November 20, 2016

Of Myths and Money: Kamila Shamsie's Salt and Saffron is one of the few partition books that talk about class


Despite my fascination with all family history, I really wasn’t interested in 1947 at that particular instant. But I couldn’t very well tell Meher Dadi that; not with what Partition had meant to her generation.

I try to imagine how it would be if I lived through times of extreme social upheaval, through periods that are so abrupt and brutal that they leave a mark – think of a world war, the partition of a country, the creation of a new one. I try to imagine if this happened in my here and now, on my homeland, making me a witness to death and destruction and then, years from now, someone else read about it in history books, and didn’t realize that for me it was a reality.

I say this because one of the most fascinating things about the 1947 partition is the fact that my grandparents were there. They were there. They experienced it. For me, it’s something that happened ages ago. Something I only ever encounter in history books. But for them it was a part of their lives. The same for my parents and 1971. In terms of passages of time, the creation of Bangladesh wasn’t something that happened generations ago. People whom I live with and talk to and love were part of this history, and it never ceases to amaze me that it hasn’t left some permanent, visible mark on their bodies, something which will mark them out as having experienced it.

That whole generation of my relatives mystified me. How had they sustained, for so long, the bitterness brought on by the events of 1947? I could believe it of one person, or two, but good God! Our family was huge and yet there was never any word of reconciliation across the borders of India and Pakistan.

Partition - and the separation of families and tearing of homes - is the main topic in this book, but it’s a disservice to this story to say that that’s all it is about. Kamila Shamsie incorporates a lot more into such a short story, with a special focus on class, and our reactions to it. Aliya, our protagonist, is a recent American graduate returning to Karachi, forced to finally confront after four years of avoidance the thing that she ran away from.

Reduce all stories to their basic elements and you’ll see all families are possessed of prejudice – that alternative name for ‘fear’.

Four years ago (spoilers ahead), Aliya got into a fight with her grandmother about how Mariam Aapi, a family member who emerged from nowhere claiming to be a relative, had run away with the cook. Now Aliya is back and forced to confront the reality of her own reactions to the elopement, and her weird, conflicted, torturous feelings about the love affair- an affair far more shocking because of the difference in class and wealth between the two lovers.

“Call me a snob if you want to, but what the hell do any one of us have to say to the great mass of our compatriots? We can talk about cricket and complain about the politicians, but then what? I’m not denying that they could be wonderful people, but that’s really not the point.”

Class –and the treatment of people because of their perceptions of it – has always been a fascinating concept to me, purely because sometimes it can be so abstract and fluid. In Pakistan, it becomes even more so because of our past as a colonized nation, and the decades of notions that we’ve dragged along with us because of our British rulers. Just the other day I was involved in a heated debate with someone over judging someone because of their ability to speak fluent English. Pakistanis, whose national language is Urdu, equate knowledge and intelligence (and hence education, and hence access to education and money to pay for education ) with higher class, because English is the language we’re taught in schools. So if you speak English fluently, it must mean that you’re a rich person.

Putting aside the very interesting conversation one can have about Pakistan and languages for now, my point is that in Pakistan the concept of class is more confusing than one can imagine. But like all other places, one thing is constant: the very, very stark line that separates us from them, especially in situations of romantic love, which is just unthinkable.

 ‘Of course, you don’t marry an individual. You marry a family.’

Kamila Shamsie connects the story of class now to the story of a family torn apart then, six decades of history separating Aliya’s present with her grandmother’s past. And let me just say that this book came very, very close to getting confusing. This was primarily because in the English language (and we’re back to languages again, sorry, I can’t quite get over my obsession with them) there are no good words for your relations. In Urdu your dadi is your paternal grandmother and your nani is your paternal grandmother, but in English you just say grandmother and then add the adjective before it. Same with cousins, aunts and uncles, in-laws and extended relatives: all of whom get individual, special terms in the Urdu language but remain grouped together in English.

This makes this book, written by an author hailing from Pakistan and who has probably used the terms chichi, phuppi, mammi, tayyi instead of aunt when she was growing up, much more confusing than you can imagine. Because I’ve spent my whole life knowing exactly which particular relative was being referred to, trying to understand the complicated family tree was much harder in English.

If you’re trying to understand how exactly Samia and I are related you might suppose from Samia’s words that my Dadi is her Nani, which means my father and Samia’s mother are siblings and, therefore, Samia and I are first cousins. It’s never that simple. Dadi is my father’s mother; she is not, however, Samia’s mother’s mother as Samia’s use of the term ‘Nani’ implies, but rather Samia’s mother’s mother’s sister, and so Samia and I are second cousins.

It’s understandable if at this point your reaction is somewhere along the lines of What the what now? Because that was basically my reaction too. But there are other, more redeemable reasons to keep reading this book. And one of these is the familiar, loving way Kamila Shamsie talks about Karachi, as if it’s not just a place but a home you return to, as if its warmth and memories and all the things I love about Karachi myself.

