The Book of Gold Leaves is Mirza Waheed’s second book. Like most books, I picked this one up on a whim. When I started reading it, I wasn’t much impressed. The storyline had much in common with many Bollywood movies – a love story of a young couple threatened by war and religion, set against the backdrop of Kashmir.
The story revolves around a young Shia boy, Faiz, who is a papier mache artist and the main bread winner of the once well-to-do Mir family, who are still highly revered in the area. Faiz falls in love with the beautiful, headstrong and outspoken Roohi, who hails from a Sunni family. So far, Roohi has managed to thwart all suggestions of marriage made by her mother and has also managed to finish her Masters’ degree, an anomaly in itself as most girls were married off much earlier.
Up until this point, the book is quite cliched – boy and girl meet, write love letters, meet in secret places and worry about how their families would ever agree to this match.
However, as I continued reading, the story became more and more compelling. Written in a simple yet engaging manner, its’s hard to miss the author’s subtle nuances and the underlying references to the age-old differences between Shias and Sunnis; Hindus and Muslims; the seething hatred of Kashmiris towards the militarisation of their lands, etc.
The book becomes interesting once the army takes over a girls’ school and starts setting up bunkers across the city. The hatred felt by the principal of the school towards the army commander and his men, who seem to have taken over the school and the only life she knows; the killing of innocent children caught in a crossfire, and finally the closure of the school – have been captured beautifully by the author. The feelings of helplessness, dejection, fear and hatred are shared mutually by both, the army and the Kashmiris.
The story moves on to show how the killing of Faiz’s godmother pushes him over the edge and he decides to go across the border and gets radicalised. However, he never really becomes a hardcore militant as he vies to return home to his family and Roohi.
Throughout the book, Waheed cleverly depicts the underlying religious divide felt among the people of Kashmir through statements such as ‘Faiz’s mother has never been inside a Sunni home’, ‘owing to codes of piety, strict Shia and fastidious Brahmin, haven’t shared any meals;’ or ‘why a Shia boy, and a militant on top of that, when there are so many nice Sunni boys around.’
Infused with sadness and a darkness that has mired many a lives in Kashmir, the book depicts the atrocities, the humiliations and the bloodshed that have become a norm, even to this day in modern day Kashmir.