Title: The Book of Gold Leaves.
Writer: Mirza Waheed.
Publisher: Penguin / Viking Books.
Publication Year: 2014.
Number of Pages: 339.
Iram Shafi Allaie
M.Phil Scholar (2014)
Department of English
University of Kashmir
The Kashmir of 1990's witnessed a tumultuous period which by now has spanned decades and yet remains unresolved conflict. Mirza Waheed’s second novel The Book of Gold Leaves (2014) following his unforgettable The Collaborator (2011) owns this phase as its backdrop however with a twist of romance between a Shia boy and a Sunni girl. The main protagonists of the novel are Faiz, a papier mâché artist and Roohi, a young and beautiful lady.
Part first (Shadows by the river) of the novel opens up introducing us to Faiz — his Mir family of the downtown city called Khanqah, Roohi and her family and finally to the fervent relationship between Faiz and Roohi. Faiz a twenty year old boy, who has dropped his studies very early, supports his large family by painting hundreds of pencil boxes each month that are then to be shipped to Calgary in Canada.
[H]e paints deer, cypresses, tall rose bushes, chinar leaves, Mughal princes on hunting trips with their high elephants, on the pencil boxes … (p. 3)
Roohi, twenty one year old young woman, on the other hand, is well educated and always prays and begs for a love story to happen in her life.
Roohi is prostrate before her God. … to make her one wish come true, for the boy of her dreams to come and take her away. (p. 8)
Both of the protagonists meet at the holy shrine of Khanqah- e-moula which is situated in the Srinagar city called Khanqah and their love story begins. But since Mirza Waheed is writing about a war-torn land, the love story of Faiz and Roohi gets affected by the brutal war. For that matter any story set in Kashmir under military occupation will contain enough tragedy and drama to merit engagement and so is the case with this novel. When on one hand the love between Faiz and Roohi is blossoming on the other side is Kashmir been immersed by the Indian occupational forces.
Part second (Echoes) of the novel takes the readers into the lives of Major Sumit Kumar, the educationists like Professor Madan Koul — former principal at the Gandhi College and his daughter Principal Shanta Koul whose local girls’ school is taken by the army troops for setting up their barracks. The girl students eventually drop the school as violence, unrest, and torture become frequent. Indian soldiers are visible on every street and then follows the tragic event of a minibus full of schoolchildren getting caught in crossfire which kills Faiz’s godmother — Fatima. This event disturbs his mental psyche terribly and he decides to join the uprising. Here some readers might lament that the union of Faiz and Roohi now don’t seem to be possible. But Faiz is sure that Roohi will wait for him. “I will be back soon and Roohi will surely wait for me”. Finally there is a ‘Zaal’, a vehicle/ kind of a truck with a "jaw like grip" that patrols the area, gobbles up innocents from the streets and “sort of swallows them”.
In Part third (In Another Country) as the violence had touched the lives of Kashmiris directly, we witness Faiz is determined to leave his home and follow his fate in the training camps across the border. In creating the trajectory of Faiz, Mirza Waheed explains that the reason some young Kashmiris took up arms due to personal tragedies. While in the Pakistani training camp thoughts of Roohi and his own family members often hit his mind. But none of them can stop him. “It’s my duty, too” Faiz says to the Engineer who himself has joined the struggle. Faiz is now known as the “artist-turned-militant”. And then once again the romantic tinge of the novel is poured forth through the love letters that Roohi and Faiz send to each other reflecting the pain of separation each undergoes.
Roohi to Faiz:
You know what I miss the most? The waiting. … I miss you. When you come back to me, I will tell you everything. (p.175)
Faiz to Roohi:
It’s the nights that are difficult here, Roohi. I do manage to sleep now but it takes time. … I am dying to see you. The silliest thing I have done is not to carry a photo of you. (p. 182)
The concluding part (A Terrible Beauty is Born) of the story is about Faiz’s return to his home and later getting married to his sweetheart Roohi. The other details that Waheed gives us is the account of the daily tragedies, violence and shocks of the 90s turmoil — how Kashmir was turned to a highly militarized zone in the world and how the occupation seized every corner of it. In one of the letters, Roohi writes to Faiz:
The city is a lightless prison now. No one can stir without the permission of the soldiers. I sometimes imagine we are in a vast coop with thousands of them circling around it, and they hit out at my hand if I try to get some air. (p. 211)
In the same letter, through Roohi, Waheed has shown that after the influx of the Indian soldiers the next step was to control the Kashmiris the way they wanted. Every day countless innocents lost their lives at the hands of the army. Violence was becoming a day-to-day matter.
People are being killed like flies. I mean, these are actual people killed on the streets every day. … they read out the toll on the evening news as if they were talking about the amount of rainfall during the day. (p. 210)
There is a mention of Kashmiri pundits fleeing the valley as Master Dinnath’s family and Prinicpal Shanta Koul leave Kashmir. And on the other hand, Waheed perfectly delineates the pain that Kashmiri Muslims underwent by the exodus of Kashmiri pundits. “Must you punish us all for the sins of few?” says Mir Zafar Ali to Dinnath while requesting him not to leave his home and Muslim brethren.
Mirza Waheed is at his best when he delineates the historical and political facts especially considering the place it is written about. The novelist is a Kashmiri and this adds value to the narration of local truth and makes his characters and stories shine. The plot of the The Book of Gold Leaves is clear and the language is simple. Apart from tracing the resistance movement of Kashmir part of the brilliance lies in crafting the love story of Faiz and Roohi which is flagrantly romantic. The Book of Gold Leaves has been received very warmly by critics. The Guardian wrote that the Kashmir conflict has finally found its storyteller in this tense novel of love and war.