During a book reading session of The Collaborator, author Mirza Waheed's debut novel, in Srinagar, an old man asked him to stop, sobbing. For the old man, Waheed's words about Kashmir were more overwhelming than the sad reality. Waheed's fictional account of Kashmir - which has seen over 70,000 deaths in the past two decades - was haunting, and rattling.
But in Waheed's own words, the 'uncertain first book' was just the beginning. The 40-year-old author is out with his second novel - The Book of Gold Leaves. Set in Srinagar, the novel is a gripping tale of love.
When you walk into his hotel room, the poised author, paces with an aura that not many writers possess. In no hurry to start the interview on his latest novel, he leisurely finishes cigarette, offers coffee and brews some for himself, and takes his time to settle before we begin.
The Kashmiri writer, at the moment, is busy garnering rave reviews for his book. He's in a comfortable writing space, he claims without missing a beat.The Book of Gold Leaves is a love story at a time of conflict, war, violence and brutality. In that world, there are two people who fall in love - Faiz and Roohi. Based in Kashmir, they are two very different people in characteristics.
"Roohi is the heart of my novel. I love her. She has fascinating ideas. She wants to be Juliana, the assistant to the famous South Asian detective Imran (from the Imran series by Ibn-e-Safi). But because of the person she is, very soon she abandons the idea. She has a mythical side to her," he gushed.
Waheed weaves his characters some from his memory and some of it is part of the plotting.
He gets the best of lines at wee hours for which he quickly puts in a mail to "Mirza Waheed" from "Mirza Waheed". He likes inventing things. But they're hard days as well in the life of a writer.
"Oh well, you don't meet people for days and days. It is a solitary existence. After all you're creating things and I don't plot in a major way," he said while he poured himself another cup of black coffee.
"I grew up in Srinagar both by the Dal Lake and in the city. As we call it the "purana sheher". You draw from reality. I create a world, texture from my influences."
Writers staying away from their hometowns often get flak for their "lax" writing, does that bother Waheed?
"There are these strange abbreviations that we've created - NRI, NRP et cetera. Yeah, I mean I don't live there anymore but I live, you know. I have lived. I moved away for various reasons. But does my relationship become any different from the place I come from? No! There is that detachment which helps the writer to stay honest to the story. Distance sometimes help. If I was there, I don't know if I had still written about the same thing. It might have been a different novel."
Writings on Kashmir have mostly been on the conflict and the painful history the valley has. But of late, with movies like Vishal Bhardwaj's Haider, people got a chance to know of the other side to the place. Similarly, Waheed's book brings us the poignant love story in the beautiful scenic Kashmir. The focus of the book is on the characters and how they deal with their outer world rather than the politics.Waheed has leisurely described his protagonists, so much so that one would fall in love with them. The description comes from his meticulous observation. During his stay in Srinagar, he has observed people in and out. He would notice them at dusk and dawn. Those things inform their sensibilities, he says.
"I used to run out of the house to play with "street" kids. You know, you're forbidden. I played with the rough kids. They lead a life. They just don't stay cocooned in front of the TV or a book."
"Kashmir is a beautiful and a charming place of magic. The novel which is set in downtown Srinagar, has taught me life lessons," he says. The people who live there are organic in nature, Waheed points out.
Since Bollywood has always had interest in Kashmir and Waheed's love story fits very well there, would he be interested in pitching it? "If I get a decent director and a scriptwriter, yes. I can't do scripts. And no item numbers please," he quips.
Shoving the popular belief about Kashmiri writers only writing on the conflict, Waheed says it is not an agenda. He might one day write on science fiction. In fact, he wants to write a short story on Bhogal - a congested residential area near Jangpura, where he has shortly lived.
"It's an amazing place. It has got history. It used to be a village. It's a layered place with interesting people and immigrants. Coming back to Kashmir, whether I will continue writing on it? Yes and No. Yes because I will write about Kashmir as it is my sensibility as a writer. This is where I lived. I ate, I wounded, and I learned swimming in the Dal Lake. It was pristine."
The writer is particularly fascinated by the auto drivers. He has used them in the novel also. "They're an astounding figure. They're people. They have stories."
Waheed is possessive about his writing space and but not fussy about the physical space he writes in. He writes anywhere and everywhere including the kitchen table.
The writer, who has also been praised for not discriminating against Kashmiri Pandits in his book, finds it extremely outlandish to go into that debate.
"Why should I be praised for not doing the wrong? Why would I be biased? Everyone suffered in the early 90s. I never wanted to get into the race of who suffered more. People still don't know how massive it was. It was a moment of rupture," he says.
I would never make that kind of statement on the conflict. I am not a political scientist. I am not a historian. I am not a memoirist. I am a good old-fashioned novelist."