Mirza Waheed’s second novel, in the finest romantic tradition, depicts love amidst conflict in Kashmir
Early in journalist Mirza Waheed’s second novel, there is a reference to Kashmir in the imagination of Hindi cinema, a place where couples in shikaras recline against cushions as the tender verses of a song spool out over a misty lake. As the narrative unfolds, it is this old-fashioned sensibility that Waheed seems to look to recapture.
Set in war-torn Kashmir, like his debut The Collaborator, the novel begins with Roohi, a beautiful Sunni woman, noticing a young man in the courtyard of a Sufi shrine opposite her house. Roohi, we are told, ‘wants a love story’; the man is Faiz, the youngest son in a formerly wealthy Shia family, who has turned away from the ‘neat school, college, government- job ladder’ and instead paints pencil boxes for a living, to contribute to the dwindling household income. A practitioner of the ancient papier-mâché art of naqashi, he also has intricate plans for a mysterious painting he hopes will be his life’s great work. The story of the romance between Faiz and Roohi is in some ways conventional: the danger of parental opposition thrums in the background, secret assignations are arranged with the help of a young sibling, letters are written, and moments are snatched among sacks of incense sticks in the cellar under the shrine. But then there are separations and, later, a surprising development.
The real power of this novel, however, lies in the shifts that underlie the tale of the two young lovers— the transformation of Kashmir and, more particularly, the neighbourhoods of Srinagar, into a desperate battleground. Dozens of bunkers and checkpoints appear on maps of the city; in gardens, the sound of machine gun fire replaces birdsong; soldiers occupy schools, turning their latticed windows into sandbag embankments; corpses float past in lakes and canals. There is a continuous, highly effective sense of trauma as these events surface in a world where ‘a Persian couplet is intertwined with a forest vine’. In one of the most arresting passages in the book, Roohi walks fully clothed down the steps of the ghat and into the Jhelum. Her freedom of movement has been further restricted by the deteriorating situation and she is conscious that vigilante boys may begin to dictate to her the kind of veil she must wear. Her swim is a compulsion and a quest. She knows she will return home but in the moments that she allows herself to drift downstream, the city and the world beyond it open up to her, for once revealing endless possibilities.
As men disappear from the streets into training camps over the border and the Indian Army’s interrogation chambers, the conflict continues to reverberate around the city in Waheed’s striking prose. For the first time, Faiz’s Pandit neighbours begin to contemplate life away from the Valley. There is escalating anxiety within the family of a bureaucrat who has complied with orders from his seniors. Was he really unaware that his cooperation would be seen as an act of collaboration and betrayal or was this wilful blindness?
Waheed skilfully creates richly textured scenes steeped in melancholy. From copper plates that are edged with calligraphy to men who smoke their cigarettes in halves, from the ‘Love is Pain’ signs on autorickshaws to the picture of the Almond Garden on a bank calendar, his eye for detail is impeccable. Faiz’s craft is also beautifully rendered: when painting a night sky, he ‘washes his brush for every new star’.
The novel presents, however, the odd frustration too. At times there is a forced tenor to the dialogue, and occasionally we are led to the verge of a complexity that threatens to detonate on the page but then goes no further. For instance, there is a prickly delicacy on display in the conversations between Major Sumit Kumar, who is in charge of the soldiers occupying the school, and its principal. We are offered a tantalising glimpse into the mind of a man who has become aware of his power: ‘Major Sumit Kumar feels both shame and anger… a darker voice says he could easily have this woman thrown out, barred from the building… have her arrested.’ But here the exploration stops, though their conversations continue.
The Book of Gold Leaves offers a delicate portrait of the complexities faced by a community under siege. A sense of despair, rage and tremendous waste rises through its accumulation of fine details—what it leaves us with is a strong impression of the few ways in which attempts at happiness can be seized in the darkest circumstances.