The Painted Word
The Book of Golden Leaves by Mirza Waheed.
In his first book, The Collaborator, Mirza Waheed spun a stunning
story, thinly veiled as fiction, of the hapless Valley and its hapless
residents. Here, he tells us a tender love story. The serious young man with
fine features and a talent for papier mache art, naqashi, is Faiz, a Sunni. The girl is the beauty of her hamlet
in Srinagar, the angel-faced Roohi of the restless heart, a Shia. They fall in
love of course, and their sweet, tentative courtship plays out against the ill
portends of a place where guns have begun to speak loudly and crudely, drowning
out the sounds of life, of the river flowing swiftly by.
The Book of Gold
Leaves (Penguin/Viking) is every bit as compelling as The Collaborators,
only more gentle in tone given its provenance. It is so full of imagery --- the
land, the city, the mountains, the chinars and poplars, the people, the dress,
the food --- you get the feeling that Waheed is writing in the manner of a
pointillist, painstakingly adding in the most minute details. As Faiz flees the
military, his eyes fall on the gold of the boulders sitting in the middle of
the silver swathe of rushing river, and he
immediately wonders how he can translate
the sight onto papier mache. Striking imagery.
This is a story fraught with excitement and set for disaster,
but of course. Even as the reader becomes slowly assured that the Shia-Sunni
divide is one that can be and is breached and that the real foe is what ---fate?
Those who would lay siege to this beautiful land? --- our attention
automatically goes to the characters who feature in ways big and small in the
couple`s lives. Because by then we know what each one does will impact the
Waheed handles the flight of Faiz across the border, his
training, and his return with such a
tender touch, as he does when he describes the all too brief honeymoon the
youngsters get to enjoy before reality throws its suffocating, midnight black
mantle on them again. As the love story draws near to its predetermined
devastating climax, the reader takes it all in with a fast-beating heart.
The Soldier`s account is a bit too pat, more for form`s
sake, one feels but this is the kind of book where the Soldier is quite clearly
not one of the good guys. ``May hellfire descend on them, `` says a schoolgirl bitterly, without realising
that it is in the nature of hellfire to burn up everything in its path.
The book is like a series of brilliantly drawn mood pictures
but oh what a bleak, hopeless mood. Sample this:
The crows, the night vigil keepers of the Great Sufi`s seat
have surrounded the shrine. They are everywhere, on the roof, in the balconies,
on the timber verandahs that have for ages been the seats of both venerable
saints and venal caretakers…in the water tank meant for ablutions, on the
austere marble cupola that presides over the entry gates as it were a worshipper`s
skull cap….The light that accumulates
amid this bird festival is a darkening orange, the river sending up its brown
luster too, and the few devotees that remain in the courtyard watch this magic
gathering in absolute silence.
At one point, Roohi recites a poem by Parveen Shakir:
In pursuit of
We ought to have met
And the reader can only sigh in understanding.