In Mirza Waheed's Tell Her Everything, a doctor's filial love is pitted against 'morally exhausted' ambitions
Waheed's novel, that appears to be the story of a strained father-daughter relationship also depicts at a more fundamental level the ‘moral exhaustion’ of one man, father, husband and doctor who discovers just how much he has corrupted his soul in chasing after his ambitions
K’s narrative is filled with accounts of the torture and corporal punishments that are inflicted on the accused at this facility
And that it wasn’t until his retirement that he suspected he might have actually lost his soul the moment he decided to help Corrections.
Unattached to the social structures that define him, he [K] later finds himself adrift in a world where success, money, achievement count for far too much
“Sometimes I like to think that we live in a morally exhausted world. When was the last time we heard a country, a nation, or a group of people, say their goal is to be content, happy? Most say they want to be powerful.”
Author Mirza Waheed speaks of a blunt, ubiquitous truth: society's quest for global dominion and its inevitable trajectory towards the immoral and corrupt in pursuit of the said goal.
His latest work, Tell Her Everything, blends these larger musings on ethics with personal relationships and family secrets. What appears to be the story of a strained father-daughter relationship also depicts at a more fundamental level the ‘moral exhaustion’ of one man, father, husband and doctor who discovers just how much he has corrupted his soul in chasing after his ambitions.
A small town doctor from India, K travels to a foreign country to make money for his family. By and by along with his other duties at the hospital, he also starts operating on prisoners brought in from the Department of Corrections.
Waheed describes this penitentiary as “an elaborate modern prison, a place where justice is dispensed.”
K's narrative fills in the accounts of what goes on in this facility which has corporal punishment at its core; the letters he means to write to his daughter speak of “his tertiary role in the justice system.” Someone had to do the dirty work, he wants to say to his daughter and it just so happened that he was that someone. K cleans up after the officers believing that “the place needed reform and he was doing his professional duty” – the fact that it paid well notwithstanding – “when he agreed, possibly volunteered, to help in the reformation process.”
And that it wasn’t until his retirement, staying in an apartment overlooking the Thames that he suspected he might have actually lost his soul the moment he decided to help Corrections.
However, the author would rather leave it to the reader to make sense of K and the ethics in his practice. It is for the reader to ponder over “his justifications, his quasi-philosophical ruminations of our world, and his unquestionable love for his daughter.”
Waheed, a resident of London, born and raised in Kashmir, has K narrating his story from a migrant’s perspective. He suggests that K exemplifies what migrants of the world do: “Broadly speaking, they do the kind of jobs that people in their host countries or places won’t do or can’t do.”
But this is not without consequences. Swept away with the promise of a good life, and as Waheed notes, “unattached to the social structures that define him, he [K] later finds himself adrift in a world where success, money, achievement count for far too much than they should.”
The author recalls the time when he thought about such a premise. “About a successful man who believes everything he has done in life was meant to give his only child a prosperous life but later realises that he may have made too many compromises along the way and distanced himself from his daughter.”
Furthermore, many years ago, Waheed’s friend from the medical world mentioned some of the things a doctor might be required to do as part of his job and he found himself thinking what might happen if an ordinary doctor encountered a penal system that dispenses corporal punishment as a reformative tool.
The author of critically acclaimed works such as The Collaborator and The Book of Gold Leaves, says, “Fiction is about dreaming up people unlike yourself, getting inside the head of someone who thinks and speaks differently, doesn’t inhabit your world.”
So he questioned what the life of such an ordinary family man would be and how he would conduct himself at home, while his work consisted of operating on patients brought in from that horrifying place. “How does he talk to, play with his little daughter? What kind of bedtime stories does he narrate?”
“The answer to this last question was that he’d know and tell stories as any parent would.”
Those six to eight months, when he wanted to think, speak, like Dr K, Waheed concedes, were rather hard; it wasn’t easy to write.
The series of letters in the latter part of the novel reveal then the softer shades, the simple parental love of a father for his daughter and his attempts to tell her what transpired and help her understand the complexities that she would have never comprehended as a child.
The author used to like writing letters when he was younger and points out, “A letter from a child to a parent, or from a parent to the child can be both, a rant, an outburst, or considered speech. In the novel, it’s the daughter’s carefully thought message to the father: this is what I think of life, what I think of you, of myself, and these are the words I have chosen to say so.”
The story of this father and daughter makes for one among multiple works that put familial bonds to a test. Waheed says, “A family can be an entire world unto itself, full of love and loathing, bliss and terror, harmony and discord, and everything that lies in between.”
And families harbour secrets. Many do have small or big secrets that can cause havoc once disclosed, the author says but, “It’s that eternal possibility of forgiveness, empathy, and love that helps people and families see off dark times. People cling to the tiniest of straws during dire times.”
K too clings to the desire to tell his daughter the truth at long last. He is looking for redemption and wants to reach out to her to tell her of his struggles with his conscience, of his misdeeds, of the secret that lies between them and of his love for her and her mother. He wants to tell her everything.
Mirza Waheed’s Tell Her Everything is published by Context, an imprint of Westland Publications
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