Mirza Waheed speaks up for Kashmir in his new novel
The Guardian reviews The Book of Gold Leaves
All love stories set in wartime must negotiate hazardous terrain. Why should we care about a couple of thwarted sweethearts in the midst of so much death and despair? Great love-in-war novels must nurture both themes simultaneously. And the love must be the kind that can only be born out of war: forbidden, desperate and usually doomed.
Mirza Waheed’s second novel, following The Collaborator, which was shortlisted for the Guardian first book award, begins as a classic, written-in‑the-stars love story set during the 90s in Kashmir. Faiz is an earnest young man who supports his large Sunni family in Srinagar, where Waheed himself grew up, by painting hundreds of pencil boxes a month. These are shipped out to Canada in a world where art travels but people cannot. Faiz is the proverbial dreamer, a frustrated artist trained in naqashi (the ancient art of papier-mache) who secretly toils away at a vast canvas that, like the war, will remain unfinished.
Faiz sees Roohi, a beautiful Shia woman, across the courtyard of a shrine, letting down her long black hair and waiting for a love story to sweep her away. And so it comes, swiftly and sentimentally. The tone in the opening chapters is unashamedly romantic: “While you are busy burying your filth in it, while little tyrants plunder the mystic arcs of its bridges, while the occupier lays siege to it, the river has tender things to attend to – it has a love story to write.”