Early on in Mirza Waheed’s Tell Her Everything, the protagonist, Dr Kaiser Shah, tells his daughter: “I had no choice, Sara, which is the simple and absolute truth. It was my job.”
At first glance, Shah’s tale seems like it will follow the route of the typical Indian immigrant success story. But Waheed does something different with his third novel, narrated mostly as a story told by Shah to his daughter. He melds Mohammed Hanif’s narrative style and Julian Barnes’ literary flourish to warp this trope into one about trauma and complicity in institutionalised violence.
For over two decades, Shah has worked as a doctor at a state-of-the-art hospital in an unnamed Middle Eastern city. The plush job, which afforded him financial security for the first time in his life, was an escape from the humiliating penury of his childhood as well as an opportunity to become as different a man as his father as possible.
“Being a man of very limited means, with a deep sense of dignity, principles and integrity, is like a lifelong punishment…,” he muses.
Slowly, however, he is drafted into the role of a “punishment surgeon” who carries out medically supervised amputations on people accused of running afoul of the law, whether their crime be theft or political commentary on the radio. When we meet him, Shah is a widower in his early sixties, living out his post-retirement life in London. But he still mourns his wife Atiya, who passed away almost two decades ago, and longs to reconnect with Sara, the daughter he sent away to boarding school after her mother’s death. Telling Sara the story of his life during her impending trip to London is to be his act of catharsis.
“I worry that if I die now, no one will ever know about my journey; my life story, so to speak. I don’t mean everyone needs to know, but my daughter certainly does,” he reasons.
The trauma of the executioner is rich material for fiction and Waheed raises many provocative questions, even if he doesn’t follow all the way through. Shah’s nightmares about his actions and phantasms of amputated hands may be behind him but he still shows lingering signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. His dislike of hospitals and preoccupation with explaining himself to his daughter are reminders of his inability to dislocate himself from the past.
“The past, Sara, isn’t a snake that sneaks up on you from the bush. For me, the past is more like an essential and immortal parasite that lives off me, boring away bit by bit.”
Moreover, the ambiguity of being an accessory to the violence instead of being wholly responsible for it complicates his unease.
“At times, I wonder if killing someone might have been better. There is crime and punishment, a closure of some nature,” he says.
There are tantalising critiques buried about how even when criminal deterrence is ostensibly ‘updated’ for the modern world, it is just the same old codes of barbarity behind a flashy veneer.
“…they were doing it long before I arrived. It was the system. We merely helped improve and bring it in line with proper clinical practices.”
This institutionalisation in the guise of humanity only extends to gestures such as constructing a glass partition to allow a convict’s family and friends to watch the surgery.
Waheed delves into how cultural displacement can force immigrants to turn to conformity as the currency for integration. As Shah puts it, “…a fresh immigrant’s mind is in a state of perennial confusion…Soon you become suspicious of yourself”.
As in Mirza’s moving debut The Collaborator, the sense of a lost home pervades the novel, as does abetment of the oppressor. Tell Her Everything deliberately leaves out the rich imagery that Waheed is adept at conjuring to foreground the sterile workplace, the primary altar of many Indian immigrants’ lives.
Shah personifies a very identifiable Indian work ethic of respecting authority and working hard while ignoring his own role in as a cog in a system of punishment. “All I wanted to do was put my head down, work, be nice, save money, and make a home of my own,” he says. It’s an excuse and a defence mechanism to ignore his own role in inflicting violence on others’ bodies. The idea of questioning whether he had the choice of opting out comes into sharp focus only years later.
“Every time I think about those days, I’m confused about the moment when maybe I could’ve made a choice. But I also know it’s all retrospective. The choice appears because there are more than two decades between me then and me now,” he says.
Shah’s dependence on his job, ostensibly to provide for his family, strains all his personal relationships. He is disconnected from his wife, never considering her or their daughter’s emotional needs. He quarrels with his former best friend, the hedonistic and unprofessional Biju Tharakan, who has no illusions about their workplace.
“…this is a cage disguised as a place of comfort, boss, where we tell ourselves we are happy,” Tharakan tells Shah.
Waheed isn’t always able to do justice to his weighty ideas. One of the weaknesses of the novel is that the more cliched tale of parental abandonment frequently supersedes the more interesting one about participating in legally sanctioned violence. The narrative is interspersed with some of Sara’s letters to Shah, laying bare her vulnerability, but they seem far too stylised and seemingly at odds with their relationship (although their purpose becomes clear towards the end).
Despite these frustrations, Tell Her Everything is never short of compelling. After all, Waheed illuminates the most difficult truth of all—the Indian quest to pull oneself up by the bootstraps is usually at the cost of participating in systems of exploitation.