In his debut novel, The Collaborator (2011), Mirza Waheed takes us to a Kashmir strewn with wild flowers and corpses. In The Book of Gold Leaves, he returns to Kashmir again, to the Srinagar of Faiz and Roohi, who meet and fall in love even as the city is slowly turned into a giant barracks by the Indian army. Faiz is a Naqashi artist, who spends his days painting intricate patterns on papier mache in his workshop. But as the violence touches their lives directly, he must leave home to follow his fate in the training camps across the border. Roohi, who stays behind, watches the fabric of their old lives unravel.
In Delhi for the launch of his new book, London-based Waheed, 40, talks about driving his characters to madness, about the insurgency, about memory and about the city of his childhood, Srinagar. Excerpts:
What compels you to write about Kashmir? Do you think of yourself as a Kashmiri author?
I spent the most important 18 years of my life in Srinagar, by the lake, by all these magical places. Your sensibility is going to be informed by where you grew up, but also by what you read. It’s never just one thing.
So why not Kashmir? If Orhan Pamuk can write about Turkey all his life, why can’t I write two novels about Kashmir, where I grew up? Will all my novels be set in Kashmir? It depends on how a writer works. I work with characters. They’re my primary areas of concern. How do they become mad, for instance, how do you drive them to madness? How does a character move from being a delicate artisan to a somewhat committed fighter?
Faiz is an artist and lives in his own world. And then terrible things happen. But it’s one thing to be traumatised, another to take up arms.
There is a moment of rupture, the cessation of normality in his life. He paints in his workshop. That is normal for him. Planning, making sketches for his masterpiece, that is normal. Being with his large family at dinner, that is normal. And then, meeting this girl, falling in love with her and trying to be with her — that, too, is normal.
Suddenly, there arrives this moment when all these ideas of normal existence are called into question and then destroyed. Sometimes in tangible, physical ways. He’s a lower middle-class boy from the old city of Srinagar, he’s had a small life, he cannot deal with it. But his choice to take up arms is deliberate. He is not pushed into it because everyone around him is doing it. Faiz has personal, societal and political reasons for taking up arms. He tells himself there is nothing else he can do.
In The Collaborator, the village is emptied of young men who leave for the training camps. Here, Faiz himself leaves and there are all these boys disappearing. Is this — what has been called Kashmir’s lost generation — a preoccupation, a concern?
It is a concern but not just in terms of the lost generation of Kashmir, not just as broad social and political themes. I want to get inside their head and understand how this person will speak. How does he explain the case to himself?
I don’t know if I’ve written a war novel disguised as a love story or a love story disguised as a war novel. It is not a historical novel. It is, first and foremost, the story of Faiz and Roohi, and their families. But they are located in a certain time. Roohi reads the works of one of the finest prose writers in Kashmir, called Akhtar Mohiuddin, she reads the Pakistani poet, Parveen Shakir, she listens to Farida Khanum and even Bollywood music. And this is the world of the novel as well. The Bollywood image, juxtaposed on the image of Kashmir, has existed in the minds of young people for a long time.
How much do you draw from memory when you write? What is it like to fictionalise what you remember?
Memory is a fascinating thing, isn’t it? To think about memory, not just to have it. If I remember a certain evening, and this remembrance is from 30 years ago, I would have a vague sense of what the evening was like. But when I’m writing, I will make it anew, I will imbue it with something that belongs to the novel I’m writing now. There’s a scene in the novel where Faiz’s mother is making kangris. When she’s lighting it, there is a red ember light and it is dusk and there is this particular winter light that appears in Srinagar. All those disparate things — I like putting them together and seeing what happens. One memory walks into another and another dives into the next and they will appear in strange places when you’re writing.
It seems as though Srinagar was one of the characters in the book. How do you think the insurgency has changed the city?
In the 1990s, the city turned into a war zone. There were bomb blasts and shootings every other day. Outside the city, horrific tortures happened. There was a torture chamber called Papa II. I like to think it was Abu Ghraib before Abu Ghraib became Abu Ghraib.
The word “resilience” is thrown about a lot. But I ask myself, do they have a choice? So yes, it has changed the city, the people. It is a city of broken people marked for the rest of their lives by what happened to them, what was done to them. On the outside, they’re normal but they conceal huge injuries. Srinagar is a place of great melancholy.
Can you remember a Srinagar before the insurgency?
There were cinemas! My “Cinema Paradiso” was Firdaus Cinema in Downtown. I watched my first big screen film there. I bunked school with some friends, I was in Class 8. It was one of those grand old-world cinemas, with a huge facade and a big space for the “now showing” poster and a lobby and ice cream. We watched a ridiculous film called Tangewala, which featured Rajendra Kumar.
And the old town is fascinating. There’ll be magnificent houses, with lattice windows and woodwork and ornate halls. And then there will be a garish mall put up by some enterprising fellow who thinks this is development.
That is Srinagar now. But the old spaces also remain. In the novel, you mention how the waterways of Srinagar were sealed up. It seems oddly prescient when you read it after the floods, when a swelling Jhelum had nowhere to go.
A part of me wishes I hadn’t written that. But everyone knows what happened to the waterways of the city. Srinagar has always existed with water as an intimate companion. The canals, the lakes, the boats on the lake that were actually grocery shops. Even in my childhood, we could go on a picnic to the Mughal Gardens on a boat from the heart of the city. There is a line in the novel where someone thinks water is not development, boats are. And that is not something that has happened only to Srinagar. In the process of building swanky cities, there has been a vast loss of ecosystems.
How political are you? A novel will have its own politics, of course, but when you write, is it a political act at all?
It doesn’t occur to me that I should write an apolitical novel or a political novel. I write a book that is set in a certain place, and whatever is happening in that time in history will definitely affect the lives of the people in that novel. My primary commitment is to be as honest to a particular story and to a specific portrayal. I think it’s true for all writers. You don’t check boxes, you don’t write according to quota.