when I began thinking of all the stories I wanted to write (I had by then moved to London to work at the BBC), the image of dead young men lying on the ground like broken furniture would not let go, so I dived right in and invented the valley of yellow flowers of the novel where the young dead are strewn here and there. Then I wondered what if there’s a young man who must witness and confront this every day. Then his friends came into existence, then his Baba [father] and Ma [mother]… All novels are born from a ‘what if’, aren’t they? I saw ‘the boy’ walk, and descend into the valley and I didn’t have a name for him then but I kept writing him. Then I felt he didn’t need a name. 

AN: You have been quoted saying “I’ve been trying to bring back to life that old, unencumbered young reader who reads what absorbs him, at leisure, at ease.” What is the importance and need for young people today to pick up and read a physical book as frequently as being consumed by their phones, tablets, and other digital devices?

MW: I’d say it is as important and as wonderful as the phone. But perhaps I also want to say I don’t really think smartphones are all that evil. I mean here’s what we do: we all love our next-day delivery, and our Uber and Lyft, and we like our favorite meals delivered to the doorstep. We want free messaging and video calls, instant news and bookings and so much more…but then we also like to say, that these things are so terrible for us, what have we done! Of course, spending too much time on devices and being addicted to Instagram, TikTok or Twitter isn’t healthy at all and it certainly cuts into reading (for me listening to music become a casualty some years ago but then I recovered). So let’s just read more and keep reading all the glorious books from across the world, and the phones can stay too. The young people will be alright. Perhaps they understand the present and the future better. 

AN: What inspires you as a writer and what project(s) are you currently working on?

MW: The mad interiors of ordinary people keep my writing mind quite busy. All the beauty and the terror and the absurdity of everyday existence, really. I’ve recently finished writing a new novel, which, broadly speaking, is the story of a somewhat unconventional working-class Muslim woman from London whose son has disappeared, and who may have got into a relationship with a member of the security services. I enjoyed writing her.

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