Now that I’m getting married and moving away from the place I’ve lived all my life, I’m starting to have a finer appreciation of homes and how they’re more than places. How they are safe zones, comfort circles, an area where you can be you. And I try to take that to a bigger level, to my best friend and her homesickness not just for her own room and her mother’s presence, but also for the streets of Karachi; of how she misses rickshaws and the shop near her house and the restaurant where we always ended up going whenever we wanted to hang out. She misses on a larger scale, and then I try to imagine migration, and leaving it all behind permanently, because a country was being torn into two and you had no choice because if you stayed in the familiar and the comfortable you could be killed.

More than anything else, more than mangoes, gol guppas, nihari and naans, more than cricket mania, more than monsoon rains, more than crabbing beneath a star-clustered sky, what I missed about Karachi was the intimacy of bodies.

Kamila Shamsie is familiar with Karachi and its idiosyncrasies, the way I am, because I understand that this city is a mess, I understand, I know it’s so flawed and people die every day and we need better health and security and education and our economy is falling apart and pollution will eventually kill all of us in this city, but it’s still the place where I’ve lived all my life. My family is here, my best friends, my favourite cousins; my school memories, my university years, and now my work place, so for me, Karachi is more now. I’m biased, inherently inclined to always love it. It’s in my bones. I will always want to come back here, even with the loadshedding and bad roads and water shortages and general overall messiness.

As I watched the land below, an area of lights winked once, twice, and disappeared. A sigh, half exasperated, half amused, went round the cabin. ‘Bijli failure,’ someone behind me said needlessly.

And if that doesn’t convince you that you should read it, then here’s a really interesting reason to definitely pick it up: in this book, one of the major characters is a mute by choice, and doesn’t that produce ten thousand different tangents for us to indulge in? There isn’t enough space in this review for me to go through all them, but if you ever do read this book and plan to write about Mariam’s decision to never speak again, count me in as an eager reader of your analysis.

Recommendation

There are obvious parallels in this book and in Kartography. Both stories deal with a portion of Pakistan’s history (partition, 1971) that caused mass bloodshed and trauma; both stories involve our main character getting involved in the lives of people who lived ages ago; the protagonist is female, the loved one is separated, and conflicts in the past are seen having a direct affect on the present. Still, while Kartography is Shamsie’s masterpiece, this is a very close second. It’s funny, and smart, and you can’t say that about a lot of Pakistani novels. I would definitely suggest putting this on your to-read list.

October 11, 2016

Of Partition and Polio: Bapsi Sidhwa's Cracking India is visceral and heartbreaking and everyone should read it


There is much disturbing talk. India is going to be broken. Can one break a country? And what happens if they break it where our house is? I ask Cousin.
‘Rubbish,’ he says, no one’s going to break India. It’s not made of glass!’

Cracking India (also known as Ice Candy Man) is one of those novels that 16-year-old Anum (more interested in North American YA – not that there’s anything wrong with loving a particular genre as long as one eventually gives other genres a chance) would never have liked. But 24-year-old Anum can very clearly appreciate the importance of reading any and all fiction related to the 1947 partition - an event so shocking and traumatic that its repercussions still resonate in the here and now in both Pakistan and India (and of course Kashmir, but that is a topic for another day).

For those of you who don’t exactly know what the partition was, (so basically most people who aren’t Pakistani or Indian – if you are either of these two, skip this whole paragraph) the summary goes: before 1947 there was one huge land area called the Indian subcontinent, ruled by these group of power-hungry, eventually-decadent rulers called the Mughal Emperors (think Taj Mahal, Akbar the Great, all those cool architectural wonders in India), who then lost power to the British colonial powers, who went around wrecking all kinds of havoc on the land, eventually causing the people in the area to want to kick the British people out (demand for self-independence, right to rule, lots of other important historical stuff that really is more interesting than our textbooks make them sound). But before the British could be kicked out, a decision had to be made about who was going to rule the area upon their leaving, and this led to major conflicts between the Muslims and Hindus in the subcontinent (not the only religious parties in the area but certainly those in the majority) who both had different ideas about what should happen. Long story very (very) short, in 1947 when the British eventually left, the whole area was divided into two: one piece was called India, and was considered the land of the Hindus (although of course other minorities continue to exist there, and the state is actually secular – again, a topic for another day) and a completely new state called Pakistan was created – supposedly a land for Muslims (but of course any well-read human being will tell you that the rampant violation of human rights make it something else entirely).

Impromptu history lesson aside, this book is about partition, written from the point of view of a young Parsee girl (Zoroastrian for you, in case you didn’t know). Think The Diary of Anne Frank, except this is fiction and the setting is another major historical event involving lots of death and conflict and at the same time emergence of adulthood and the pains of growing up.

