The Book of Gold Leaves…A Love Story set in conflict

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All love stories set in wartimes must negotiate hazardous terrain. Why should we care about a couple of thwarted sweethearts in the midst of so much death and despair? Great love-in-war novels must nurture both themes simultaneously. And the love must be the kind that can only be born out of war: forbidden, desperate and usually doomed.

Mirza Waheed’s second novel, following his first ‘The Collaborator’, which was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book award, begins as a classic, written-in‑the-stars love story set during the 90s in Kashmir. Two lovers are destined to meet in the city of Srinagar. Roohi is a beautiful, spirited girl who is haunted by the dreams of a mysterious man she believes is her true love. Faiz is a young papier-mâché artist on the cusp of painting his masterpiece who supports his large Sunni family in Srinagar. Faiz sees Roohi, a beautiful Shia woman, across the courtyard of a shrine, letting down her long black hair and waiting for a love story to sweep her away.

And so it comes, swiftly and sentimentally. The tone in the opening chapters is unashamedly romantic, when fate conspires to bring them together one windswept evening, both fall irrevocably in love. But it is the 90’s when Kashmir was simmering with political strife.

Kashmir, Faiz and Roohi’s love story begins but soon Faiz too crosses the boundary of LoC to be trained as a militant just like every other common Kashmiri man and thus begins Roohi’s long wait for her love to come back to her. After reading this book from university friend, I was very much compelled to purchase this book. The book simply made me accustomed with Kashmir’s sorrowful history.

The author has strikingly captured the art and the intricate detailing’s contained in a papier-mâché product through the book’s cover image. The author’s writing style is incredibly lyrical and exquisite just like any delicate and intricate papier-mâché artist’s handi work. The writing is also laced with some emotions that are sometimes quite vulnerable and sometimes extremely heart-felt and at times a bit overwhelming. The narrative is not only inspired by the local Kashmiri dialect but is also real, engaging and evocative that will only make the readers turn the pages of this book frantically. The pacing is swift as there are so much vivid details and descriptions about the history, the back stories, the landscape and everything that only adds a Kashmiri flair into the story line.

The backdrop that the author arrested into the pages of this book is not only striking but also extremely lively which will only act as a time machine for the readers that will transport them not only back in a forgotten and deadly era in Kashmir’s history but also to this very paradise, where Persian poet Amir-e-Khusru Dehluvi once quoted,

Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast,

Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast.

If there is paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.And the author have managed to captured the words of this famous poet while painting the picturesque backdrop of Kashmir with its green valleys and meadows and clear blue stream flowing amidst the snow-white-capped mountains into the heart of the city. The timeline aptly syncs with the projection of the then Kashmir when the war not only changed the lives of the common and innocent Kashmiri folks but also changed the whole ecology of this paradise.

The characters, may not be the strongest aspect of this book, but the author has developed them strongly and strikingly by bringing out their Kashmiri charm and their patriotism while penning this story. Faiz is an intense and hard-working man who provides for his very large family although at his free time, he loses himself secretly into the canvas and colours of his own creation of a painting. Faiz is a common man and unrest and injustice done upon his family easily wakes up the sleeping patriotism within him, when he joins the Pakistan-trained militant group across the borders of Kashmir. Faiz’s story captures the everyday struggle of a common and innocent Kashmiri man during the 90s. Roohi, on the other hand, is a clichéd character, who is extremely beautiful, educated, loyal and obedient, someone almost with no flaws, hence I found myself hard to connect with Roohi’s feelings. The rest of the supporting cast of distinct and interesting characters will easily keep the readers hooked into the story. The romance is painted with innocence, passion and so much charm that it will easily melt the readers’ hearts for these two love birds. The romance developed gradually with the correct feelings that will not only move the readers but will also fill the reader’s hearts with a sense of longing and nostalgia. Although the romance between them evolves from something compassionate to something as painful as separation awaits them midway into the story.

Overall, this love story so well sways in the backdrop of brutal Kashmiri violence during the 90s, when the local Kashmiri youth joined hands with the armed groups to fight with the Indian Army. From the historical point of view, the story is realistic and really intriguing, but from the love affair’s point of view, the story could have been much more enchanting and little less predictable. There’s nothing that I didn’t love about this book – from its gorgeous cover to its gorgeous characters and the beautifully narrated strong and poignant story line. Mirza Waheed has crafted a beautiful story of people whose lives were inexplicably torn apart with generations of violence. Highly recommended! Reading this book is like someone is describing it by painting; a beautiful choreography of words, a watercolour painting of the story. The plot revolves around two lovers in KASHMIR, their paths connected and torn between political tension and disturbance of the city. But they are not the only characters. The foremost character of this book is the city itself.

Kashmir, the magnificent Kashmir!! Mirza Waheed has done a fantastic job by making a picturesque description of this age old beauty. The Jhelum river, the Mughal gardens, the Chinar tree, the Shikara, the old town of its shrine, mosque, all the narrow lanes with smell of spices; everything become so vivid, so natural that the user will be enthralled by it. Those having this view that revolt against Indian rule means that Kashmiris want to join Pakistan are wrong. The author gives the impression that there’s a strong Kashmiri identity separate from India and Pakistan.

This book doesn’t explain the origins of revolt or violence in Kashmir, however, it does a very good job of showing what was happening in 80s in Kashmir. The interesting thing in this novel is the relationship between Hindus and Muslims during this time of trouble. Although most Hindus had to leave Kashmir valley but the assumption that most Muslims turned against them after the violence started is wrong. It’s a good read for anyone interested in the human cost of violence in Kashmir. A love story set in a world of conflict, it is set apart by the lyrical prose, the beautiful descriptions and the depth of all its characters.  I have been more affected by the characters in the background Mir Zafar Ali, Principal Shanta Koul, Farhat Engineer and others inhabiting the world of Roohi’s and Faiz’s love story. The book left me feeling melancholic on every page. This book needs to be read slowly and savoured for the prose.

The remainder of “The Book of Gold Leaves” is about his journey back to Roohi, the flourishing of their Sunni-Shia romance (an irony of war being that when normal rules are suspended, all kinds of freedoms follow) and the daily drip-drip of tragedies, brutalities and shocks of a conflict that, since 1989, has claimed the lives of 70,000 people. Kashmir is now the most militarised zone in the world, and Waheed captures the lives of a traumatised people forced to live alongside ever growing numbers of Indian armed forces fighting ever growing numbers of Pakistan-sponsored insurgents. The effect of this tense novel is cumulative, its sense of dread rising until the nightmarish finale; a communal outpouring of grief in which Waheed locates an incredible defiance. “People are expected to be dead at night, to rise again only when the curfew ends,” he writes. “But people have defied curfews before. In moments of anger, in moments of unbearable grief, or when it simply doesn’t matter whether you live or not.” Kashmir, a conflict remembered mostly for being forgotten, badly needs storytellers like Waheed. He writes about war with a devastating and unflinching calm, with the melancholy wisdom of someone attuned to but never hardened by its horrors.

Mirza Waheed has penned an enthralling tale of forbidden love in a state which is disrupted by war, blood and politics in his book, “The Book of Gold Leaves” where the author weaves a painful yet enlightening love story where two young souls meet and fall for the very first time in a war-torn Kashmir. But the politics and the blood-thirsty agenda of then Kashmir threatens to strip away the happiness of these two souls found in each other.

(Shah Khalid is a Srinagar based freelance Journalist having a Diploma in Journalism & Mass Communication from MANUU Hyderabad& is presently pursuing Electrical Engineering at IUST Awantipora)

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