The Kashmiri writer’s new novel tells the story of a doctor wracked by a guilty past
The plot raises a number of knotty moral questions about the nature and origins of evil
Mirza Waheed’s new novel, Tell Her Everything, begins with two cryptic epigraphs, one of which, fittingly, is a line from Franz Kafka’s short story A Country Doctor: “To write prescriptions is easy, but to come to an understanding with people is hard." Kaiser Shah, the protagonist of Waheed’s book, is a doctor as well, and a Kafkaesque creature to boot. With his name abbreviated to Dr K by colleagues, he reminds us of Josef K, a character who recurs in Kafka’s works, most memorably in The Trial.
Dr K’s story, like the country doctor’s predicament, has a surreal edge to it. Once a successful physician, his life is now a waking nightmare that he must endure till the end of his days, even as he seeks to expiate himself before his daughter, Sara, by telling her “everything", as the title of the novel states.
As the story begins, Dr K is in his 60s, living a retired life at a prosperous London address overlooking the Thames. A widower for many years, he had sent away his only offspring to America, to live and study there under the care of her uncle and aunt since the sudden and premature death of her mother, Atiya.
Barely five years old when she was sent to boarding school, Sara, now 25, is unable to fathom her father, a man she once adored and still dearly loves, though the weight of the years has left them almost estranged. Travelling cross-country on the Amtrak, she composes letters to her father, filling pages of her notebook with an outpouring of her grievances, in anticipation of encountering him in person someday soon.
The mystery behind Dr K’s self-imposed exile from his daughter becomes clearer in the course of his “meandering" reminiscences. Perhaps Waheed invokes the repetitious, rambling, circular trajectory of an ageing man’s guilt-ridden voice as a deliberate device. But the nature of Dr K’s discourse, fraught with elisions and strategies of deferral, could try the reader’s patience at times. The confession of the source of his unease comes together gradually, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that stubbornly resist falling into place for a long time. But when it is finally revealed, the enormity of our insight into his Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde persona is momentous, darkening the mood of what had felt like the opening act of a sentimental domestic drama.
Employed at a hospital in an unnamed country (an Islamic nation in the Middle East, one may wager a guess), Dr K had flourished in his younger days. Growing up in Saharanpur in India as the scion of a Muslim family of noble origin fallen into poverty since Partition, he achieves success beyond his dreams—an education that sends him to medical school, a first job in London, a devoted wife, and, finally, a better-paid post in the unnamed country, where he spends the bulk of his career. With no time for a social life, or even the simple joys of family time, Dr K strives to earn and save relentlessly. His only friend (and later nemesis) is his colleague Biju, a fellow Indian from Kerala, who is the happy-go-lucky ant to Dr K’s thrifty grasshopper.
As Dr K keeps squirrelling away his savings, seeking bigger promotions and higher salaries each year, he is seamlessly co-opted into the penal system, instituted by a ruthless judiciary headed by the “Great Judge". Before he knows it, he has taken on the role of the “punishment-surgeon", who, in defiance of the Hippocratic oath, aids the disfigurement of convicted criminals according to the punishments meted out to them by law. Commonly, the penalty involves amputation, which, under the able supervision of Dr K, is conducted without mishaps.
Waheed’s singular gift is to open up Dr K’s seemingly monstrous act to the moral scrutiny of the reader, before whom the physician must plead his case, as he rehearses it in preparation for meeting his absent daughter. As a law-abiding citizen and model employee, is Dr K to be considered culpable for abetting the punitive justice system of the state? Or did he behave in accordance with his role as a healer, as he tried his best to control the damage done to the hapless victims? As Dr K tells Sara, his team of surgeons and he did ensure that the appendages were clinically incised, minimizing the possibility of pain and the chance of infections. It was indeed a “humane" exercise, improving upon the amateurish barbarity with which such sentences were carried out before the doctors took over. The “fact is that they were doing it long before I arrived", he says. “We merely helped improve and bring it in line with proper clinical practices. That’s all."
One of the defining phrases of the 20th century, which resonates even today, is the “banality of evil", coined by the philosopher Hannah Arendt. In 1961, Arendt was sent to Jerusalem by The New Yorker to report on the trial of the Nazi war criminal, Adolph Eichmann. She found the man, who was responsible for the extermination of millions of Jews, “neither perverted nor sadistic" but “terrifyingly normal". In pronouncing Eichmann to be so, Arendt made herself and her readers confront one of the knottiest questions in philosophy: Does one have to be evil to commit evil? She proposed that being evil isn’t a precondition to committing evil—an idea Waheed also interrogates through Dr K and his career.
As the story proceeds, it becomes evident that Dr K’s imperative to tell his daughter “everything" not only involves the memories of his questionable career, but also of his early life in India and London. It is only by appreciating the various fragments of his life that she can put his conduct into a human context. The alienation he felt as a Muslim boy in Saharanpur and as a young doctor struggling to “integrate" in Britain complete the picture of who Dr K is and how he became this person. Having lived by the call of duty to his employers, he acted in the best interest of those close to him and to whose care he was entrusted—yet that wasn’t enough to save him from the taint of being accused as an exploiter. “You are a good man, a very good man: that’s the reason you became a perfect wreck," as Sara says, finally understanding her father’s fate. “You are, certainly were, a great father. A good man, a good father. But not good enough."