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 lovers.

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:
We ought to have met
In another kinder time
In pursuit of attainable dreams
Below a different sky
Upon a different earth
We ought to have met there.

And the reader can only sigh in understanding.

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