Love in the time of occupation

9780670087426I was born in a desperate time; the nineties of Kashmir. The city where I grew up was gripped with a mad fury to be free. I didn’t fully understand what was going on until one day when I received a slap from an Indian trooper stationed outside my school for the fault only he knows. I determined to learn taekwondo. I failed. I was twelve. My uncle, like Faiz, the main protagonist in the novel had decided to free Kashmir of bunkers, and something more. He returned shrouded in exquisite white cloth.

His love story untold and buried, like him.

Until, Mirza Waheed decided to write The Book of Gold Leaves.

It’s early nineties and Kashmir has declared war against Indian state – considered alien to this day. Faiz is a devoted paper-machie artist, silently scraping a livelihood for his large family in downtown Srinagar, the scene of war. Roohi is a strikingly beautiful girl, whose long hair evokes in him the tender feelings of an artist about to paint his life’s masterpiece. Inside the shrine in Khanqah, they hurriedly fall in love.

But when war touches Faiz and everything around him, the artist in him is irreconcilable to the order of the things around. He can’t take it anymore, he repeats to himself. With indubitable clarity, he sets out on a journey to reclaim his home from the clutches of tyranny. He is a militant now.

The love story between Roohi and Faiz is tormenting, yet sublime. The eventual doom of all such love stories never overpowers the narrative. Instead, it lends it magic as the time and space during which the love story unfolds is one of great upheaval. But there is still love in this land, Roohi reminds Faiz in their first outing together, snuggled inside an auto rickshaw. Kashmir will heal, she promises.

The blooming of a Shia-Sunni love affair between Faiz and Roohi is a beautiful ode to a city, forever moored in spirituality. With Kashmir erupting in war and thousands and thousands of people dead (More than 70,000 Kashmiris have lost their lives since 1989), the love affair is a perfect picture through which loss is seen. The loss becomes more intimate, more real.

Waheed deftly uses the metaphor of the river in evoking the presence of a timeless witness, who has seen it all. The river Jhelum runs through city of Srinagar like an artery, breathing it with life and death. Roohi and Farhat’s little conversation under the drooping wooden ceiling of the shrine turns haunting for me as Waheed draws attention to the Jhelum flowing nearby. As they talk, Jhelum waters carry torsos or body parts of those dismembered in some some detention cell upstream – this is banal yet terrifying.

The river has a story to write. The river is a breathing character in the story. Azad’s poem The River emerges as the continuous metaphor of the novel. The river forms a presence in the lives of the characters and undermines the occupation and its attendant miseries for the people of Kashmir. The river is a subsumation of everything that happens in the city and in the lives of the people. The city is in ruins and there is an enveloping presence of occupation, of the spider’s web of triumphal nationalism.

In this novel, Mirza Waheed conjures details and sequences of life in old city Srinagar like a finely drawn embroidered shawl. The little scenes and their effect on my memory, as someone who grew up in the same dilapidated yet throbbing Old city, was to reimagine the process of growing up. In Faiz and Roohi’s love story laid one of my own flights of fancy.

There is sorrow in Kashmir’s history. Mirza Waheed evokes this sorrow with sublime prose which has exceeded the dim scope of his earlier novel. The Collaborator was foregrouded on a painful part of our inconsolable history, the much talked about nineties, the time when the meaning of stories changed forever. With The Book of Gold Leavestakes a different path. It fits an irredeemable love story into a thick of political awakenings in a people long subdued by tyranny. In this way, it makes possible to picture life in Old city when the plundering boots were on a rampage.

Politics permeates every single breath of life in Kashmir and this finds expression in such a way in the novel that characters come alive. Major Kumar is a superbly drawn character who shifts between guilt and duty. His admission that Kashmiris are not his people, that he doesn’t know them perfectly captures the dilemma of the Indian state; of whose he is a representative. They might lay claim to land and its people, but they know it doesn’t belong to them.

Waheed’s characters are irredeemably romantic. Shanta Koul is silently angered at the occupation of her girl’s school by Indian army. Yet, like her love for Syed Afaq Bukhari, a muslim teacher in her school, she is unable to do anything.

The exodus of Kashmiri pandits from the valley is drawn with little judgment. When Dina Nath, the old Pandit educator comes to say good bye, Mir Zafar Ali, Faiz’s elder brother asks in a sorrowful tone – “Must you punish us all for the sins of few?” The question is a way of addressing the brotherhood the two communities shared.

One of the primary questions asked of fiction is that can language evoke lived experience? In reading the The Book of Gold Leaves, the life of Old city comes breathtakingly close to my lived experience. It’s a novel far exceeding anything that has been written on the city so far. The lyrical beauty of the prose closely matches the nostalgic aura of the old city. The sublimity of Mirza Waheed’s prose is assured and does not falter. It’s a good sign for the future.

Originally published in the February issue of Contributoria —


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