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

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight

Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.


In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.


Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.


The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.


The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.

If financial drama is your thing, then block your weekend for Billions. You can catch it on Hotstar Premium, a platform that offers a wide collection of popular and Emmy-winning shows such as Game of Thrones, Modern Family and This Is Us, in addition to live sports coverage, and movies. To subscribe, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.