Kashmir, a relatively unfamiliar corner of South Asia to us Brits despite having been under the authority of British rule until 1947, has lacked the same kind of artistic representation and recognition that other war torn countries, such as Afghanistan, have received. This area of land has been under constant dispute by its neighbours, Pakistan, India and China, for many years, with brutal wars ravaging Kashmir in the 60’s and again in the 90’s. It’s unlikely many would have heard about it though; I for one could not have pointed Kashmir out on a map, let alone have tell you of its tumultuous history. Mirza Waheed strived to document his home country with precise detail in his first critically acclaimed novel, The Collaborator, and returns with his second offering, The Book of Gold Leaves, with a less factually informative but more aesthetically appealing work.
The novel starts with the dreamy story of two lovers separated by religious divides; the Sunni Roohi, full of romanticised and idealistic visions, and the meditative Shia Faiz, a talented papier mache artist who supports his family by intricately painting hundreds of pencil boxes. The urgent need for secrecy, and their hidden moonlit meetings behind a nearby shrine at night, stimulates an interest in the pair’s relationship, however the bond between the two feels melodramatic and contrived.
Their dialogue is unnatural and awkward, which may be intended to portray timidity, but leaves the reader lacking any genuine support for the love affair. ‘I never saw my grandfather. My father looked like a grandfather.’ ‘I was my grandfather’s favourite. He gave me a rupee every Friday when I was little and a hundred when I passed my matric.’ ‘My brother has been like a father to me, to everyone in my family. He is much older than I am.’ This brief excerpt from one of the pair’s first meetings shows the lack of fluidity and connection between the two characters. When war flings them apart, it’s hard to summon a strong desire to see them lovingly reunited.
What Waheed excels at, however, is the depiction of war and terror ravaging the town of Srinagar, where the novel is set. The shocking scene in which a soldier, in a frenzied and panicked terror, lets rip his machine gun and ‘doesn’t even spare the sky’ makes for one of the dramatic peaks and most memorable moments in the book. It’s this scene which prompts Faiz’s conversion to the Pakistani cause, and it’s not long before he’s sent over the border to become a trained guerrilla fighter. The plotline occasionally drops in intensity and force; Faiz’s time in Pakistan is incredibly smooth for example; but Waheed’s gorgeous descriptions of the Kashmir landscape are enough to captivate.
The book depicts the lives of many characters, and Faiz and Roohi are arguably two of the least intriguing. Faiz’s strong minded and noble brother, Mir Zafar Ali, who suffers humiliation at the hands of the soldiers, and Roohi’s naive younger brother, Rumi, who inadvertently becomes embroiled in a paramilitary plot against his own father, are two of the most compelling and heartbreaking characters.
Waheed may not provide much in the way of explanatory detail of the war (a quick Google search is incredibly helpful) but he is almost too exact in his precise and detailed descriptions of the street networks of Srinagar; it can feel disorientating and alienating trying to keep up. However, Waheed has crafted a beautifully authentic and at times mesmerising depiction of this too long neglected country – an admirable achievement.