The Letter: From The Book of Gold Leaves

Mirza Waheed’s second novel is set in the 1990s. Kashmir is simmering with political strife and rebellion, and a city that lovers Roohi and Faiz call home erupts in violence. Here’s how they met.

On the fourth day after seeing Faiz, Roohi makes a connection. By way of a chain of cousins, their friends and the friends’ sisters at her former school — the Government Girls’ High School of Bohir Kadal, housed in that most intricate and elegant building of a hundred and one windows — Roohi finds Faiz’s doe-eyed youngest sister Farhat.

While Faiz had been still contemplating the meaning of the painting and the image of the girl with the long hair in the window, as he worried about finishing Mustafa Peer’s pencil-box order, Roohi, even though nerve-racked, decided to do something about it. She followed the boy in the pheran all the way to his home the next evening; he had not been able to see her from his seat by the chinar but she had seen him. From behind the curtains in her room, he had looked gentle, a bit lost perhaps, with a sad face she knew at once she wanted to see for the rest of her life.

Why didn’t she show her face? Why did she quietly follow at a distance? Should she not have made sure he saw her again? Should she not have gone to the shrine and walked past him, possibly even smiled at him? Should she perhaps have let her hair down once more? The truth is that Roohi, in spite of all her bravery, was in pain. All these years of waiting at her window, her secret has been her secret. Except Naseem Aunty, who has always had some idea of Roohi’s restless heart, she has never really allowed anyone into her dream world. It was only natural that Roohi wanted to relive that first moment, to savour its particular and acute delight, to make sure it was real. Was he like the boy from her dreams?

He had really been there, all by himself, smoking a cigarette. After his second visit to the shrine, she had thought hard about what to do next and, as though her legs knew where she must go, she had followed him home, to the great Mir Manzil, and that was where she had discovered, with a faint twinge, Oh, so he is a son of this family. One of the Mirs, the Mirs. That he is a Shia.

It wouldn’t be an entirely honest account of what happened that evening if it wasn’t made clear that her discovery did make her pause, that the thought did cross her mind, that images of an irate Mummy did fly into her head, that she did think about how furious, even violent, her brother Rumi might be, that she did contemplate how tor- mented Papa would be, for he loved her more than anyone . . .

But, then, these are matters of the heart, and in this case a young heart, which has waited for this moment all its life. Roohi may perhaps have spent half an evening contemplating this, during the walk back from Faiz’s Shia neighbourhood at the other end of the main road that leads to her home, but that was all. She did not have a choice. Later, she reproached her mind for trying to get in the way, for having even considered the ‘problem’.

Soon after, during some discreet enquiries about the Mirs, she found out that the youngest girl from the Mir house went to the same school as she had done a few years earlier. And a couple of distant- and near-cousin connections later, Roohi, mildly surprised at her own resourcefulness, and luck, of course, had been shown the girl. Farhat. Faiz’s sister.

Roohi walks behind Farhat for ten minutes until they have gone past the shopkeepers who have known her since she was a little girl with pigtails. The street climbs up briefly, narrows down as the shopkeepers’ encroachments eat away, inch by inch, at the ped-estrian path, and then descends into the square. There are dye merchants and dyers here, dealers in wedding materials, garlands and decorations, purveyors of laces and silk curtains, wholesale dealers in dried fruits, jaggery and sweets, and spice merchants too, seated in front of hill stations of red, yellow, orange and brown; there are also the city’s headscarf shops, a thousand shades draping the shop fronts, the shopkeepers often hidden away behind these waterfalls of colour, only the steps into the shops visible. Both Roohi and Farhat have bought dupattas and knitting yarn and scarves here and dreamt of their wedding clothes. It is here that Roohi finds her chance.

She puts a hand on Farhat’s bulky schoolbag. ‘It must be very heavy. Do they teach so much at school these days? I used to go there, too.’

Farhat looks at the hand and the dazzling face above her. ‘Oh, today is our laboratory class. I have brought my lab notebooks with me, that’s why. Salam alaikum.’

‘Walaikum salam. I wanted to give you this. It is for your brother. Give it to him when no one’s around, will you, for my sake? Please.’

‘Oh, oh, I mean yes, I will, I will . . .’

Farhat does not want to move, wants to know more about this girl, but is anxious she might be late for school. She turns, puzzled, pleased, to have been approached by this wonderfully dressed girl, and starts walking away. A minute later, she is back, running.

‘Which brother and what’s your name?’

‘The youngest. He will tell you.’ Roohi smiles, puts her hand on Farhat’s shoulder, says thank you and turns to leave.

It is only at her door that Roohi regains some sense of what she has done. What will he think of me?

Farhat somehow knows the letter is precious. She has waited all evening, through dinner and the long clear-up in the kitchen with her mother, Mouj. She has gone up three times to check her bag, the lab notebook and the letter pressed inside it. She has smelt it, detecting a faint whiff of Itr, the fragrance having found its way from Roohi’s clothes to the only letter pad she owns.

Soon, as Mouj puts away the last copper plate, each with a name etched on it in dotted calligraphy, Farhat runs up to Faiz’s room where he is taking the last drags on his final cigarette of the day. Amid the smoke and the dim light of his room, he sees his sister enter with a plain white envelope in her hands.
‘I met this beautiful girl near the school, she looks like lightning, and she gave me this. For you. Who is she, Faizả, who is she?’

