I finally finished Mirza Waheed's second novel, The Book of Gold Leaves, last night at 2:40 a.m. and immediately thought of writing this.
I am truly heartbroken, not so much at the fate of Roohi and Faiz, as much at the destiny of all the characters in the book, and indeed Kashmir. First things first, this is a remarkable book - in perhaps more ways than I can express. Its a large story played out in tiny lives. It is an invitation to the life in 1990s as the Kashmir conflict burned like firework, sending sparks into everyone, everywhere. Its easy to generalise, easier than The Collaborator (Waheed’s first book) and may be thats why it is more stirring, though not as shocking.
The Book of Gold Leaves is a love story, but somehow that is not the sum-all of it. It is a premise. It is a story about people who chose to live in hope. The whole 90s construct was based on sheer optimism. People wanted independence so much, that the armed rebellion gave them the hope of immediate release. So, when Roohi and Faiz discuss their future together, there is always a hope that Faiz would settle down, after all. That he will figure out something. That the fight is a task at hand – and will soon end, in victory. That Faiz will return to his masterpiece, the Falaknuma. Somewhere towards the end, Roohi tells Faiz that he is fighting for a dream. It was a collective dream of a hundred thousand people that Faiz had to fight for. It was not going to be easy.
Srinagar seems to be going into a slow freeze to be thawed only when the soldiers return the keys to the city. Then, the lovers shall love, the painter shall paint and the lost will be found. But the freeze slowly turns into a fatal decay, as we descend deeper into the decade. The invasion of Srinagar by the Indian Army was not simply a few hundred trucks to make the militants run away, as Major Sumit Kumar had been led to believe. It was the invasion of an educated (somewhat), largely conservative city by mostly semi literate men who had no understanding and respect for the culture and the people they found themselves among. The results were catastrophic - like the fate of Faate, Faiz's godmother, who was killed when the army opened fire on a school bus. The book brings out this contrast - men from a distant land, fighting an enemy they clearly don't understand - among people, they have no regard for - people who don't want them in the first place - men fighting other men, in their homes. Shanta Koul embodies the difference. The stoic school principal with the graceful walk, who disarms Sumit Kumar every single time he speaks to her. She reminds him, constantly, that he is in her school – that he is an outsider. Waheed's brilliance lies in the strict construct of the dialogue between the two - Koul somewhat embarrassed at being dethroned from her position of power, her superiority compromised by unlettered men; Kumar guilt-ridden at over powering an educationist, a woman who reminds him of his mother, who makes him feel powerless and tongue-tied.
A thousand such men were bound to slowly poison the place. As the venom slowly spread, it blackened the heart of the society. Slowly people forgot ties to become ‘agents’ and ‘collaborators’. Rumi turned in his father, unknowingly. His innocent traipses marred by the murder he was led to. Another theme which ran and ruined Kashmir. Paranoia. How could you trust random strangers anymore, if as the book tells us, you could not trust your own? There were and still are spies among people, and you could not guess the games played. Roohi’s father’s special assignment makes a fair game. He wasn’t a spy – until he was. And even then, how could you blame him? In this loosening thread of culture and society, the Pandits are leaving. Temporarily, of course.
Of course, in the backdrop of this time, there is a complete love story – a true and tragic one. Love which is hurled over mountains. Love which survives distance and longing – in uncertain times. Love which causes despair and hope. Love which overcomes society. Love which divides and unites. Roohi is the bold, philosophical heroine who has chosen her own hero. Faiz is the artist she loves, who becomes a militant because he could no longer see sense in his delicate artistry when the world of his inspiration is on fire. In a memorable scene he paints the flowers on his papier mache creation in indigo. In the conservative society of Srinagar, a Shia – Sunni marriage is still a rare occurrence. Waheed makes it plausible, and in the 90s imaginable. The scene of this love story is the seat of Sufism in Kashmir – the ancient shrine of Khanqah Mou’ala.
The Jehlum flows through the book as it does through the city and through our times. Free at first, and increasingly choked as the story progresses. The lunatic, Maharaze, describes souls flowing up and down the river. No one prays for them anymore. Poignant, as no one knows them to be there. The people picked up by the Zaal, in the book a large, metallic, metaphorical vehicle which traps people and takes them to Army’s chambers, are often not heard from again.
Books like Waheed’s are important. They break the barrier of nonfiction journalistic writing to tell smaller, more intimate stories left behind by the conflict. When it all began. Yes, but why should we care about two lovers when the whole city is on fire? Hard to answer, but may be, because the lovers are us too. Their story is also our story. The people embody what becomes of their cities, the cities they live in and the ones they create.