Lenny, our protagonist, suffers from polio (Pakistan is one of the two countries where children still suffer from Poliomyelitis; literally the rest of the world has managed to eradicate it), a disease which affects young children and causes muscle weakness and in some cases paralysis. Taken care of by her Ayah, a beautiful young Hindu girl, we follow Lenny’s story through the events leading up to 1947 and afterwards, and even though I’ve spent literally my whole life reading dreary, boring historical texts about the partition, there’s something else entirely about reading how individuals got affected by the crushing brutality of those days.

The radio announces through the crackling: ‘There have been reports of trouble in Gurdaspur. The situation is reported to be under control.’
‘Which means there is uncontrollable butchering going on in Gurdaspur,’

Ayah, as Lenny’s vivacious and responsible caretaker adored by her huge group of admirers, is the main proponent of our story, but there are enough side characters to retain our interest. Lenny, with her crippled leg, is more interested in retaining her abnormal foot, because she believes it helps her live a life more pampered than other people. Her doctor certainly encourages the notion by telling Lenny’s parents not to strain Lenny with studies and exams, to not pressure her nerves by sending her to school, to basically let Lenny live wild and free.

What will happen once the cast comes off? What if my foot emerges immaculate, fault-free? Will I have to behave like other children, slogging for my share of love and other handouts? Aren’t I too old to learn to throw tantrums – or hold my breath and have a fit? While other children have to clamour and jump around to earn their candy I merely sit or stand, wearing my patient, butter-wouldn’t-melt expression . . . and displaying my callipers – and I am showered with candy.

Right alongside Lenny’s growth from an innocent, pampered five-year-old to her teen years is the story of the partition and of how the changing times enter Lenny’s household as well. Her Ayah, who acts as a sort of beacon for men of all religions because of her beauty and sexuality, is always surrounded by Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, all of them intent on engaging in discussions not only about politics but about what to eat that day and where they want to meet up; mundane, silly things amongst all the serious, charged atmosphere.

This, I found truly intriguing. All these people belonging to different faiths sit down regularly and have frank, if sometimes bitter, but mostly honest conversations about what the political climate is like, and how it affects them. In the current times we live in, I honestly can’t imagine sitting down with a Christian or a Hindu belonging to my country and having an open conversation about the treatment of religious minorities over here, or what the politics of the country are doing to the religious atmosphere. 

‘Funny things are happening inside the old city . . . Stabbings . . . Either the police can’t do anything – or they don’t want to. A body was stuffed into a manhole in my locality . . . It was discovered this morning because of the smell: a young, good-looking man.’

One thing that manages to help balance the viciousness of the story’s darker side is Lenny’s own life and the characters that fill her surroundings. Her loving, stern mother and her quiet father, her younger brother and her cousin, the neighbours and the tenants, the chef and gardener and guard, all of these have a life of their own and dot Lenny’s life with what some might term as irrelevant rambling, but I thought were necessary for one to be able to breathe amongst all the other moments of sadness. Still, the majority of our story, being that it is situated in such a volatile period of history, comes back again and again to its main, central plot point: that of the partition itself.

I become aware of religious differences.
It is sudden. One day everybody is themselves – and the next day they are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian. People shrink, dwindling into symbols. Ayah is no longer just my all-encompassing Ayah – she is also a token. A Hindu.

But even though this story tackles such a sensitive topic, about a period of history riddled with so much violence and destruction, it’s still quite funny. Weird, but true. Blatant humour, subtle jesting, even moments of outright hilarity occur here and there, lending a lighter touch to the otherwise horrifying repetitions of rape, death and kidnapping that dot the narrative.

‘If we must pack off, let’s go to London at least. We are the English king’s subjects aren’t we? So, we are English!’

And of course, it was inevitable that familiar names - names I’ve seen regularly in textbooks and figures I’ve seen famous pictures of – would eventually crop up, because what is a discussion about the 1947 partition without Jinnah (the Pakistani leader) or Gandhi (the Indian one)? But the fascinating thing this story does is that it plants these figures in that time very solidly, like figurines coming to life out of history books. Suddenly the actions of Nehru and Gandhi and Jinnah and Lord Wavell and Mountbatten, people who existed too long away for me to really care about, suddenly seem much more significant, carrying so much more weight.

‘What’s it to us if Jinnah, Nehru and Patel fight? They are not fighting our fight,’ says Ayah, lightly.
‘That may be true, but they are stirring up trouble for us all.’

But the book makes it clear that for most of the characters, the machinations and manipulations of the leaders feel like they’re far away from their own lives. Only a few raise their heads up and face the fact that the effects of dealings at a government level are spilling over into the streets, but the idea that politics happen at a distance from the civilians, who love all their neighbours equally irrespective of religion, is part of an overall theme that’s repeated again-

‘Our villages come from the same racial stock. Muslim or Sikh, we are basically Jats. We are brothers. How can we fight each other?’

And again-

“So what if you’re a Sikh? I’m first a friend to my friends . . . And an enemy to their enemies . . . And then a Mussulman! God and the politicians have enough servers. So, I serve my friends.”

