Not every individual in Kashmir in the early 1990s turned against the army driven by political vendetta. There were many who rebelled because it was hard for them to accept the killings and disappearance of people they knew.
This is one of the points author Mirza Waheed wants to make through his second novel “The Book of Gold Leaves” (Penguin Viking; Rs. 499) that weaves Kashmir’s conflict around a Shia-Sunni love story whose characters struggle with internal conflicts that are driven by external situations.
“The political choice my protagonist (Faiz) makes is not from the politics he has read from books or known from a teacher or from a political leader… his political choice comes from within,” Waheed said in an interview.
“It doesn’t come out of learning but out of experience and out of impulse. He can’t accept the killing of his godmother and is extremely saddened by the idea that no one really cares. So he decides to abandon his pen for a gun,” he added.
Faiz, in the novel, is a papier-mache artist who falls in love with Roohi, a beautiful Sunni girl. At the onset, it seems the Shia-Sunni divide would be driving the storyline, considering their secret meetings and fear for their togetherness, but the setting – early 1990s in Kashmir – reshapes these perceptions and allows the reader to understand the conflicted personalities of pivotal characters.
Recreating the brutal theatre of war came naturally to the London-based Kashmiri journalist-turned-writer, who had witnessed the turmoil during his early years in the Valley. This definitely gives him a certain vantage point to look at situations that fuelled anger and pushed some people to make certain choices.
“In the real world, in the early 1990s, official narratives from both sides of the border were predominantly and excessively propagandist,” recollected Waheed whose debut novel “The Collaborator” was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Shakti Bhatt Prize.
“That was the time when we as young people back home would say that is not what happens here. They were not marauding terrorists coming here, disrupting the peace… we used to say that this is my neighbour… this is someone I played cricket with or went to school with. It is they who took up arms and were trained across the border. Everyone knows that and the novel relates this,” said Waheed.
It just isn’t the external conflicts that contribute to the narrative. Waheed has successfully created the dilemma and confusion among the people, including the armymen and Kashmiri Pandits.
The unpreparedness to deal with the slowly brimming conflict, the helplessness to fight against it, the confusion about joining it and the breach of trust – Waheed gets into the mind of different characters to imagine how they would react to a situation they are suddenly confronted with.
“I have tried to explore various kinds of people and how they will behave. How will they reach….so I have tried to create a world within a novel,” said Waheed who liked to describe himself as 40-little-something.