Tell Her Everything: A tragic immigrant tale
On the surface of it, the story is an imagined conversation that a father has with his daughter. The conversations are to be composed into a letter where the father will tell his estranged daughter "everything".
But beneath the outer layer lies deep narratives of love, loss, betrayal, and success seen through the eyes of a successful doctor who is now in his mid 60s and is leading a post-retired solitary life in an upscale London home.
Tell Her Everything is the story of Dr Kaiser Shah, who migrated as a young married doctor first to London, and then to an unnamed country presumably in the Middle East where he spent many years as a "punishment surgeon".
In the story, Dr K (as he is referred in the entire book) says, he was the chosen one, someone who had to carry out the punishment and if it wasn't him someone else would have done the deed. In his defence, he did everything for money, to give his family a comfortable and secure life and in his heart he believes he has done well. And yet this constant desire to redeem himself from the past deeds keeps him questioning his own beliefs and value system.
The monologue for most part gets contextualised when the letter from his daughter makes an appearance. Post Dr K's wife's death, he had sent her to boarding school and the father-daughter relationship could never regain the physical and mental distance that this brought in. Even as the daughter certifies him to be a good father, it turns out, that he was never "good enough".
Has he led a life without any guilt? This unquestionable trauma stays with Dr K where he is unable to disassociate himself from his past. The only redemption that seems to be so far and yet so near is the one that he seeks from his daughter, Sara, whom sent away to a boarding school as a child, after the death of his wife.
Waheed's third novel explores the many shades of a human character and questions the institutionalised punishment meted out for crimes in some countries. Even though the protagonist has had a successful professional career (if the yardstick for success equalled money and not mental peace) the story at many levels is one of failures - the failure to be a good husband band, a good father or even a good friend.
In his own words Dr K says, "It was something Biju did that showed me the truthWhen he was leaving for the airport, he stopped by at the hospital and came forward to shake my hand. We both stared at it in silence. Then he swapped hands. It broke my heart forever to think what I'd become, but there was nothing I could do about it anymore. Was there?" And in those lines, in the last chapter, the moral dilemma of his life is crystal clear.
The writing is rich, but it could have been tighter. The desire to not be "judged" drags on in the story.
Dr K did what he did for a reason as it was a childhood filled with debts that turned him out to be an insecure adult, always worrying about a secure future. Even though the meanderings of Dr K's mind can make the reader impatient, what works in Waheed's favour is the way he has intertwined the imagined conversations with many sub-plots that brings issues that are little spoken about in popular lit - like the cost of an immigrant's success, to not question authority and to deny one the good things in life.
ALSO READ | Compassion as part of core curriculum