I knew a farmer that would come to the city to tend to his business carrying a very old, dusty briefcase. Apart from old papers bearing his past and significance to the world, and some stationery, the man will always bring in it onions, salt and some chillies. We cooked at home once or twice with them while analysing some of his documents (simple certificates, ancient deeds, a letter from his father to a minister) to find the best way for him to proceed in this or that transaction. Long meals and ample conversations ensued in which my friend’s life and pains unfolded before me, in stories and facts. In no other way can I think of Mirza Waheed’s works.
Take for example his first novel, acclaimed and reprinted a few times over the last decade. The Collaborator tells us the painful story of a young man working among corpses to retrieve identifications and guns. While peeling the onion of his recent past, a young Gujjar remembers his village, his dear friends and a place to bathe and share words, dreams of the future. He may not cry, but the slow motion narrative of a marginal people, in an occupied territory, might bring tears to the reader. Using the patient style recognisable in some ancient storytelling traditions, Waheed takes time describing the landscape, an abandoned store, the mutilated corpses of militants coming from Pakistan ... in a country subjugated by the speed of war, a Kashmiri writer asks us to ponder, consider, take pity on these young lives, wasted.
A journalist lucid enough to denounce the blinding of hundreds of young men—and the cynical blindness of their executors, Mirza Waheed goes as far as fiction can go (everywhere) to recreate the intense feelings his protagonist hides or the tormentous relationship with a military officer. But he adjusts his narrative of the collaborator to the reality of his land and his fellow countrymen; nothing short of it.
The style in The Collaborator reflects this particular mix. Some simple sentences and common analogies give the author a chance to concentrate on facts and dialogues. It’s from this kind of construction that Waheed can let his fingers run more and more freely into a small (once) beautiful valley. And then, again, a slow rhythm chains everything so a reader can ponder even on the most macabre passages.
Some words written in the language of the characters anchor the scenes. Insults or popular expressions letting a reader know where this book is placed, where this peeled onion will be eaten by a sad but enduring kid with a dry mouth and a boiling soul. This ‘official accountant of the dead,’ walking among the corpses, scattered and broken into parts (limbs and heads,) will talk to them, he will ruminate a deadly present in Kashmir, an emptiness of life.
Living in constant defeat, abandoned by friends and hopes, this young man presented in The Collaborator is proof of how a denial imposed on Kashmir is not just about the facts, the political ideas and struggles, it’s mostly about denying people their humanity. That’s perhaps the reason longing has a place within these pages, or even better: it has become the place. And the sad young person in the middle has become a ghost (he does not know this yet).
Mirza Waheed is then eloquent as his protagonist is too: memory might be everything that’s left.
Also, just sniffing the novel a little more, that’s why the Gujjar young man and his village (and his people) are at the centre of an unending tragedy. The chiaroscuro Waheed paints, needs the show the darkest zones of his land, the looked-down group among the marginalized people under siege. Known once as a turbulent people, this novel about Kashmiris bears testimony of a territory ripped apart by a low intensity war.
But let’s put this attestation back into the old cabinet our author surely has, keeping the manuscripts and the base ingredients safe but at hand. Let the time to come, well, come, and readers in the future explore the pain and the heart of a young man collecting stuff from corpses day in, day out.
In the way of ancient rhapsodes
Comes The Book of Gold Leaves, a book with a story inside the story, or a cover over it. A different kind of novel, the same patient style. Let us begin with the cover then: a piece of art (papier maché) that traces the roots of Mirza Waheed, a masterpiece created by his grandfather that suits his new story, covering it with sensuous curves, erotic flowers and a bright background. Much in a way a Kashmir box guards earrings or letters, because every story is ours in that same way; memories are indispensable to talk about art, love, absent people.
In Srinagar, two young persons come to us, presented in the way ancient dramas talked of virtue and strong feelings. Setting the stage, carefully crafting his scenes, Waheed introduces his characters one after the other, letting them be admired by the reader. They come in and go out behind the curtains like in a grand guignol function or a shadows theatre in the East.
He paints, she reads. He imagines, she dreams. It doesn’t really matter what will become of them (or what will they be to each other...) the significance of the story lies at the beginning on the ambiguous sensation produced by not really knowing if it happened a few centuries ago or in these times. The art he is devoted to, the rebellious woman she is: it’s been so long a repeated nightmare nobody can tell now how it was before.
The onion of horror shows up once more and starts peeling without pause. But Mirza Waheed leaves everything to you. The cold air hitting Faiz’s feet, the righteous anger of Roohi. The violence unleashed over the city of Srinagar. So many shrapnels of scenes pass in front of the readers’ eyes, well-known and always a dark place. Everything in the Kashmiri writer is about ethics, about the right thing and the ideal life. Nothing carries a moral principle, though; Waheed simply describes their situation and how his characters behave. They are free to assess themselves, to punish and to judge. The reader is free too, challenged to the very end.
