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The Book Of Gold Leaves: Penguin, 320 pages, `499.
The Book Of Gold Leaves: Penguin, 320 pages, `499.

Book Review | The Book Of Gold Leaves

A love letter to Kashmir that is as profound as a Hindi film romance

Bollywood love by the Dal

In the rut of poverty, even crumbs seem like a feast; after the recent presence of a somewhat accurate Kashmir on the big screen in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider, scripted by Basharat Peer, the release of a second book set in Kashmir by a Kashmiri expat seems like a surfeit of stories. Fiction is no substitute for facts, but the absence of the former affects in real measure the biases and amnesias that warp the reportage of the latter.

Kashmir in the news has been an open heart wound lately, but fiction can create room for beauty and grace amid its truth-telling. So it was with eagerness that I greeted my review copy of the sophomore book by the author of The Collaborator, Mirza Waheed.

The Book Of Gold Leaves is set in 1990 Kashmir (an anachronistic reference to poet Parveen Shakir’s 1994 death aside), where a boy and a girl see each other at the Khanqah-e-Moula mosque and decide to star in a love story. The boy, Faiz, is a naqash who paints pencil boxes on mass-order to help support his genteelly decaying family. The girl, Roohi, is a dreamer of dreams. Together, they fight crime (by becoming a militant and copy editor, respectively).

Unfortunately, my flippant usage of a meme to summarize their preoccupations under occupation is not an accurate blurb of the book’s approach to storytelling. Instead, Waheed attempts to detail an artist who paints miniatures by sketching out vignette after slice-of-life after mise-en-scène after vignette. Plot, like some bastard offspring of narrative fecundity, just somehow happens to its characters. Waheed also coasts on the weight of his setting; by reasons of humanity, any story set in Kashmir under military occupation will contain enough tragedy and drama to merit engagement.

And in fact several chunks of the book are very readable; Waheed is at his best when he brings together historical titbits, like the origin story of wazwan with a naturalist’s eye for scenic beauty and a Kashmiri’s insider perception of cultural quirks. His haunting passages mourning the destruction of Srinagar’s waterways are grievously prescient in the wake of this year’s devastating summer floods in Kashmir. The real-life havoc perpetuated by a callously incompetent state and Central administration finds an origin story in the novel as a natural consequence of the civic destruction delineated so pragmatically.

Waheed writes with a palpable affection for Kashmir and its peoples that makes his minor characters and incidental stories shine with vitality. From the self-exiled smuggler of letters in Nepal to the righteously angry schoolgirl giving a soldier an essay titled “Not All Uniforms Are Welcome in Schools", he gives us glimpses of dozens of people whose fragile, fascinating lives are so ruthlessly marred by state and civil militancy. He is scrupulously even-handed in featuring a guilt-ridden, honest Indian officer and in giving us innocent Kashmiri Hindu victims to mourn. For those rabidly patriotic Indians who still somehow think the Indian army’s presence in Kashmir is a necessary and humane state intervention, he provides beautifully restrained portraits of the horrific banality of their evil.

Waheed falters is in his romanticism—a failed attempt at modernizing the exalted idiom of classic love stories like Heer-Ranjha or Shireen-Farhad. A good editor (or writing group) should have pulled him back from wallowing in the preciousness of his protagonists. He constructs Roohi out of mirrors and thin air; she is a wisp of a character, existing only for the author to tell us of her beauty and her youthful, passionate heart. When actors on screen declare death-defying love under implausible circumstances (the first 15 minutes of Mani Ratnam’s Bombay come to mind), there is the physical charisma of their cinematic embodiment to distract us; on paper, an author merely telling us over and over how much a girl wants to be in love can grow wearisome. Faiz is marginally more fleshed out by virtue of his profession, but he drifts through his there-and-back-again journey shamefully indulged by characters much more appealing than him in their clarity.

The pair of lovers belong to a vapid Bollywood romance, rather than to a book which contains such beautifully etched signifiers of mature love and loss as Shanta Koul, the school principal whose life story and understated interaction with Major Sumit Kumar lays bare India’s great betrayal of Kashmiris more clearly than the vacuous, wishy-washy leads.

Kashmiris on both sides of the border have terribly important stories to tell of their survival under oppressive states, and those of us reading in English are only beginning to access some of these tales. While non-fiction contains memoirs from Basharat Peer and Anjum Zamarud Habib and the Sanjay Kak-edited Until My Freedom Has Come; Kashmiri Anglo fiction is neonatal. Waheed’s novel contains, like a papier-mâché trinket at Dilli Haat, many pretty details and useful functions, but it does not, alas, add up to a literary objet d’art. Don’t read it as a romance, but as a love letter to a Kashmir irrevocably warped by war and waiting.

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