All love stories set in wartime must negotiate hazardous terrain. Why should we care about a couple of thwarted sweethearts in the midst of so much death and despair? Great love-in-war novels must nurture both themes simultaneously. And the love must be the kind that can only be born out of war: forbidden, desperate and usually doomed. MirzaWaheed’s second novel, following The Collaborator, which was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, begins as a classic, written-in?the-stars love story set during the 90s in Kashmir. Two lovers are destined to meet in the city of Srinagar. Roohi is a beautiful, spirited girl who is haunted by dreams of a mysterious man she believes is her true love. Faiz is a young papier-mâché artist on the cusp of painting his masterpiece who supports his large Sunni family in Srinagar. Faiz sees Roohi, a beautiful Shia woman, across the courtyard of a shrine, letting down her long black hair and waiting to fall in love. And so it comes, swiftly and sentimentally. The tone in the opening chapters is unabashedly romantic, when fate conspires to bring them together one windswept evening, both fall irrevocably in love. But it is the 90’s when Kashmir was simmering with political strife. Like other Kashmiri men in te 90s, Faiz too crosses the Line of Control to be trained as a militant in Pakistan. The author strikingly captured the art and the intricate detailing’s contained in a papier-mâché product through the book’s cover image. And like any delicate and intricate papier-mâché artist’s handiwork, Waheed’swriting style is incredibly lyrical and exquisite. The writing is also laced with emotions that at times are quite vulnerable and heart-felt and at a bit overwhelming at others. The narrative is not only inspired by the local Kashmiri dialect but is also real, engaging and evocative that will only make the readers turn the pages of this book more frantically. The pacing is swift as there are vivid details and descriptions about the history, the back stories, the landscape and everything that only adds further Kashmiri flair into the story line. Overall, this love story blends well in the backdrop of brutal Kashmiri violence during the 90s, when local youth joined hands with armed groups to fight the Indian Army The backdrop that the author arrested into the pages of this book is not only striking but also extremely lively tatwill act as a time machine for the reader tattransports them to not only a forgotten and deadly era in Kashmir’s history but also to this very paradise, about wicPersian poet Amir-e-Khusru Dehluvi once said: Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameenast, Hameenast-o hameenast-o hameenast (If there is paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here). And the author manages to capture the words of this famous poet while painting the picturesque backdrop of Kashmir with its green valleys and meadows and clear blue stream flowing amidst the snow-white-capped mountains into the heart of the city. The timeline aptly syncs with the projection of the then Kashmir when the war not only changed the lives of the common and innocent Kashmiri folks but also the whole ecology of this paradise. The characters may not be the strongest aspect of this novel, but the author has developed tem strikingly by bringing out their Kashmiri charm and their patriotism. Faiz is an intense and hard-working man who provides for his large family and paints secretly in is free time. Heis a common man and theunrest and injustice done upon his family easily wakes up the sleeping giant of patriotism in him and he joins the Pakistan-trained militant group as a result. Faiz’s story captures the everyday struggle of a common and innocent Kashmiri man during the 90s. Roohi, on the other hand, is a clichéd character, who is extremely beautiful, educated, loyal and obedient, someone almost with no flaws, hence I it harder to connect with her character. The rest of the supporting cast of distinct and interesting characters will easily hook the readers into the story. The romance between Faiz and Roohiis painted with innocence, passion and charm. Tier love story is not only moving but will also fill reader’s hearts with a sense of longing and nostalgia. the romance between them evolves from something compassionate to something as painful as te separation awaiting them. Overall, this love story blends well in the backdrop of brutal Kashmiri violence during the 90s, when local youth joined hands with armed groups to fight the Indian Army. From a historical point of view, the story is realistic and intriguing, but the love story could have been much more enchanting and a little less predictable. There’s nothing that I didn’t love about this book – from its gorgeous cover to its gorgeous characters and the beautifully narrated strong and poignant story line. Mirza Waheed has crafted a beautiful story of people whose lives were inexplicably torn apart with generations of violence. Reading it is like someone describing a beautiful choreography watercolour painting. The plot revolves around two lovers in Kasmir, their paths connected and torn between political tension and disturbance of the city. But they are not the only characters. The foremost character of this book is the city itself –the magnificent Kashmir. Waheed has done a fantastic job of narrating a picturesque description of this age old beauty. The Jhelum river, the Mughal gardens, the Chinar tree, the Shikara, the old town, all the narrow lanes with smell of spices; everything becomes so vivid, so natural that the reader will be enthralled. Those with the preconceived notion that revolt against Indian rule means that Kashmiris want to join Pakistan are wrong. The author gives the impression that there’s a strong Kashmiri identity separate from that of an India and Pakistani. An interesting note is the relationship between Hindus and Muslims during this time of trouble. Although most Hindus had to leave Kashmir valley but the assumption that most Muslims turned against them after the violence started is wrong. It’s a good read for anyone interested in the human cost of violence in Kashmir. A love story set in conflict thatis set apart by the lyrical prose, the beautiful descriptions and the depth of all its characters. I have been more affected by the characters in the background Mir Zafar Ali, Principal Shanta Koul, Farhat, an engineer and others inhabiting the world of Roohi’s and Faiz’s love story. The book left me feeling melancholic and needs to be read slowly and savoured for its prose. The remainder of The Book of Gold Leaves is about Faiz’s journey back to Roohi, the flourishing of their Sunni-Shia romance (the irony of war being that when normal rules are suspended, all kinds of freedoms follow) and the daily drip-drip of tragedies, brutalities and shocks of a conflict that, since 1989, has claimed the lives of 70,000 people. Kashmir is now the most militarised zone in the world, and Waheed captures the lives of a traumatised people forced to live alongside an ever growing numbers of Indian armed forces fighting equally growing numbers of Pakistan-sponsored insurgents. The effect of this tense novel is cumulative, its sense of dread rising until the nightmarish finale; a communal outpouring of grief in which theauthor locates an incredible defiance. “People are expected to be dead at night, to rise again only when the curfew ends,” he writes. “But people have defied curfews before. In moments of anger, in moments of unbearable grief, or when it simply doesn’t matter whether you live or not.” Kashmir, a conflict remembered mostly for being forgotten, badly needs storytellers like him. He writes about war with a devastating and unflinching calm, with the melancholy wisdom of someone attuned to but never hardened by its horrors. Waheed has penned an enthralling tale of forbidden love in a state which is disrupted by war, blood and politics. InThe Book of Gold Leaves e weaves a painful yet enlightening love story of two young souls who meet and fall in love in a war-torn Kashmir. Shah Khalid is freelance journalist, based in Srinagar Published in Daily Times, September 20th 2018.