And again-

‘I’m alert to what’s happening . . . I have a radio. But our relationships with the Hindus are bound by strong ties. The city folk can afford to fight . . . we can’t. We are dependent on each other: bound by our toil. To us villagers, what does it matter if a peasant is a Hindu, or a Muslim, or a Sikh?’

However, all of that crumbles and falls apart once the actual rioting starts, because even though the Muslims and Sikhs and Hindus remain friends, their relatives are raped and kidnapped and butchered by other Muslims and Sikhs and Hindus, and it is only a matter of time before they fall upon each other. And when they do, when friends turn against each other, it is where the story hurts the most. Those were the moments when you need a break from reading this novel, because you ache both for the Muslim whose family has been slaughtered during a train ride, but you also pity the Hindu whose family is the one the remaining Muslims take their anger out on. There’s no end to the viciousness, the circle of vengeance and killing that erupted during the partition [AS3] (the largest mass migration in human history, with millions of deaths on both sides, and unbelievably chilling statistics. An example: Some seventy-five thousand women were raped, and many of them were then disfigured or dismembered.) 

A naked child, twitching on a spear struck between her shoulders, is waved like a flag: her screamless mouth agape she is staring straight up at me. A crimson fury blinds me. I want to dive into the bestial creature clawing entrails, plucking eyes, tearing limbs, gouging hearts, smashing brains: but the creature has too many stony hearts, too many sightless eyes, deaf ears, mindless brains and tons of entwined entrails. . .

At its heart the story is about Lenny’s passage into her teen years, as a child suffering from polio, discovering her sexuality, learning the difference between white lies and truth, but because it is set in such an important period of history, it becomes something more. And even though it’s not the best thing I’ve read by far, it was still chilling enough, still visceral enough for me to stop and feel and think more deeply about partition than the sort of second-hand barely-there sympathy you feel after reading about it in history books.

Recommendation

I am Pakistani. In a snap. Just like that.

The story is vicious in its honesty, and in how the characters react to the situations around them. There really are no moments of hiding the brutality, and it’s heartbreaking. Definitely recommended, but only if you’re in the mood.



September 02, 2016

Of Widows and Second Marriages: Musharraf Ali Farooqi takes on an important topic but fails to deliver


“A woman’s reputation is all that she gains in this life. And this talk of a proposal of marriage, isn’t it also a little too late in the day?”

This is an important book to read - even if the execution isn’t flawless - because it tackles such an important topic. The problem with Pakistani literature is that there is such limited output in the English language that when a book comes along discussing a widow’s prospects of a second marriage and society’s stereotypical responses to it, it is important for us to sit up and take notice.

Musharruf Ali Farooqi takes on interesting figures, I’ll give him that. In Between Clay and Dust his characters include courtesans and wrestlers, figures in history that describe a particular time and place, but this time around the protagonist is more socially relevant, someone whose status can be discussed time and time again. Mona, the widow in (the very originally named) The Story of a Widow, is a person upon whom a whole society descends to voice their stereotypes, prejudices and horrified opinions about how and with whom she should spend her time.

“Don’t expect the whole world to gather around and offer its blessings for every choice you make in your life. It doesn’t work like that.”

Mona’s decision about a second marriage sends the whole family into a tail spin, with daughters and relatives and family friends all ready and willing to comment upon the absurdity of the proposal. After her husband’s death, Mona’s life consists of gardening and walking and hanging out with her neighbour and family friend Mrs. Baig, but when a tenant at Mrs. Baig’s house, Salamat Ali, sends over a marriage proposal (after frequently spying at Mona in a frankly worrying manner), everyone goes batshit insane.

“I don’t know what you’re doing, prolonging this circus. Why didn’t you say no to this man straight away?”

A major portion of the story is about Mona’s relationship with her daughters. In a lot of societies, divorce is talked about more in terms of the children than the divorcee themselves, irrespective of the child’s age. In this story Mona’s daughters are married with children of their own, but that doesn’t seem to matter because in societies like ours that are less individualistic and more community-oriented, it is the children’s needs that come first. Mona, who has spent her whole life with a husband incapable of being pleased, is now ostracized for thinking about her own needs above others.

“It would have been different if Daddy had died young. Everyone knows it’s difficult for a young woman to raise kids by herself. Everybody would have understood that you had done it for us! Now, however-“

Basically, the concept in Pakistani society is that once you’re married, all your hopes and ambitions must bow down to the whims and existence of your husband and children. No matter whether you’re living together or divorced, widowed or separated, no step of yours must be taken in ensuring your own personal happiness.

Wasn’t I a good mother to them, a good wife to their father? Why is it necessary to prove it to the world, too? If they suddenly die, must I die too?

This is quite a disheartening lesson to learn for someone like me, whose impending marriage has come with its own over-sharing of opinions and advice from overzealous well wishers. This book gets that portion of the story right, even as it describes how complicated the mother-daughter relationship can be, and how even smart, sensible children can become ridiculous and selfish when it comes to matters of their own parents.

