Review: Tell Her Everything by Mirza Waheed
In Mirza Waheed’s delicately layered new novel, a retired doctor recounts his life’s circumstances and choices, presenting a desperate portrait of unrelenting guilt. “You know, Urdu has perhaps the finest word for autobiography. Two words, as a matter of fact. Savanah-e-Umri - the occurrences or accidents of one’s life, literally. I like it over everything else. Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t that what really happens to us all, occurrence, accident?” he says.
Dr Kaiser Shah worked as a physician at a hospital in West Asia for more than two decades – “a perfectly ordinary job on most days.” Occasionally, “over ten years or so, let’s say… I must’ve seen maybe fifteen, eighteen or twenty such cases – alright, maybe a few more” he executed the amputation of convicts. But this is not a novel about punitive amputation. Although it made this reader wonder and research it, as well as doctor’s participation in mutilation punishment and the death penalty. Turns out, Dr K is completely made up – but his feelings are real and relatable.
Tell Her Everything is a sedate exploration of moral accountability, of the ethics and emotions of morality. It is a study of the interior life of a man tormented by his complicity – a feeling not specific to executioners.
“The past remains with you, no matter what. It’s silly when people say, oh, the past catches up with you, it haunts you and so on. I’ve always carried it with me. It’s here, there, everywhere… under my very skin,” he addresses his daughter Sara in a series of imaginary conversations. He’s rehearsing to tell her everything – the story of his life and all the ghosts milling around him – for her to judge the severity of his crimes.
Sara was five when her mother Atiya suddenly died. Dr K sentenced himself to solitude and sent their daughter away. 20 years too late, he tries to fill his silences. He wants Sara to understand where he came from: his once aristocratic family reduced to poverty in Saharanpur after Partition, the Indian drive to move abroad and make money, at all costs. He would like to talk to her about Atiya and her death. He tries to make sense of their friend Biju, a Malayali doctor, who played both his witness and judge.
Waheed’s previous novels, The Collaborator (2011) and The Book Of Gold Leaves (2014), were set in Kashmir where he grew up. He moved to London, where he is now based, as a journalist for the BBC, a job he quit to write full time. Dr K retired in London where he tells this story. Sara lives is in the United States. The major chunk of the narrative is set in an unnamed country near Dubai. So immigration – the vulnerability of immigrants – is an omnipresent theme. “You don’t want to remember you’re a migrant all the time, but everything around you reminds you of it,” he says. He suspects his immigrant status was a reason for his selection for the job – and why he did it. Would he have been asked if he hadn’t been a grateful Indian immigrant respectful of authority? One by one and over and over again, he offers explanations for his motives. He pleads classic Indian fatalism and determinism: “What is destiny but an intricate scheme, a saazish, a plan?” He goes over his childhood, the losses he’s suffered, happier times and memories to cope. None of it works, he tries again.
While Waheed’s sad old protagonist rehearses his confessions, a kind of an intimacy is created between Dr K and the reader who may feel like a stand-in for the absent daughter, absorbing fatherly advice that’s peppered in between. It is disappointing when Waheed introduces Sara via a few letters. These could have been a respite, but whatever perspective they were meant to offer is lost because they’re written like a textbook.
Dr K is repetitive, a sign of depression which begins to feel weary three-quarters into the novel. But it’s also what keeps a quiet suspense going. Details are first withheld and then divulged by and by; abandoned chains of thoughts are linked one by one. Even through dull sections, readers will look for clues to point out the primary source of Dr K’s guilt. Was it his first amputation? Or the worst one? Does it have something to do with Atiya’s death? Why did Biju taunt him so much after her death? How do you measure crime and complicity? Will he really tell Sara – and you – the whole truth?
Saudamini Jain is an independent journalist.