SRINAGAR, Kashmir, in the early 1990s. A young man paints dozens of delicate naqashi papier-mache pencil boxes that he sells for export. He wants very much to spend his time painting the large canvas that he believes will be his finest work, but he knows that the once-wealthy Mir family need the money he brings in.
Faiz is a dreamer, an artist and a true romantic — one sight of a girl who “looks like lightening” and he’s lost. Luckily for him, this girl is just as much of a romantic. Roohi has been waiting for true love, for something to change her life. She has been rejecting marriage proposals and extending her college degrees as far as she can, until she and Faiz cross paths. They are both ‘good’ — dutiful, smart and beloved of their families. They both also want more — Faiz wants to create masterpieces, Roohi loves Ibne Safi’s spy novels, looking to be the detective Imran’s assistant but giving up “the idea six months later as she didn’t want to grow up to be someone’s assistant.”
They are each, in their own way, breaking away from what is expected of them, little by little. She’s Sunni, he’s Shia, but when the time comes, this does not matter the way it may have done before. Theirs is a love written in the stars, but it’s the land that dictates what will become of them.
The landscape of Kashmir in Mirza Waheed’s second novel, The Book of Gold Leaves, is swiftly changing around the two young lovers. Army barracks are being set up in the local girls’ school and frightening stories of torture and violence are becoming more and more common. Soldiers are appearing in every street and then there is the Zal, a monstrous vehicle with a “jaw-like grip” that scoops up innocents off the streets and vanishes with them. The madman who speaks the truth, a dervish who lives at the Shrine, plays the locals a cassette on which the voices of the tortured young men can be heard. Principal Shanta Koul is forced to stand by as her schoolyard is taken over by young men cleaning guns in readiness for a battle no one wants to face.
To say there is unrest is not enough. It isn’t just that the young men are disappearing and the soldiers are a visible threat; every family is forced to deal with their lives being altered and often ruined. What happens to the young women who cannot sit their exams? What happens to the young men who become militants, rebels, warriors, who have been thrust into a war they did not ask for? What about those young people who are forced into making decisions that will impact more than just their own futures?
Faiz’s elder brother encourages him to leave, afraid that Faiz will be stolen away by the Zal too. “The boys they took away had nothing to do with anything, either,” he tells him. “And even if some of them were involved, this is no way to find out. Hunted like cattle. Snared like chickens. Caged as if they were mad dogs.”
Violence is slowly becoming the norm, creeping into society, tainting even nature. Roohi explains: “On some days, I can smell fresh blood in the air, sometimes even in my food, especially at sunset. The sky across the river turns scarlet and I can smell it.”
This is the love story of Faiz and Roohi, an unabashedly romantic one. Not just the story itself is achingly romantic but so is Waheed’s prose. The Collaborator was also a beautiful, emotional and lyrical novel and The Book of Gold Leaves is even more so, almost to the point of being indulgent. This is not criticism — the beautiful, elegant indulgence of prose works because this is not just the love story of Faiz and Roohi, it is the love story of Kashmir and her people, of Srinagar and the writer. When you read about a love that strong, that deeply rooted and immediate, there is no way other than to let it wash over you. It’s obviously a love that won’t let you go. Faiz, too, wants nothing more than to be home, though Roohi begs him not to, desperate, pitiful and yet correct in her fears: “No, no, don’t come back now. They are taking the boys away. Please do not come back now. Did you hear me? Do not come here.” But he does return — to her, to Srinagar, to how their lives must play out. This is love that swallows them whole.
To a great many of us who grew up in Pakistan with only state-run television to provide us with news, Kashmir is a bit of a myth. Freedom fighters versus soldiers, insurgents versus officials — these were the words we grew up hearing. We never heard the stories of the Kashmiris themselves, never really knew who they were or what they wanted. It didn’t matter, really, because all people want the same thing — the safety to love, grow and live as they choose.
Mirza Waheed is one of the very few voices in literature to speak of Kashmiris, to tell the stories that were not told as and when they should have been. This insight alone is priceless to those who have waited so long for it.
The Book of Gold Leaves
By Mirza Waheed
Penguin Books, UK