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Byline: Adil Bhat

In a post-truth world, fiction tells the truth about the complexity of human relationships both emotional and moral that are embedded in the political and social realities of the time. Mirza Waheed's new novel, Tell Her Everything, centres on the element of guilt in human life and intertwines it with the moral dilemmas entrenched in larger existential issues. The unfolding of this domestic drama reinforces morality as the defining feature of relationships, with the person in question eventually being condemned to moral failure. In this novel, the moral complexity plays out in a man-woman relationship, man-man relationship and, strikingly, in a parent-child relationship, undergoing a gamut of emotions from alienation, detachment, pain, pathos and remorse to attachment, commitment, affection, fulfilment and satisfaction.

It is through these emotions that Waheed traces the predicament of modernity and modern aspirations by exploring the psyche of his characters. Waheed's emergence on the literary horizon occurred in 2011 with his debut masterpiece The Collaborator, which is set in Kashmir in the 1990s, when 'encounters' by the Indian army were the norm. His literary skills acquired a niche with his second novel, The Book of Gold Leaves, which defined him as a contemporary storyteller brimming with compassion and without limits to human imagination.

In Tell Her Everything, Waheed's protagonist Kaiser is a young doctor of Indian origin. Also known as Dr K, he is deeply convinced that it is man's duty to fight for life and chart a successful career even if it calls for compromising on the most basic principles of morality. This is visible in the first line of the novel: 'I did it for money.' This emphatically states the compulsion of living and the hard choices one has to make on the perilous path of ambition. More specifically, it refers to Dr K's 'tertiary role in the justice system' where he operates on prisoners brought in from the Department of Corrections 'an elaborate modern prison, a place where justice is dispensed' where he finds himself complicit in doing the dirty job that scars him for life.

Mirza Waheed's third novel is an exploration of moral dilemmas and existential issues and the element of guilt in human relationships

It is this complicity that the doctor wants to tell 'Her', his daughter. The overarching theme of this work of fiction is the ethical dilemmas that Dr K faces in his profession, which shape his decisions and his filial relations with his beloved and deceased wife Atiya, his estranged daughter Sara and his only fellow-Indian friend Biju, who is an integral part of the K household.

The story begins when Dr K is in his 60s and living as a retired medical practitioner in an affluent neighbourhood in London. He is engaged in a monologue, contemplating writing a letter to his daughter wherein he would Tell Her Everything the story about the difficult choice he made, that transgressed a moral principle. In this urge to get over the guilt that preys upon him, Dr K reminisces about his difficult past, drawing the reader's empathy towards this person who is torn between chasing his ambition and, in the process, sacrificing his love for his daughter Sara.

The retrospective tells us that, hailing from the city of Saharanpur in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Dr K belonged to a middle-class Indian Muslim family. Living in post-colonial India, Kaiser and his family's journey reveals their trials and tribulations arising from a meagre income, the emphasis on middle-class values, the inane prejudices that come with a culture rooted in religion and the quest to break the class divide, which is very visible in the lives of young Kaiser and his happy-go-lucky friend Biju.

A doting husband and, later, a devoted widower, Kaiser's loss of Atiya is like a wound that he doesn't try to heal, believing that it is 'best left open.' Following Atiya's death, Dr K sends his only child Sara away to the United States where she grows up under the care of her uncle Aqil and aunt Zaynab. Dr K's reassurances of love to his daughter are as powerful as the remorse that he feels for his actions that led to the long years of separation between father and child, with both sides yearning for togetherness and struggling to 'snap out of [our] cycles of separation.'

Dr K's reminiscences about his past, and his efforts to come to terms with the scratches on his mind, lead the reader towards Carl Jung's analytical psychology, where the psychoanalyst talked about accepting the darkness of the self and others. Jung proposed that knowing your own darkness was the best method for dealing with the darkness of other people; Dr K's efforts to reach out to his separated daughter can be seen through the perspective of Jung's thesis of accepting one's darkness. At one point in the novel, Sara in expressing her desire to inhabit the same space as her father and sit next to him to close the separation of years says, 'I wanted to try and lift the darkness from your face so I could see my father ... the price of your professional misstep, or what you chose to do, shouldn't have been me.'

Sara's anguish and anxiety, along with Dr K's moments of withdrawal, loneliness and isolation, give a rhythm to the narrative of the novel. However, there are instances when the cadence of the story is irregular and repetitive, making the book appear to be a drag. Compared to his earlier writings, the present work does not leave Waheed's lasting imprint on the reader.
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Publication:Dawn (Karachi, Pakistan)
Date:May 5, 2019
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