Mona’s confusion about the man’s proposal also has a lot to do with how her daughters so vehemently protest against it. Except, why? How does their mother’s remarriage affect them? Sure, if the man was sullen and horrible and they thought it was a horrible match their reactions would make sense. But that’s the thing: they don’t even know him before their knee-jerk reaction is horror and suspicion. This, in a reflection of the real world, makes sense but does not help the characters endear themselves to me. And also, why can’t we have children who are approving of their parent’s second marriage and personal choice and probably happiness? Why is that such an unrealistic assumption?

Was she showing the natural reaction of a child trying to protect the image of a parent in her mind? Were her daughters acting from the jealous regard that their mother’s affections should not be shared with another?

The only character worth rooting for in this novel is Mona’s sister Hina, whose warm regard for Mona and her complicated yet loving way of dealing with Salamat Ali’s proposal makes their sisterly relationship complex and weird. I loved reading about Hina because such relationships are explored so rarely in Pakistani books.

The only thing that mattered was that Hina had stood by her side. Her sister had been there for her all these years too, but her support now gave Mona a feeling that she would be able to cope with anything.

Hina is one of the few people willing to speak up about how utterly horrible Mona’s first husband, Akbar Ahmad, was. This is a point repeated again and again in the way Mona remembers Akbar Ahmad’s tendency to be petulant, miserly about money and an overall failure of a husband.

“You always maintained that he was a good father, but so what if he was a good father? How does that redeem him if he was a bad husband?”

What’s fascinating is that this book provides all the possible reactions to a widow’s second marriage in Hina’s initial response of horror at Mona’s decision to marry Salamat Ali: not because Hina is against the very idea itself but because she can’t believe someone like Mona, who has already suffered through a horrible marriage to an absolute prat would want to go through the whole torturous process all over again.

“You were unwilling to divorce Akbar Ahmad to obtain your freedom, but when a twist of fate has released you from him, you’re thinking-? Of what? Of walking into slavery once again with open eyes? I cannot understand you!”

Even with this particular response of Hina’s, one thing the story slightly touches upon but fails to explore in more detail is the treatment of men seeking a second marriage. Even though our protagonist is Mona and so it is her trials and tribulations we follow, it would have made for a richer experience in the narration if Salamat Ali’s family’s opinions also made an appearance in the story in fuller, greater detail.

The reaction from Salamat Ali’s family only confirmed Mona’s view that while a widow who seeks a second marriage was looked down upon as a harlot in society, widowers were expected to look for virgin brides.

Unfortunately, further flaws which are less easily excused appear as the story moves forward. The book sometimes takes on the tone of a gossip rag in how it discusses the other relatives of the female in their relationship hang-ups. Almost everyone is unhappy or mean or vindictive in one way or another except for our heroine, who alone is misunderstood and trying to do the right thing, which can get irritating. The story is also spiteful towards the characters our protagonist doesn’t like, representing them in unflattering terms, one of which I particular detest when it is used to show a personality flaw – that of using too much make up. This particular writing trick is not only sexist and misogynistic, it is also a particularly minor flaw in an otherwise pro-female story.

Possibly the weakest part of this story telling attempt is the lack of relationship to the main character. As with Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s previous novel, there’s such a lack of feeling associated with the characters. No matter how interesting the story, your distance from the characters keeps you disengaged. So while one can ultimately appreciate how the story is about the choices we make and the right to make them, it doesn’t help that we never really learn to care about Mona or her predicaments.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Mona is not a character you’d particular root for. Not only is she weak and whiny, she also goes around blaming others for her troubles. And yet she’s also soft hearted, prone to moments of brilliant self independence, and genuinely cares for the people around her, so it’s hard to know where she falls on the spectrum of protagonist-reader love. I, for one, have loved the truly selfish, vindictive heroines I’ve read (Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind, Amy Dunne from Gone Girl, Quintana from The Lumatere Chronicles) but Mona verges on the self-pity, which is one thing I cannot stand in my heroines.

There was a pall that had hung over her existence for a long time after Akbar Ahmad’s death. What was it? The sense that her life had been wasted, or that she would not struggle to find happiness for herself as readily as she was willing to sacrifice herself for others?

Recommendation

This book is an important book to read and discuss, because it brings up so many questions, sheds light on so many hypocrisies against the widowed female. And I’m very glad that the book points out that Islam doesn’t forbid widows from remarrying. But I didn’t love reading it. Basically, I liked the idea of it, but the execution left something to be desired. Make of that what you will.

August 16, 2016

Of Lost Kites and Vanishing Uncles: Kamila Shamsie’s In the City by the Sea is very clearly one of her earlier works


I’m almost tempted to leave this book unrated, because I’m so confused about how I feel for it. It’s neither a particularly good book, nor a really bad one. I didn’t hate reading it, but nor did I enjoy it all that much. There were some moments of plot stupidity, but they were balanced by sudden, smart writing. Basically, if you asked, I would have no idea whether to recommend this book to you or not.

