By most accounts, one is considered a wild success if he grows up in poverty in a rural village in India and then overcomes the obstacles imposed by those circumstances to become become a surgeon in London, then a senior department leader in a hospital, and then retires in a riverside penthouse—the type of aspirational success a society might even weave into its national mythos, akin to the “American dream.” Such success stories recall days of hardship and suffering defined by want. Naturally, the resolution of these stories is a life defined by financial independence and flourishing. But what’s left out from narratives focused on material transformation is the equally radical transformation of one’s interior self from the dramatic change in circumstance over the course of a single lifetime. If your moral compass was calibrated during years of escaping poverty and indignity, will it still be capable of guiding you once you’ve escaped? Or will its earlier calibration lead to your destruction?
Tell Her Everything, a novel by the Kashmiri-British writer Mirza Waheed, sits in the shadows of this question. The story promises to be a retrospective: Dr. Kaisar, an Indian-born retired surgeon living in England, wants to tell his daughter “everything.” The novel takes the form of a series of conversations Dr. Kaisar imagines he’ll have with his daughter, Sara, when she comes to visit him. He rehearses what he’ll tell her about the life he has lived and the responses she may give. Within the first few pages, the stakes of his confessional emerge: his wife has passed away; he does not have a meaningful relationship with Sara, or with a friend with whom he was once close; some decisions he made in his career continue to haunt him; and those decisions may have led to his present circumstances. But he’s optimistic that whatever unfolds with Sara will offer a chance to—hopefully, maybe—start fresh, not only in their relationship but in his relationship with himself, too.
But why and how this situation came about is elusive. Every chapter starts with some rendition of his intention to come clean to his daughter, but as the book unfolds, Dr. Kaisar circles around the same questions about his wife, work, friendships, and daughter. New details emerge with each lap, but the picture is muddled—and the truth obfuscated—by his excuses, interpretations, and justifications of the decisions he made. Through each retelling, we come to learn that his wife passed away from sudden cardiac arrest at a time when they were living in a presumably Gulf country where he was working as a surgeon after a brief stint in London. Shortly after her death, he decides to send their daughter off to boarding school in the United States, where his brother-in-law lives, for reasons with which Dr. Kaiser never fully comes to terms. The most disturbing decision he makes—and possibly what pushed him to send his daughter to boarding school when she needed the love of a parent most—is to become an integral part of a team in the hospital that surgically amputates the hands of convicted thieves.
Saying that he “decided” to become a punishment-surgeon is an interpretive choice, and one that Dr. Kaisar fights throughout the novel. Any time he divulges new details about his work and the circumstances surrounding it, he recites a litany of excuses and justifications.
Indeed, the very first line of the book is, “I did it for the money.” The impact of Dr. Kaisar’s impoverished upbringing lingers in the background of his accounts. Early in the novel, he tells a story of working alongside his father as a teenager to transcribe letters for his wealthier relatives. Working a small side job with his father seems unremarkable, but for Dr. Kaisar, it’s a moment he never forgets. It’s the moment he declares to himself that this was not the type of life he wanted to live, nor was it the type of life he wanted to pass on to his children. This story, alongside other memories, seem formative in his sense of self and what he strives for in life.
Money has its own costs, though. Dr. Kaisar’s retelling of his own story is too fragmented to draw a causal relationship between his upbringing and his later decisions to take the lead on amputating people’s hands, but he leaves enough hints to show how prioritizing wealth corrupted his perception of his life and relationships. In one chilling scene, when Dr. Kaisar imagines telling Sara about the embarrassment and shame he felt watching his father send his wife to the door to receive a debt-collector instead of going himself, he imagines Sara recoiling and curling up in a ball. Noticing her position, Dr. Kaisar immediately tells her she can put her feet down even if she’s cold because the floors in his penthouse are heated. It doesn’t occur to him that she could be curled up in response to the weight of his words—that the feeling of hearing one’s father tell such a vulnerable story could elicit a physical reaction. He’s so attuned to her material needs and comfort—the things he lacked himself as a child—that he reads those needs into every situation, at the expense of recognizing what other emotions Sara might be experiencing, or what else she might need from him as a father.
Tell Her Everything is a layered recital of intricately woven hauntings, decisions, and confessions. It is a story of a man who loves his daughter and wants to provide her with the upbringing he never had; it is a story of a man who is more than complicit in a horrible system of punishment; and it is also a story of how the desire to be a good provider can push one to unspeakable limits—how the shame of transgressing those limits can destroy the very relationships you sacrificed for, in addition to one’s sense of self. This novel presents a series of moral complexities but doesn’t attempt to offer clear answers or settle for easy resolutions—the disquietude is central to its effectiveness. It is also a book that rewards patience. Reading the novel feels like walking into a room mid-conversation, and the conversation continues uninterrupted with your arrival. But if you stick around, you’ll encounter a story that is at once haunting, tender, and gripping.
Tell Her Everything
By Mirza Waheed
Melville House Publishing
Published February 14, 2023
Farooq Chaudhry is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He currently serves as a Daily Editor for the Chicago Review of Books and is a J.D. candidate at the University of Chicago Law School. You can find him on Twitter at @spilledchai_.