The Collaborator, By Mirza Waheed

Taking to the hills with the lost boys of Kashmir

Kashmir is one of India's most spectacular regions, a place of soaring mountains and sylvan valleys.

It is also the site of a bloody conflict that has ebbed and flowed for decades. The Indian army is fighting an insurgency with sectarian overtones (many Kashmiris are Muslims), allegedly sponsored by Pakistan. Since 1989, an estimated 70,000 people have been killed and around 8,000 have disappeared.

Mirza Waheed's debut novel is set in the early 1990s in the village of Nowgam, high up against the border passes. The unnamed narrator is the village headman's 17-year-old son. He used to play cricket and swim in nearby water meadows with four close friends. Now, ever since a florid mullah appeared and radicalised the villagers, his pals have all slipped away into Pakistan to take up arms. It is a scene that is being repeated all over Kashmir, with thousands of boys trekking over the mountains to join the uprising.

The narrator's honour has departed along with his friends, because Captain Kadian, the head of the local Indian forces, has forced him into working for the army. He must go out into those same meadows to identify guerillas the army has killed and dumped there. At an age at which he should be preparing for adulthood, he is trapped in scenes from a horror film, rooting through corpses for documentation. Every day, he fears he will find his friends among the bodies. Yet his oppression has a human face: Captain Kadian. Like the narrator's vanished friend Hussain, Kadian favours the singer Mohammed Rafi; he is lonely away from home and overindulges in whisky, hectoring the boy when drunk.

Waheed methodically builds an atmosphere of menace and despair, all the while interleaving elegiac description. His writing is often excellent. The boys jump into a river, "splashing its cool water into the sky and gazing at the pearls that would come down mixed with the sharp rays of a July sun". Ever present are the mountains: "These undulating rows of peaks, some shining, some white, some brown, like layers of piled-up fabrics."

This is the second recent novel about the Kashmir conflict, the first being Jaspreet Singh's Chef. Chef is shorter, with a sombre narrative offset by accounts of sublime cuisine, where The Collaborator is weightier, with less provender to lighten the load. Nonetheless, food does feature. Samovars of salt tea, buffalo cheese, jaggery, and the saffron and almond drink kehwa, are all present in lyrical accounts of the villagers' lives, prominent among them scenes of the narrator's father purging his melancholy in lengthy sessions with his hookah.

Regrettably, like the Bollywood songs it references along the way, The Collaborator is frequently histrionic and overwrought, and there is a suspicion that, in a similar fashion to his narrator, Waheed has been overwhelmed by his tragic subject matter. At the core of the story is the narrator's agonisingly protracted dilemma over whether to cross the border to join his friends in the training camps or to stay put with his parents. Whether his indecision is due to weakness of character or a realistic grasp of the insurgency's futility remains unclear, but stasis comes to dominate the novel, which would benefit from cutting. Even so, this funereal tale of the annihilation of a community possesses a disturbing power that is both lingering and profound.