The world in the novel has the exact shape of a couple of young lovers. Nothing less, nothing more. Their perils up and down the streets, the mountains and their values, fit inside the pages of a book. It is a story about love, of course, about the love a Kashmiri writer feels. Like in The Collaborator, where the young man is by all means Mirza Waheed, in his second novel the lovers are his loves, his people are his love.
The Book of Gold Leaves is so far Mirza Waheed’s most accomplished narrative, not the best. Forget about ratings and compared literature. Waheed’s works are fictions in the strict sense of the word (all of them,) and they are also true. This one digs deeper in the ambivalence, that’s it.
A trip into a dark place
Maybe Mirza Waheed had to break apart from his land for a while. Like looking for safety can take thousands of people to other places (you can put the demonym of your choice here). The thing is his last book is not a simple hard story of his land. Mostly a verborragic recount by an aging father, Tell Her Everything reads more like a confession to his only daughter. He’s about to reveal to her, a young successful adult, the sharp points of the source of his wealth. The story here comes from a different drawer in Waheed’s cabinet and deals with that conversation all of us need from time to time: addressing an important person in our life, important enough to precisely articulate what we have to say.
The first part of the story deploys this Indian doctor, a widower, living a comfortable life in London. Nothing much about him. An ordinary man with ordinary dreams, living in simple ways and having little thoughts. The daughter, a estranged woman living in America, is his target audience. ‘All I want now is for her to listen to me,’ he shares. The reader is then taken inside his mind, the memories he concealed from others for a long period of his life.
In a simple manner, Waheed takes us also to Doctor Kaiser Shah’s past, his origins and the way he (as many other Indians did last century) lived the shock of migration to a land once called metropolis. In other words, the Indian immigrant in London:
At the bus stop, you make a complete fool of yourself by rushing ahead of an old woman, or by waiting until everyone has slipped in and finding there’s no room left.
Minor details of minor lives that amount to a huge load, and an enormous shift of a life (any life.) Integration is the key, be a part: in London or in mainland India, coming to a small village in the Himalayas. Here, migration from the impoverished periphery to ‘the greatest city in the world,’ the good ambiguous doctor says. Though, of course set by time and class (and caste sometimes,) ‘there was, and probably still is, a hierarchy among the arrivees’.
So, in such casual demeanour, the doctor of Tell Her Everything goes about his life. The arranged marriage that gives birth to love and a single girl. An ordinary life, you would think, a regular father trying to reach a daughter. Cautious man about his story, delicate with her at all times. In the conversational style used here by Mirza Waheed, the language read and heard in India shows its peculiarities. English delivered in neat ways, most of the time, and then broken here and there, like a water pipe leaking just a little at some random points. This is what lends strength to the narrative.
Then, a third of the book gone, a question arises: the doctor worked to make a lot of (blood) money, it seems, but where? Not in India, not in London, where? Again the horror encased in the story appears. Casually peeling off, the story shows its bare core under an ordinary life’s account. Doctor K., as he is known, worked for years practising ‘surgical mutilations’ according to some law of the land established in an unnamed country. The facts and bits of information point to Middle East, sometime at the end of the last century. But the standing element is this: much in the way Hannah Arendt did, this novel addresses the nature of evil, not coming from villains and mass murderers but from these simple people
Somewhere in the middle of the book, Sara starts writing a letter to her father. She’s attempting her own recount. The death of her mother (his beloved wife) and whatever happened next for about two decades. She also feels the need to reach out. The author shows his talents here: any reader can perfectly distinguish two different voices coming out of Tell Her Everything.
Even with the daughter’s long letter and some irony breaking the heavy narrative, it’s Dr. K.’s telling that carries on. This doctor who chose to practice in contravention of his professional oath, to make money for his daughter’s sake, probes to be ambiguity itself: a devoted father working hard, not for a minute considering his job. Keeping every feeling mum, and the civility of his daily life, a man can’t be labelled a criminal (even if he’s an executioner of sorts) ... he can’t be labelled a decent man or anything at all.
‘You are a good man,’ says his only friend, ‘a very good man: that’s the reason you became a perfect wreck.’ Not much more about Dr. K. Or perhaps a little, an explosive little twist hiding at the end of a story of complexity, love and cowardice. The reader should be patient and be willingly trapped by Mirza Waheed, and this tired father in Tell Her Everything. That late twist will show the limit of a life, very much in the way a crystal jar is a demoralising cage for any fly.
So it ends in a visit to the rusty and rickety cabinet you can find at Mirza Waheed’s den, for sure. The one that treasures high contrasts and fresh onions ready to peel. A piece of furniture where a Kashmiri author stores true fictions and horrors he can share with us.