The one coherent thought I had while reading this was that a lot of people might not really like this, and that’s because this isn’t really a plot-driven novel. This is more of a character study, a detailed look at how people act when facing such and such odds. And in this book, the odds are the imprisonment of a loved uncle.

“They’ve taken him away. They’ve taken Salman to prison.”

The weird thing about the story is that it tries to connect two very separate events in our protagonist’s life and make them have parallel meanings. 11-year-old Hasan accidentally witnesses a neighbouring kid’s death – a fall from the roof during a kite flying session – and the rest of the book is about Hasan’s politician uncle being put under house arrest by the President of the country for attempting a coup. But it’s hard to understand what these two disparate events have to do with relation to each other, or what point Kamila Shamsie is trying to make in comparing these disconnected happenings.

“Maybe he was doing it, getting so involved in making the kite fly, because he knew I was watching.”

Hasan’s guilt and confusion about the boy’s death are barely mentioned in the whole novel, which makes it hard to tell whether the story is not properly balanced, or whether this is a stroke of genius in showing how valiantly Hasan tries to suppress the memories of being an eye witness to the accidental death. Most of the story is instead dominated by the story of Salman Mamoo, a politician who is initially under house arrest and promptly ends up in jail, throwing Hasan’s life into a tail spin.

Hasan had never before known the need for presidential approval in order to reschedule a lunch with one’s uncle.

Salman’s arrest means riots in the City (constantly capitalized to show Karachi’s status as more than just a place to live; another thing Shamsie does well, grounding her characters into an area until it has a personality of its own) and schools being shut down and Hasan wandering around from one place to another, trying to deal with his uncle’s absence. I guess the best way to describe our protagonist’s journey, and in retrospect this book’s plot, is the word meandering. The author tries to create conflict and tension in the deadline being put on Salman’s upcoming military trial, which will decide whether he lives or dies, but it’s hard to really feel invested in the story.

“I would rather live under a dictator and have Salman safe at home, than achieve democracy through his imprisonment.”

The one good thing in this book is that the adults are quite interesting. Which is weird because this makes Hasan, an eleven year old, come across clearly as the product of an adult author trying to write through a child’s perspective. Even though the idea was good – a young child trying to understand the political machinations of the real world through an uncle’s arrest– Shamsie’s attempts at creating Hasan’s imaginary inner world, full of knights and unicorns and magical beings, comes across as contrived and unrealistic. The contrast between his childlike imagination and mature, worldly conversations with his parents makes it hard to root Hasan down into his age group.  Sometimes Hasan stops talking like an 11 year old boy completely, and merges into adult conversation so readily that it’s hard to separate his tween mind from the story.

Hasan had a fleeting notion of raiding all the neighbourhood kitchens for onions, which he would unravel and stitch together into giant wings, but then he recalled that he couldn’t stitch. Plus, there was the smell factor to take into account.

Hasan’s parents and the other adults surrounding him are funny and smart, with a constant exchange of witty banter and shared understanding and an ability to emote. They’re not wholly religious, but that is a thread that runs through all of Kamila Shamsie’s stories, and I can’t tell whether it is a failing on the author’s part if she is incapable of imagining a Muslim character who is funny and selfish and complex in a number of ways, and actually seems to follow the religion? Apparently Kamila Shamsie knows none of those kinds of Muslims in real life.

“It’s the smell of rebelling just so that I could escape the category of Justagirl, though in the process I had to become Whatkindofgirl.”

Shamsie also tackles sexism and misogyny in sudden, subtle ways, slipping it into the story here and there in ways that are so refreshing to read. Given that this book was published in 1998, it’s hard to know whether it’s comforting or alarming that the issues women faced then, they continue to face now. So basically, even though there is comfort in our share experiences, we clearly are progressing nowhere fast.

“The girl you saw on the road yesterday. I would have envied her for being able to leave home and walk through the streets. You have to be male or poor to do that.”

And I loved the background story of the Widow, a character whose random, constantly changing group of bodyguards and dramatic love story and desire to fight for the rights of widows everywhere make her one of the most interesting characters in this novel. Unfortunately, while the Widow, Hasan’s parents, even Uncle Latif, the neighbouring father of Hasan’s best friend Zehra, are all fascinating in complex ways, it is Hasan and his best friend Zehra whose personalities create the least interest. I found Zehra so interesting I’ve barely managed to mention her only once in this whole review, and that’s only to point out how little I cared about her relationship with Hasan. Even Hasan’s jealousy over Zehra’s blooming romance with Hasan’s cousin doesn’t manage to create enough drama within the story.

“Look, I love Uncle Salman too, okay?”
“Then why are you whistling?”
“I’m coping.”

