Mirza Waheed was born and brought up in Kashmir before he moved to London in 2001 to work for the BBC Urdu Service. His debut novel The Collaborator, a gripping account of Kashmir in the 1990s, was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award. And now Waheed has written another novel, The Book of Gold Leaves, which is again set in Kashmir and tells the story of a fraught Shia-Sunni romance in the backdrop of the ongoing political conflict. In a conversation with Riyaz Wani, Waheed talks about how his memories of life in the Valley have influenced him as a storyteller: Tehelka
Edited Excerpts from an interview •
Like your debut novel, your second novel The Book of Gold Leaves is also set in Kashmir even though you have not lived here for many years now.
The Collaborator was literally, physically and figuratively set on the border, where there is a line of fracture, political, geographic and historic — a ridiculous faultline that cuts through our land and divides our people. That is also where the rebellion against the Indian government started in the 1990s and there were many killings. So I set my first novel there.
However, the story of the second novel was in my mind even before I wrote The Collaborator. But The Collaborator was more urgent and there came a point when I just had to write it.
For Gold Leaves, I didn’t need to do much research as it is set in Khankah, a part of Srinagar where I spent a lot of time in my childhood. It is not autobiographical, though. But as I have grown up there, the place informs my literary choices and sensibility, in both tangible and subliminal ways. Obviously, I have drawn from my experiences, from my family history. For instance, we have a history of papier mache work and one of my lead characters is a papier mache artist. But as a novelist, you don’t want to do a learned novel, you want to invent and I like that.
Every novelist has a rough idea of where the story is headed, but in the course of writing, sometimes you hit upon something you had not thought of earlier. These are the moments that the writer lives for. Otherwise it is a lot of hard work, backbreaking and lonely.