INTERVIEW: Mirza Waheed

16 Nov 2014

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Mirza Waheed -- White Star
Mirza Waheed -- White Star

MIRZA WAHEED IS A FORMER JOURNALIST WHO GREW UP IN KASHMIR AND MOVED TO DELHI TO ATTEND UNIVERSITY. HIS DEBUT NOVEL, THE COLLABORATOR, WAS ABOUT A YOUNG MAN LIVING IN A VILLAGE NEAR THE LINE OF CONTROL IN KASHMIR. IT WAS SHORTLISTED FOR THE GUARDIAN BOOK AWARD AND THE SHAKTI BHAT PRIZE. THE BOOK OF GOLD LEAVES IS HIS SECOND NOVEL.

Your great-grandfather was a papier-mache artist in Kashmir and you grew up in Srinagar. So how much of The Book of Gold Leaves is autobiographical?

Mirza Waheed (MW): Not autobiographical at all. A bit of feeling for papier-mache art may have helped subliminally. During a particularly long curfew when I was a teenager in Srinagar — and we used to have many long curfews — under the tutelage of my uncle I somehow painted a hundred Easter eggs to pass the time. I didn’t know anything about papier-mache art apart from the fine art of creating a crackling fire in my grandfather’s clay fire-pot that he used to warm his paints. We were homebound for more than two months, I think. There was nothing to do, so I helped my uncle who, too, was trying to pass the time and, because he hadn’t been paid his bureaucrat’s salary for a while, to find another means of income. I was actually paid some money for it by an exporter. I don’t know if the money actually came from him or my uncle who perhaps didn’t want to discourage me.

For me, The Book of Gold Leaves is as much of a love story about you and Kashmir, as it is a love story about Faiz and Roohi. You moved away years ago but clearly you remain deeply connected to the land; is it easier or harder to write about Kashmir when you are further away physically?

MW: This is a novel and distance really doesn’t matter when you’re writing one. This is also a novel that didn’t require much research — and I suspect I may be the kind of sloth-inflicted writer who doesn’t do a lot of research, preferring to think about the characters, the story, and the space they inhabit, for years before properly embarking on a book — so it didn’t really matter where I was. Besides, I feel connected to Kashmir, the only place that comes closest to the idea of ‘home’, and I go as often as I can. Physical distance may even be helpful sometimes. A certain degree of detachment is essential for the writer to do his job.

The narrative points of view in The Book of Gold Leaves change fairly frequently — you deal with a number of characters here, changing between perspectives and allowing them each to tell parts of the story. Which came first, the plot or the characters?

MW: The characters and the place came first. And I sort of always knew the loose story. [...] Characters are my primary agents and objects of love; I spend a lot of time with them, turning them over in my head for years. They have to gestate, become, for want of a better word, audible to me. I need to hear them. A hastily drawn character is just that, a hastily drawn character.

Whose voice came to you first? Whose was the easiest to write and whose was the hardest?

MW: I don’t know how to answer that. I don’t remember. For me, Roohi is the heart of the novel. She was easy to write at first because I kind of knew her, liked her, but it soon became clear I would need to inhabit her space and world for much longer to be able to do justice to her. A certain register that I thought fitted.

This book is unabashedly romantic. The language too — it’s lyrical, it’s poetic and you’re not afraid of exposition. What is your writing process and how do you balance your journalism and your fiction?

MW: I am glad you bring this up. It’s an important question. I read some review of the novel which mentioned this in passing and I wanted to say, “Oh, yes, yes, it’s deliberately romantic, by design echoing the fiercely honest declamations of Shirin-Farhad, Sohni-Mahiwal, Heer-Ranjha or Laila-Majnu.” Many of us forget that some of our epics and the greatest love stories are essentially lyric poetry, some are even composed as songs and ballads, and rhyme and rhythm aren’t merely decorative, they are in fact central to both the literary tradition they create and belong to, and to the historical world in which they belong. So, I may have subconsciously echoed what reviewers and newspapers sometimes call lyricism, which is such a key part of those ageless tales of love. Roohi believes in a romantic life but she’s also aware of it; hers is both a helpless and a decided falling in love. She knows her heart well, she can’t help it, and yet, she isn’t simply a girl waiting for ‘her prince to take her away’. The novel undercuts that notion, I think. Roohi knows how to love. I don’t do any journalism now. My process of writing fiction? As I said earlier, I spend a lot of time with the story and its characters. Sometimes I imagine I’m talking to them, at other times I ask questions of myself, and there are those rare glorious hours when all you want to do in life is put it all down on paper and think about the material later. While thinking for ever about the world of the novel you’re trying to write, there comes a point when you can’t not write any more. That said, it’s a lot of graft and hard work, too. You’ve got to sit there with that spotless white notebook or in front of the blank screen. I also write quite a few email notes to self.

Have you had feedback about your novels from readers in Kashmir? Is that at all something you think about — whether you’re doing justice to the stories of who have remained behind?

MW: I believe most readers in Kashmir, as in India and Pakistan, liked The Collaborator, but it is early to know about The Book of Gold Leaves. Of course I want everyone to love it. And yes, I do think about it but I write the stories I want to write.