You can tell this is one of Kamila Shamsie’s earlier works because the writing isn’t that controlled, the similes and metaphors used with less tact, the dramatic made just a touch more so. Her later books, like the brilliant 2009 novel Burnt Shadows, show her restraint, her expertise. But even though this is one of her weaker works, it still retains a certain charm, and most of this is due to the fact that Shamsie knows how to write really well.

“So what if there are no historical precedents for a completely happy ending? So what if the happiest ending that comes to mind is one which requires erstwhile good-guys to use the tools of a tyrant? So what?”

That’s not to say that weird descriptions don’t pop up here and there. Even though her writing remains far above that of any other Pakistani writing, and the quality of her prose lend the story strength, it is still not remarkable enough to give the book the spark of brilliance visible in Shamsie’s later books.

The clouds were a dragon breathing out a red sun.

She also does what authors like Omar Shahid hamid so liberally do in novels: namely, the usage of regular Urdu words amongst the English without regularly providing context for the language. She also, however, engages in what I accused Kanza Javed’s Ashes, Wine and Dust of doing: the italicization of the Urdu word. Unfortunately, it was only while reading this novel that I realized it was a trend that all Pakistani authors seem to be following. Is it a deliberate attempt to pander to a western audience or is it because their publishers are always international, non-Pakistani organizations? It’s hard to tell.

Recommendation

I’ve written a 1000+ word review and I’m still not really sure how I feel about this book. It was nice, sure, but I won’t be reading it again anytime soon, and that’s the best I can say. I’d say if you had to, skip this one and read her later novels. They’re more clearly reflective of Shamsie’s status as one of Pakistan’s best English language authors. 

July 20, 2016

Of Death and Disappointments: Kanza Javed's Ashes, Wine and Dust has a better blurb than the actual story

“The place inside my head was never quiet. It has always been loud, it is always living and you don’t know how painful that is, how painful it is to feel every grief like it were your own.”

There’s a scene in this book in which a character describes our protagonist as sullen, boring and pensive. That, my friends, is basically a description of the book as well. Which is such a damn shame because this book actually had me at ‘decides to challenge the tradition of being female’, but this was one of those cases where the blurb is better than the actual story. And the sad thing is that I really, really wanted to like this because look at that author bio: Young female author! Award winner! So many reasons to be excited about an author like this in a country like Pakistan, with its dead publishing industry, fatally injured understanding of female rights and nonexistent encouragement of the arts as a viable career field. So I wanted to like this, and yet, how BLAH.

Moody and slow, both our protagonist Mariam and the story are in turns dull, dreary or urging the reader to doze off in a stupor. The book is split into three parts: the first, Ashes, deals with Mariam’s early life in Lahore; Wine sees her shifting to America and Dust is about her return to Lahore. Throughout the story, Mariam tries to deal with her grandfather’s death, an event that happened early in life and leaves her in limbo, and her brother’s disappearance in America, another event which sends her off the deep end. Both these tragedies, supposedly huge catalysts in Mariam’s life, manage to create no sense of urgency and connection, primarily because I never learned to care about Mariam.

That is basically the problem with this book: a main character so boring that it’s hard to feel anything for her. Mariam’s constant crying, sniffling, woe-is-me attitude gets so tedious after a while that I had to struggle on after the first 50 pages, wondering why I was still bothering to read. There’s no narrative arc, no tension in the story to keep you glued to the pages, and that’s mostly because Mariam is the most epically soulless, emotion-lacking robot that ever existed. I think the author was trying to create an introspective, shy and sharp-eyed female character here, one who thinks before she speaks and spends her time examining and thus understanding life’s mysteries. That would have been brilliant because quiet, observant characters make for fascinating first-person perspective story tellers. Instead what you get is the personality equivalent of watching paint dry.

It was not inside of me – the bright spark of spontaneity, a flare of impulsiveness and the acute sense of risk and adventure. I had what Anika called “a dry soul”. She thought this “dryness” would smother me, suck away my youth and spirit.

What is fascinating is that in the book guys are constantly falling for her, even with her utterly soul-sucking personality. Mariam has a sister who loves talking to her, and yet Mariam’s conversations verge on the lacklustre. Mariam has a friend who loves to spend time with her, actively seeking out her company, yet she invites no warmth, or makes no show of emotion. So not only is Mariam a mind numbingly tedious person, she’s also attracting people in droves with her uninteresting personality. How? How is this happening?

“This world is so stifling. Sometimes I wish I could just freeze time and trap the years past in a glass globe.”

The rest of the characters are pretty much the same too. The question that came repeatedly to my mind while reading was ‘Why do I care where this book is going?’ because the truth was, I didn’t. I would probably never have finished this if I didn’t have to review it. Even those characters that struggle and suffer in this book are unable to create a sense of sympathy in the reader. Everything, from marital problems to the death of relatives to alcoholism and conflicted artists make an appearance, but you don’t get the sense that this is a sorrowful, tragic representation of the reality we live in. More like a vague sense of irritation at the utter, complete hopelessness and lack of agency exhibited by everyone. It’s like watching a horror movie where you see something horrible happening but you don’t particularly care and you wish the hero and heroine would stop being silly and escape already, so you could do something more productive with your time than watch this train wreck.

