Mirza Waheed: The Writer of Small Things

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Mirza Waheed in his new novel excavates the grey area between complicity and consent while exploring the banality of evil

Tell Her Everything | Mirza Waheed | Context | 234 pages | Rs 599

IN DECEMBER 2014, when we met last, Mirza Waheed was like a cricketer denied his pitch. All he wanted to do was talk about the sport. And he did, with a passion and eloquence, describing his bendy wrist and mean leg spin for the Authors Cricket Club (or Authors CC) in London. Cricket at that time was as much about leaving the house, enjoying the exertions, brandishing bruises, as it was a “game of return”, transporting him to Kashmir, which he left in 1993 for Delhi University and later for a job with the BBC.

But when we met a fortnight ago, in Delhi, cricket had been elbowed to the balcony, and fatherhood had taken centre stage. Waheed, who is the father of a nine-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter, now seems happiest describing parenthood; cricket will just have to wait as he no longer has weekends to spare. It is little surprise then that his new novel Tell Her Everything (Context; 234 pages; Rs 599) pivots around a father-daughter relationship, while dealing with much more.

As the stay-home adult, with his wife working full time at the BBC, he wrote this novel when parenting allowed him to. It took him a few months to realise that his primary concern was not this book, but a little person. “You don’t have the luxury, ‘Oh, I am going to be in the zone now. What zone! There is someone saying, ‘Dad I need to wee now.’ You do the usual thing of parenting, which is you spend a lot of money, to wipe a lot of shit. But if I were asked, [parenting] is the most fascinating and delightful thing. Even if you are devastated by the time you put them to bed.”

Waheed is an author devoid of artifice. He is quick to laugh and entertain. Over the years, his Kashmiri lilt seems to be fading out to a more British twang. He tends to draw out words when he wants to make a point. A poor sleeper while travelling, he is nursing a heavy head, and is glad when a paracetamol comes to his aid. He is amused rather than outraged when the hotel staff insist that he has got his own room number wrong. He knows that bluster is for the insecure; he prefers to be amicable.

The triumph of Tell Her Everything is that it slithers away from neat categories. It is a love story. But it is not just that. It is a thriller. But the big reveal is a series of smaller disclosures. It is a political novel. But it doesn’t deal with politics. It is a monologue. But it is also a conversation. It could be a memoir. But it is more of a confession.

Kashmir was the beating heart of Waheed’s previous novel, The Book of Gold Leaves (2014). In Tell her Everything, there is no overt Kashmir, Dr Kaiser Shah is from Saharanpur, who came to England 34 years ago as a 27-year-old. The novel is a “rehearsal” of a conversation that he has as an affluent doctor, with a house overlooking the Thames, with his now 25-year-old daughter Sara. In this imagined conversation, Dr K tries to explain why he did what he did as a surgeon, at the behest of his superiors. His daughter Sara is not actually present during the conversation, but Dr K imagines her voice in the form of letters that she writes to him from a train in the US. In these letters we hear the voice of a young woman who is prospering professionally but feels betrayed by her dearest father.

I was interested in the intersections of doctors and hospitals and the judicial systems and justice, says Mirza Waheed

The novel took seed in Waheed’s head during conversations with friends in the field of medicine about what happens “in the intersections of doctors and hospitals and the judicial systems and justice”. Having taken five years to write this novel, Waheed says, “it was a hard book to write”, as it required getting into the doctor’s head and trying to unpick why and how a ‘good man’ crosses moral and ethical boundaries at work while being a perfectly loving and devoted son, father and husband at home. He says, “I briefly toyed with the third-person, but then I thought the language has to be his. Equally then, very soon, I began to be very interested in the form of the novel. How will it be narrated. That was an exciting part. It wasn’t all torment.”

He wrote the letters from the daughter on the balcony of his apartment in London at night, with a notebook on his lap, and all in long hand. The tone of these letters is distinct from the voice of Dr K. It is the voice of an erudite daughter trying to make sense of her father’s behaviour, she might even forgive him, but she cannot reconcile with his decisions. Waheed gets the feel of these letters right; the voice is stagey (as all letters are), but they are also heartfelt and accusatory (as letters from children to parents can often be.) Waheed says, “It is difficult to write women. When I say ‘difficult’, it is not a question of getting it right. It is a question of having the correct tone, which you cannot possess as a male.” The only way to achieve it is to spend enough time working on it.

