Mirza Waheed’s latest novel, Tell Her Everything, disarms you with its first sentence: “I did it for money”. It is a confession that endears Dr K, the book’s guilt-addled narrator, to you by zeroing in on his mistakes that have tampered with the lives of the very people he wanted to protect. The opening sentence also hints at the silent sacrifices he has made for his loved ones. Driven by such conflicting pulls and pushes, the novel examines the unsettling realities of our lives as well as the choices we make to cope with those realities.
Dr K retired as a successful physician and is living in a comfortable flat overlooking the Thames in London. Although he has managed to pursue his ambition and garnered success, he struggles to find even a grain of peace in his final years. Memories of a turbulent past and his uneasy relationship with his estranged daughter, Sara, continue to haunt him. Fuelled by a quest for redemption and a faint hope to make amends, he embarks on a dramatic monologue that seeks to justify his choices. The monologue also allows him to rehearse for a future conversation with Sara in which he plans to tell her why he sent her to a boarding school in America after her mother’s death.
Dr K acknowledges that his actions and intentions are difficult to explain but he still wants to offer an honest account of his life to his daughter so that she can form “a character sketch” of him. He tells himself that “there’s no shame in bowing” his head before his own child who is “the one mirror, the one counterbalance to [his] history… the future [he] dreamt of ages ago”.
Without following a linear narrative, Tell Her Everything takes the readers on a journey through the major events of Dr K’s life — such as his small-town upbringing in Saharanpur, India, as the son of a poverty-stricken man who became “a little mouse” when a creditor knocked at the door. References to his marriage to Atiya, a taciturn woman who sacrificed her teaching career for Dr K, surface at countless points in the novel.
Dr K frequently invokes the memories of his deceased wife in order to build an instant connection with his daughter. He particularly talks about Atiya when he wants to buy time before telling some disturbing details about his past.
He also describes the searing sense of loss he felt after he and his wife migrated to London. “…a fresh migrant’s mind is in a state of perennial confusion, pulled as it is in various directions… You don’t want to remember you’re a migrant all the time, but everything around you reminds you of it,” he says.
These reminders compel Dr K to take up a job at a hospital in an unnamed West Asian country. The pressure of long hours at work keeps him away from Atiya and Sara. He gets so busy with work that he knows very little about his adopted city. His only aim is to earn enough money to ensure his family’s financial well-being. His frugality is often heavily criticised by his friend Biju – an easygoing person who is also reckless with his money – as being “middle-class”. Atiya, however, seldom complains about not being taken on extravagant holidays or even for a dinner at an expensive restaurant.
Over time, Dr K becomes involved in the country’s penal system. He is chosen as a “punishment surgeon” and assists the authorities in disfiguring convicted offenders as per the law of the land. With each procedure that he performs, he is drawn deeper into a moral conundrum and is forced to question his role in the brutal acts of mutilation.
There are moments when he is astonished to find that those “abnormal” procedures seem somewhat commonplace to him. “…if a man gets used to murder, he can get used to anything,” is how he explains it. At other points in the story, he tries to justify his acts by insisting that his involvement in the surgical procedures guarantees that they are conducted in a humane fashion. As his bank balance swells every month, Dr K deludes himself into believing that he has his family’s best interest at heart.
Yet, after his wife’s death, he has to contend with a lifetime of guilt. The decisions he has to make subsequently put him in an uncomfortable position: between performing his duty and protecting his loved ones.
Dr K’s monologue meanders from one anecdote to another, leaving the readers to piece together the retired physician’s life through his seemingly disjointed musings. The narrator deliberately avoids closures, digressing at crucial points in the story, but discerning readers may find that the novel’s complex structure and skilful interludes serve to highlight the uncertainty in Dr K’s mind. The narrative struggles to follow a predictable arc just as the narrator struggles to find the most appropriate means of sharing the details of his past with his daughter. His efforts to come up with the right idiom to express his anxieties, regrets and frustrations are amply reflected in the way his story is written.
This writing technique makes the novel all the more realistic and poignant. The author could not have possibly created the same effect if he had followed a chronological and rational trajectory. Page after iridescent page, Waheed explores how people pay a steep price to achieve their ambitions. He smartly catches the subtle nuances of his protagonist’s unbearable guilt.
Tell Her Everything is also all about the moments that precede an actual event — in this case, a conversation between Dr K and Sara that never happens. At times during his monologue, Dr K anticipates and addresses his daughter’s responses as if a conversation is actually taking place between them. In his reveries, he, indeed, develops an easy camaraderie with his daughter, giving him the hope that she will understand his intentions once the two meet.
Sara’s point of view on her relationship with her father appears in the narrative through letters that she has written to Dr K while travelling on Amtrak — the American railway. Having lived away from her parents, she struggles to understand why she was uprooted from her home as a child but she is willing to hear what Dr K has to say. Her letters offer him hope that his desire for reconciliation with her will not be greeted with silence or indifference.
The introductory blurb for the novel states that it is about “the corrosive nature of complicity” but Tell Her Everything resists the urge to make moral judgments on Dr K’s role as a “punishment-surgeon”. By doing so, the novel also test its readers’ ability to empathise with the protagonist without having to rely on the blinkers of morality.
The writer is a journalist, novelist and editor.
The article was published in the Herald's May 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.