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. Read more
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. Read more
Old, peaceable ways of life unravel in a ‘strange, compelling’ novel set amid the violence of 1990s Kashmir: Alice Albinia in the FT
Waheed’s second, new novel, The Book of Gold Leaves, is, aesthetically, a very different book: a love story, told by an omniscient narrator, about a multiplicity of lives in Srinagar, summer capital of Indian Jammu and Kashmir. In the 1990s, after Pakistan began sponsoring Islamic militants to infiltrate the valley, and India sent in its army, ordinary Kashmiris found themselves trapped.
In Srinagar the old, peaceable ways of life, and, in particular, of religious coexistence, begin to unravel. The novel follows the fortunes of three local families, Shia, Sunni, Hindu: those of Faiz, a papier-mâché artist; Roohi, his headstrong lover; and the teachers at Roohi’s old school. There is also an outsider – a soldier from the plains whose naive though benign intentions are sullied when he and his men occupy the school. Read more