Faiz pauses, his hand unsteady as it accepts the letter from the girl in the window.

There is a small problem. While he knows he can read Urdu, albeit with some effort, he is not sure if he should entirely trust his semi-literate eyes. The long black hair appears in his mind. Opening the envelope with his scratch knife, which he uses to peel off excess onion-skin or a redundant vein of paint from his pieces, he feels exhausted with excitement. Farhat smiles. She wants him to hurry. He cannot.

In the end, lighting another cigarette, he slowly pushes the open envelope to his beloved sister, who doesn’t say a word at this and starts reading.

Salam alaikum,

You may not know me, but I have known you for a very long time. I saw you at the shrine on Saturday evening. We should meet. Can we meet? We must meet. I will wait for you this Saturday, soon after Sham Namaz, near the graveyard behind the shrine. I’m sure you will come.

God bless, Roohi.

Roohi. Roohi.

Faiz cannot sleep. He has looked at the screen again, wondering, turning, thinking. The thought of coincidences hasn’t gone away. But the letter is clearly a most extraordinary thing. A girl, the girl in the window, wants to meet him. He has watched enough films on Doordarshan, and at the Khayyám and Shiraz cinemas, to know what the letter means, and yet he cannot decide what it really means to him. At the thought of meeting the girl, he feels an unmistakable churning in his heart, a pulse like never before and, perhaps, the seed of a life-changing moment too, but he can’t fully grasp it.

For a long time, he has hardly thought of his own self; his failure to be like everyone else and not to have climbed the neat school, college, government-job ladder, has always been on his mind and kept him hidden away in his world of paint. For a long time, Faiz has remained content with his immediately meaningful work, with the instant gratifications his brush brings him every hour of the day. It brings in money, it makes him valued in the house even though no one, apart from his big brother and his mother, acknowledges it in as many words.

Faiz’s engagement with the external world has always remained limited to the trips to Rangrez’s paint shop near the old Fateh Kadal Bridge and, of course, his visits to Red Square with his friends Showket and Majeed, where they marvel at the sight of fashionable modern girls and the new Maruti cars driven by the city’s rich men.

The weekly or sometimes twice-a-week trip to the paint shop is a necessity that Faiz loves. Near that bent wooden old bridge, which on some purple evenings appears as though an old dervish is hunched over the Jhelum, are small wooden shops, fronted by glass or cloth; some even have old hand-embroidered silk saris as sunshades. In the midst of G. M. Master Tailors & Drapers (Estab. 1953), Hridaynath Bhat Chemists & Druggists, owned and run by Pandit Hridaynath of the white turban fame – he has dispensed viscous cough syrups and Septran for the entire Mir clan for half a century, the doses meticulously marked by little towers of paper diamonds joined end to end – and Wani General Store & Kiryana Merchants (Sole Distributors and Retailers of Hamdard Unani Medicine) is Rangrez’s paint shop, an establishment nearly as old as the art of naqashi itself and a place where Faiz feels at perfect ease every time he visits.

There are thousands of little bottles on its shelves, some empty and some filled with paint that has turned to concrete. There are pouches here that contain pigments from the last century, and handmade brushes that Rangrez refuses to sell except to a select few clients, Faiz being one of them because he is Mir Mohammed Ali’s son. (There are also two rare brushes, with just a single hair to them, which the old man has promised himself he will leave to this young man.) There are little hills of pigment on the floor, each on its brass plate or a piece of old Dhaka muslin.

On a bright day, when Faiz sits by Rangrez’s seat, they look like moun- tain ranges of different colours, blue, purple, lavender, crimson, silver, blood, orange, green, and he often imagines going into them, wandering around each summit with his brush. What is his most prized purchase from Rangrez? Gold, gold dust or, more specifically, gold foil pasted onto leaves of a book that is called just that – the gold book – which he uses to embellish his pieces just before apply- ing the final coats of lacquer.

And what of Faiz’s contact with women? It has consisted of very little beyond this: evening gossip with the extended family’s girls by the lone walnut tree in the family courtyard, a pastime that has made him a lifelong confidant and a willing accomplice in their little adventures – a stolen visit to the cinema, a cigarette each handed over to the older second cousins Shakeela and Daisy, as well as to his own sister Shahida, and accompanying his niece Mehbooba, Mir Zafar’s eldest daughter and considerably older than Faiz, on her clandestine dates with her Sunni boyfriend, Waheed, until a couple of years ago.

He has, of course, always looked at women, especially the extraordinary girls who come out of the nearby college, and often imagined what it might be like. His physical contact with the female form, though, has remained strictly limited to accidental brushes against women’s bodies in a jam-packed minibus during his trips to Red Square, and then, too, he has always pulled himself away, except perhaps three times when the feel of a soft thigh through a crêpe burqa or a particularly tight college uniform has had the better of his genteel spirit.

It must, however, be said that, notwithstanding the momentary lapse of reason, Faiz always felt strange after these encounters: shame, guilt and fear of the unknown. But this is different, Faiz knows, as he turns in his bed for the hundredth time. He breaks into a smile as he looks at the screen again, the georgette headscarf he had draped over it having skidded off in the night breeze.

Excerpted with permission from The Book of Gold Leaves, by Mirza Waheed, Penguin India

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