Mirza Waheed speaks up for Kashmir

All love stories set in wartime must negotiate hazardous terrain. Why should we care about a couple of thwarted sweethearts in the midst of so much death and despair? Great love-in-war novels must nurture both themes simultaneously. And the love must be the kind that can only be born out of war: forbidden, desperate and usually doomed.

Mirza Waheed’s second novel, following The Collaborator, which was shortlisted for the Guardian first book award, begins as a classic, written-in the-stars love story set during the 90s in Kashmir. Faiz is an earnest young man who supports his large Shia family in Srinagar, where Waheed himself grew up, by painting hundreds of pencil boxes a month. These are shipped out to Canada in a world where art travels but people cannot. Faiz is the proverbial dreamer, a frustrated artist trained in naqashi (the ancient art of papier-mache) who secretly toils away at a vast canvas that, like the war, will remain unfinished.

Faiz sees Roohi, a Sunni girl, across the courtyard of a shrine, letting down her long black hair and waiting for a love story to sweep her away. And so it comes, swiftly and sentimentally. The tone in the opening chapters is unashamedly romantic: “While you are busy burying your filth in it, while little tyrants plunder the mystic arcs of its bridges, while the occupier lays siege to it, the river has tender things to attend to – it has a love story to write.”

If this tendency towards melodrama is deliberate and Waheed is setting us up for a great love story that can never be, it doesn’t quite work. The opening chapters of this otherwise convincing novel feel cliched rather than timeless. The real issue is Roohi, who never manages to break free from the conventions that all too often imprison romantic heroines in war novels written by men. She is too good, too beautiful, too dutiful, too idealised, too boring. It is a shame because Waheed has a formidable insight into his large cast of characters, from the elegant grief-stricken principal of the girls’ school taken over by Indian officers to the spoilt boy-turned-insurgent who betrays his own father.

The novel gains in pace and confidence when the action shifts to the business of war. After witnessing a minibus full of schoolchildren, and his beloved godmother, caught in crossfire, Faiz loses first the capacity to sleep and then his mind. His radicalisation happens quickly and conclusively, making it both more believable and terrifying. We next encounter him trekking across the mountainous border into Pakistan to join the uprising. “I couldn’t take it any more,” he says to the engineer beside him making the same journey. “It was too hard. They’re too cruel. They shouldn’t be in our homes.” Faiz becomes known as the “papier-mache militant”, making bombs in a camp surrounded by unmarked graves with the same sense of duty that he once made pencil boxes.

The remainder of The Book of Gold Leaves is about his journey back to Roohi, the flourishing of their Sunni-Shia romance (an irony of war being that when normal rules are suspended, all kinds of freedoms follow) and the daily drip-drip of tragedies, brutalities and shocks of a conflict that, since 1989, has claimed the lives of 70,000 people. Kashmir is now the most militarised zone in the world, and Waheed captures the lives of a traumatised people forced to live alongside ever growing numbers of Indian armed forces fighting ever growing numbers of Pakistan-sponsored insurgents.

The effect of this tense novel is cumulative, its sense of dread rising until the nightmarish finale; a communal outpouring of grief in which Waheed locates an incredible defiance. “People are expected to be dead at night, to rise again only when the curfew ends,” he writes. “But people have defied curfews before. In moments of anger, in moments of unbearable grief, or when it simply doesn’t matter whether you live or not.” Kashmir, a conflict remembered mostly for being forgotten, badly needs storytellers like Waheed. He writes about war with a devastating and unflinching calm, with the melancholy wisdom of someone attuned to but never hardened by its horrors. --Guardian


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