Faiz scratches the paint from his nails, not all of it, though, as he sometimes feels different, less himself, if he does not see his hands flecked with the colours he has worked with during the day, and tries to decide whether he should go to the mosque or to the shrine first. He turns on the radio to listen to All India Radio’s Urdu Service, which plays the best music for evenings such as these, the finest ghazals he can find on any radio station. He turns to his creations, the floor full of them, finished, semi-finished and just-begun pieces spread all around him. The half-done pencil boxes present hills and jungles in formation, and animals in chase with no quarry in sight.
A tiger sparkles golden here, and a deer cranes its neck against the blue of the sky. A lion reclines, its eyes red with passion, and the end of its tail a fine blond goblet, Faiz’s signature style and a would-be master’s sign, Rangrez the old paint-seller says. Only one box is fully finished and varnished. Faiz did it at the beginning as a sample for Peer, who wants all the boxes to look exactly like this one. That is always the specification, Faiz knows, and that is why he always keeps the master artifact in front of him, but he can never quite bring himself to produce exact replicas, even though he is capable of it. He will always add a little something to each piece, a tiny nightingale that peeks out of a corner bush, a gazelle darting across a border, a kingfisher’s reflection in a turquoise pool, a Persian couplet intertwined with a forest vine. The only time he does not do it is when, towards the end of a job, he starts to worry he has been away too long from his secret personal work- in- progress, Falaknuma, the biggest canvas he has ever embarked upon, his life’s work.
His eyes stop on a small screen he had finished just before the pencil boxes arrived. It’s a copy of the painting Mustafa Peer had allowed him to trace with pencil in his presence, taking the original back with him when Faiz was done. In the centre of the screen, the Persian poet Omar Khayyám, leaning against ornate cushions on a narrow boat, is holding a papier-mâché cup into which a woman with the most beautiful hair Faiz has ever seen is pouring wine from a long, curved flask. The flow of the wine, by design it seems, reflects the woman’s tresses. The river the boat is floating along – there is no boatman – is a pale blue, revealing dark weeds, water plants and golden fish. Tall grasses grow on either side of the river and the world outside is not visible except for the blue-black sky that has no moon but a multitude of stars. Faiz remembers painting each of them with great care, washing his brush for every new star.
He turns back to the centre of the screen and remembers the cup. Was the painting on the cup a miniature replica of the main painting – Khayyám is again holding a cup as the woman with the dark hair pours wine into it – in the original too?
The evening is beginning to slip into night. Faiz switches off the radio and heads out.
About the book
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, the Falaknuma. When fate conspires to bring them together one windswept evening, both fall irrevocably in love. But it is the 1990s. Kashmir is simmering with political strife and rebellion, and it is only a matter of time before Srinagar is engulfed in the gathering storm. Before they know it, the city they call home is besieged and erupts in violence, threatening everything the two lovers hold dear.
About the author
Mirza Waheed was born and brought up in Kashmir. His debut novel, The Collaborator, was an international bestseller, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Shakti Bhatt Prize, and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize. It was also the Book of the Year for Telegraph, New Statesman, Financial Times, Business Standard among others. Waheed has written for the BBC, Guardian, Granta, Guernica, Al Jazeera English and the New York Times. He lives in London.
(Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Random House India)