“A faded photograph of my late grandfather and papier-mâché artist, Mirza Ghulam Mohammed, peers down at visitors from a glass cabinet on the wall of our family home in Kashmir. In the portrait Grandfather, or Touthh as we called him, is sitting in the workshop that used to look over the front lawn of our house. You can see a work trunk, a hookah and a clay fire-pot beside him. The pot served both as a heater for his bowls of paint and as a reservoir of embers for the hookah. I remember seeing him in that cabin throughout my childhood – he was always working and he stopped only as his eyesight dimmed a few years before his death. As he painted he lorded over everything and everyone from this perch, issuing instructions to anyone in earshot, and managing to keep an eye on us children trying to sneak out of the house. We weren’t allowed to play with the ‘street kids’, but of course I had to – wasn’t that the whole point of existence? To play with the cooler kids who were free to roam about the groves and orchards – apple, almond, pomegranate – near our house by the lake on the outskirts of Srinagar. The orchards are all gone now, replaced in less than twenty years by modern houses and shiny shops.
In the autumn of 2013, shortly after handing in the manuscript of my new novel, The Book of Gold Leaves, to my publisher, I had gone home to see my parents. I was in the living room and found myself looking at my grandfather’s portrait, an image that encapsulates so much of my family history. That evening, over dinner I asked my father and my uncle what they remembered about their grandfather. After all, he was the man who taught his son everything about papier-mâché art. In those days art and craft was a family tradition, handed down from father to son . . .
I learnt that my great grandfather, Mirza Ali, was a much-admired but rather lazy artist, who did a piece or two every six months. He loved to go out in town and would be dressed to the nines, often wearing a fiercely starched white turban. A bit of a rake, it seemed, a bit of a ladies’ man.
‘I may have something by him,’ my uncle nonchalantly remarked, ‘it should be somewhere in the house. I’m not sure . . .’
The next afternoon, as I was packing up to return from Kashmir to my adopted home in London, my uncle appeared with a packet in his hands. It smelled of history. It felt fragile. It was some kind of a cardboard folder with faded but beautiful artwork in the centre of each panel. I held the jild (literally, ‘a cover’) in my hands, opened it slowly and was speechless. Inside the covers was a stunning pattern of flowers in gold and red, blue and green. The gold paint was fresh and alive over a hundred and twenty years after it had been painted – even though no effort had ever been made to preserve it. My uncle said it had retained its colours because in those days they used natural dyes and pigments which didn’t fade. The details were exquisite, the effect extraordinary. My father said that back then artists and craftsmen would use brushes of just a single hair to paint the tiny, delicate images. My sisters and I looked at the shimmering piece in silence. For a moment I was upset that my uncle and father had never told us that this heirloom existed. I took many photographs of both the outside and inside covers. I amplified the high-resolution photographs to check for those single-hair strokes. And there they were. Immediately then, I emailed the photographs to my publisher in London.
During the trip back to England, I kept thinking about the rare specimen of a now-extinct genre of naqashi (papier-mâché art) that had stayed in my uncle’s dusty trunk for decades, awaiting rediscovery. One of the two central characters in my novel was a papier-mâché artist, and he kept his most treasured letters in a book of the precious gold leaves which he used for his painting. A friend, upon reading my novel in manuscript, had asked whether I was trying to reflect on my family history. But I had finished the final draft of the novel, and had sort of settled on the title, before setting eyes on Mirza Ali’s golden cover.
I’d been slightly doubtful about the title of my new novel at first. I had liked it but, as so often happens, I still felt slightly uncertain. When I saw my own great-grandfather’s ‘Book of Gold’, I knew it could not be called anything else. It had created an extraordinary connection between past and present, what I had been writing about and my family’s past. I brought the jild to my publisher’s office in London. When she opened it and saw the painting inside, she knew she had found the cover for the book.
Over the next few months I would witness family history, art and modern publishing merge together to create the cover for The Book of Gold Leaves.”
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