She didn’t deserve any of this. She was the good daughter. She did everything to appease the family. She was supposed to have it all.

Even the heroine’s relationship with her brother, one of the most fundamental points of the story’s conflict, remains pointless and weak. It’s so ridiculously hollow that even the story acknowledges this, with the brother choosing to contact everyone in the world except his sister when he gets in trouble. And yet Mariam is determined to find him. She misses him, she feels guilt and sorrow, she remembers his face vividly all the time. Why, when she didn’t even care that much when he was actually around?

For me, none of this mattered. The dancing, the music, the food, nothing made me happy. No matter how much we pretended and evaded the questions about Abdullah, he loomed over the entire celebration.

Ditto her relationship with her grandfather, another one of the major points in the story. The grandfather’s illicit love affair and Mariam’s supposed connection with him are repeated throughout the story, yet it never feels real, it never feels like something we should really care about.

The thought of Grandfather’s spirit performing mischievous deeds, scampering about trying to frighten the chickens and goats of the village, seemed preposterous. His spirit, despite transcending from the physical world, had to be pensive and profound like he was.

This isn’t a flaw of the story telling so much as a flaw of the writing. There are constant appearances of odd phrases, conversational peculiarities, weird usage of particular words. There’s a lot of pointless philosophising, a lot of discussions about love and life and pain and fear and other such four-lettered abstract nouns. And not in an impressive, well-written, wow-what-brilliant-prose way other. More like a hallmark card, twitter hashtag sentence sort of way.

“The world is so beautiful and big,” he said suddenly, “But where there is the beautiful sun, there are also dark roads. We have always chosen to stay in the light.”

The conversations are stilted and awkward between almost everyone: sisters, cousins, friends. There’s also a certain sense of pretention in the writing, as if these quotes are less apt to the setting and more carefully structured to be hung up in picture frames. Basically, showy and pointless and fitting nowhere in the text.

“Well, this is life, Mariam. We are all born, some live, some suffer and then we all die. We are told that this world is a passing dream and now it has started to feel that way.”

There are also slight editing mistakes throughout the book, and after coming across them quite a few times one starts to be less forgiving and more irritated. I’m also not quite sure how I feel about the italicization of the desi words: baji, charpoy, hookah, bhai, literally each and every one of these words has been italicised to death in this story, which also, why? Is there a particular policy this publisher follows that says books must cater to a western audience, whose poor non-Urdu speaking minds will stumble over the word dupatta? What is going on here?

And of course, no Pakistani story, no matter how character-focused, is complete without the bomb explosion (is it heartless to call it cliché?) After a while, every version of an explosion just starts to feel the same.  Unless it’s really well written, I find that I don’t care anymore, which is an unnerving sort of numbness, but there you have it.

That day, Lahore bled and so did its people. More heart-wrenching stories surfaced the television and with each new story, a piece of us died. We died many times that day.

I guess the only plus point that registers is that you must give the author props for trying. You can tell she wants to write about smart stuff, about the barriers that females have faced throughout the centuries because of society and expectations.

My sisters’ lives were so much simpler; they were given a sort of code book to follow. A list of what they should and shouldn’t do. They didn’t deviate and they never doubted this family codebook. They understood that life could never completely be reshaped into what they desired, thus they never desired anything at all.

And that’s great, that’s fabulous. Female authors tackling such topics give me the feels because we need this! Except this book doesn’t really, actually, tackle anything. Sure, Mariam has problems, but these are problems because of who she is, not because of what her gender is. Take, for example, the struggle of female students everywhere to break out of the bonds of family pressure and go study abroad. And yet, Mariam does nothing extraordinary in her pursuit of higher education. Her parents willingly give her permission. She easily gets accepted. Mariam wants to go meet a journalist so she can secretly look for her brother. Her only problem? Having to go early in the morning so no one sees her. Does anyone in her family feel betrayed? Is there a violent response to her sneaking around? Nope. So where is the struggle? Where is the patriarchy destroying her desire to become someone? If only life was this easy for all women everywhere.

“What is real is the inevitable pain every woman experiences in her life. By that i don’t mean childbirth. Other kinds of pain, a heartbreak, death of a lover, infidelity, losing a child to various things, death...this world...a woman is built to endure great pains. But don’t worry, a real woman never gives up...”

I’m going to accept that the author wanted to do something good. But that’s about the only concession I’m willing to give. In all other cases, it’s a definitive no.

Recommendation

You can’t force yourself to like a book - which is why I avoid reading new books when I’m in a bad funk (bring on the old favourites) - and this book is incapable of being liked. I mean, I got bored just writing this review. My honest opinion? If you really want to read good literature written by female Pakistani authors, try Kamila Shamsie for the serious or Shazaf Fatima Haider for the light-hearted, and skip this.