Second Kashmir novel looks at land torn apart by war

Mirza Waheed's second Kashmir-set novel evokes sadness for a beautiful land torn apart by war

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 November, 2014, 8:16pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 November, 2014, 8:16pm

The Book of Gold Leaves
by Mirza Waheed

At first glance, The Book of Gold Leaves seems a simple love story. But it is much more than that: author Mirza Waheed paints a vivid picture of Kashmir as a land of immense beauty but also of intense suffering and division in the novel.

Waheed's second book - following his critically acclaimed debut The Collaborator, voted book of the year by the Telegraph, New Statesman and Financial Times in 2011 - is also set in the tumultuous 1990s Kashmir. As discontent with Indian rule reaches a head in the region, militant groups trained and backed by Pakistan attempt to free the region from Indian control.

Militants and soldiers clash on the streets and the local population is caught in the middle, but it's not long before even the most apolitical Kashmiris turn against the Indian military presence after they witness their young men taken away to be interrogated, and Indian army vehicles patrolling their streets.

In this bleak world two young lovers appear, and their clandestine love affair is conducted against the backdrop of growing violence. Faiz, a papier-mâché artist absorbed in the creation of cheap pencil boxes that will be shipped overseas, and the well-educated Roohi are drawn to each other despite their sectarian differences (he is Shia, she Sunni), the curfews and the rapid collapse of the world they know.

Faiz seems an unlikely jihadi, an artist content to live in his own thoughts. But the senseless death of his godmother, killed along with dozens of schoolchildren travelling on a school bus, transforms him: unable to sleep or work he takes to drinking cough syrup, an opiate, to get through the day. Eventually he decides to travel over the mountains to Pakistan to join the fighters there.

He is taking up arms not because of any political conviction, but out of a great sense of injustice.

In The Collaborator, also set in 1990s Kashmir, the unnamed 19-year-old narrator is passive. He stays behind in his village as his friends and classmates cross the border to train as militants, and is later employed by an Indian army officer to collect the identity cards of dead militants.

However, where the narrator in The Collaborator is unable or unwilling to act, The Book of Gold Leaves focuses on the people, such as Faiz, who choose to involve themselves, rightly or wrongly.

The story in The Book of Gold Leaves is told through the experiences of several residents of the Kashmiri city of Srinagar - Faiz, Roohi and their families, a school principal, and an ancient caretaker at a small Hindu temple - as well as one outsider, an Indian army major. Through them, we witness the Indian troops first moving into the area, occupying a girls' school and setting up bunkers at intersections to further assert their control.

It is supposed to be a temporary stepping up of military presence, but gradually evolves into full-on martial law.

Despite the gentle start to the novel, it isn't long before the new reality sets in. The girls stop turning up for class and as the violence and the disappearances of young Kashmiri men escalate, much of Srinagar's population hide at home or abandon their homes and the city altogether. Groups of men slip into Pakistan to get armed and trained so they can then return to fight.

The ancient ways and traditional lives of people in Srinagar are quickly and brutally transformed.

Each of the main characters sees only a small part of the tumult unfolding across the city, and in this way the reader is also given only glimpses of the full situation, fragments that add to the purposeful confusion.

In addition, what these people witness is also not always obvious to the reader. The Zaal, a military vehicle that patrols the city and rounds up young men, appears through the eyes of those terrorised by it to be a living, breathing monster rather than a vehicle driven by some unknown soldier.

Each of the characters is scared and throughout the novel there is a sense of tension, like something is about to go wrong in a truly horrendous way. The unease is especially prevalent in the lives of the young lovers.

The Book of Gold Leaves has a remarkably gentle tone which belies its at-times brutal subject matter. The almost poetic descriptions and casual inferences mask violent acts such as torture and the destruction of a bus full of schoolchildren by a soldier with a machine gun.

It is this balance between beautiful words and stark realities that transforms The Book of Gold Leaves into something special: Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things for this decade. The rich descriptions of traditional Kashmiri families and neighbourhoods also create a lasting impression that linger long after the novel ends.

Each of the characters is scared, and throughout the novel there is a sense of tension, like something is about to go wrong in a truly horrendous way

Faiz is born into an ancient Shia family that once owned many houses in the area, but "lost them gradually by paying for weddings of poor girls". Now they live in a dimly lit house, unable to afford high-voltage light bulbs for all the rooms and forced to live mostly off Faiz's income. In her youth, the extended family's matriarch imagined a life of luxury, but the reality is different: she is bent almost double by day-long, backbreaking housework.

The Kashmir in The Book of Gold Leaves is a land of haunting beauty, but also a world trapped in the past, where families follow ancient customs and religious communities live side by side but keep their distance from one another.

Fittingly, perhaps, it is the growing violence brought about by the arrival of outside forces which starts to knock down some of these traditional walls, especially between the Sunni, Shia and Hindu communities. The prospect of marriage between Faiz and Roohi, a Shia and a Sunni, becomes a possibility because people in Srinagar are uniting against a common, outside force.

Faiz and Roohi are beautifully naive. In the evenings they meet at a deserted Sufi shrine where their chaste love blossoms in secret. Even when Faiz crosses into Pakistan, he can't help but see the beauty of the land around him and dreams of Roohi and his life back home. He is not consumed by hate, but rather by love even while training to kill.

Waheed was born in Kashmir, and his grandfather was a papier-mâché artist, so the story clearly draws from his family's experiences and memories; the golden cover of the book, with its elegant flowers and leaves, was created by the author's great-grandfather.

The Book of Gold Leaves is a powerful and fitting follow-up to The Collaborator and Waheed has again shown his ability to bring to life a conflicted region. The tragedy is that while the story may be fictional, the time and place are all too real. In the real world, tensions in Kashmir still regularly flare, leading to further death and heartbreak.

Along with The Collaborator, The Book of Gold Leaves may ultimately become one of the main literary chronicles of the tragedy that unfolded at the end of the past century in Kashmir. It would be a fitting role for this splendid book.

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