When it comes to South Asian writers living abroad, the immigrant novel has become a trope. With novel after novel reworking the same premise; a not-so-well-to-do man arrives in the West with dreams in his head, and hope in his heart, he struggles at first, but eventually succeeds via hard work and determination. Waheed is also fatigued by the trite lines of ‘When the Westerner comes here, he is an expat, when we go there, we are immigrants.’ Such stereotypes and whingeing hold little draw for him. He is keen to excavate the larger issues: like the nature or work and choice. He says that if this is a book about a father-daughter relationship, it is also about the migrants. “Who are the migrants of the world?” he asks, “Broadly speaking, when migrants move elsewhere, they do two kinds of work. They do the kind of work the host community might not want to do, or can’t do… What do they end up doing at times to have a better life? They make compromises in their lives. Sometimes they end up dwelling in worlds that are greyer.”

Waheed is interested in these grey areas, between evil and good; between consent and complicity; between success and failure. As Dr K says early in the book, ‘Integration, I’ve come to understand, Sara, is basically a part of the migrant-immigrant- refugee’s job description. They should just say it at the top. Integrate, assimilate, or else. Or else what? Annihilate, immolate, evaporate, disintegrate?’

It is dishonest, for anyone to say, ‘Oh, I am a free agent.’ Kashmir has defined me. But there is also more. You’ve read stuff, seen stuff, and that also defines you as a writer

What do people do to integrate, to prevent disintegration? What do ‘good’ people do in unusual circumstances? What do they do to ensure the best for their children and their families? Unethical acts are not committed by evil people, they are merely brought to fruition by good people, who are not good enough. As the daughter Sara writes in a letter to her father, ‘You are a good man, a very good man: that’s the reason you became a perfect wreck. You are, certainly were, a great father. A good man, a good father. But not good enough.’

I ask Waheed how he understands complicity, as embodied by the figure of Dr K, is it simply a question of not being good enough. He says, “With this person, he doesn’t think he is complicit in anything. He thinks he is part of the system, he must follow the rules of the system, because he is a correct man… His complicity occurs in a small, creeping way. It is quite banal as well.”

While Kashmir is not obvious in this novel, Waheed’s concerns with his home state filter through. In Tell Her Everything, the reader is once again confronted with the machinations of the State and the perils of living in a “morally exhausted world”. How do ordinary people behave in an imperfect, even cruel world? This imperfect world is oiled by a State. What do states do, Waheed asks. “It is not merely being disproportionate in its exercise of power. It is about how you’ve arrived at a point where within your policy framework a decision has been made. It is not an accident. It is not an oops moment; that you’ve arrived at a rationale where men—there are mostly men in the State—who’ve convinced themselves that it is perfectly alright to have a system, and that is a word I choose very carefully, to have a system, in place, which will inevitably, definitely, result in the blinding of children… You’ve accepted a moral ethical compromise.”

These are travesties which upset him “not only as a Kashmiri writer”, but as “a writer, and as a person.” He adds, “There is also another layer, it is not that dictatorships are perfectly free to do that. But as the world’s largest democracy, it doesn’t behove you to do that. These are people who might be protesting, might be throwing stones, but in my view of the world, it still does not justify shooting to blind people.”

Given our conversation, I feel compelled to ask a hackneyed question. Does he feel a responsibility as a Kashmiri writer today? He admits he has been posed this before, and now has a better answer. He says, “I’ve found a good word recently, I am happy to report. A better word. ‘Expectation’. And I understand that expectation. I respect that expectation. When you come from this place, this difficult place, this troubled place, it does define you in many ways. It is dishonest, for anyone to say, ‘Oh, I am a free agent.’ Kashmir has defined me. But there is also more. You’ve read stuff, seen stuff, and that also defines you as a writer.”

He refuses to be bogged down by the expectation that Kashmiri readers might have that he will only write about his home state. While he “understands and respects” that, he also has to pay heed to the voice in his own head, to explore other stories.

While Waheed is writing down notes for his next novel, he is also working on a “personal history of Srinagar”. In an article (published in the Herald, 2017) on Verinag, the source of the Jhelum where he spent time as a schoolboy in the 80s, one can get a sneak peek into what this personal history might be like. He describes a paradise wrecked by war, where solace can only be found in our common humanity. He writes, ‘In Kashmir, poetry issues from both gardens and graves. In our age of resentments, loathing, and normalised untruths, it seems a return to the primeval poetry of human existence is essential.’ In his fiction and nonfiction, Waheed reminds us that hope springs only in the ‘rudiments of the human heart’.