July 10, 2015

Of Nationalities and Religion: Kamila Shamsie's Burnt Shadows is definitely one of Pakistan's best novels


She had not thought of destination so much as departure, wheeling through the world with the awful freedom of someone with no one to answer to. She had become, in fact, a figure out of myth. The character who loses everything and is born anew in blood. In the stories these characters were always reduced to a single element: vengeance or justice. All other components of personality or part shrugged off.

This book is amazing. No, scratch that. Amazing is probably too weak a word here. Think astounding. Remarkable.  The kind of book you tell your best friend to read so you can discuss it together, going over all the finer points.

I’ll admit, I started the book with wary suspicions. Look at that blurb: Nagasaki and the atomic bomb. 1947 and partition. 2001 and New York City and Afghanistan. The book looks like a mess waiting to happen, but. It wasn’t. In fact, it was quite miraculous how everything came together. How the lives intertwined. I have used that word quite often, but nowhere does it fit more perfectly than in this book; intertwining of fate and coincidences and relationships is a big theme in this book, and Kamila Shamsie’s canvas is the world.

Remember how in When Harry met Sally both Harry and Sally are always meeting or hanging out in front of New York’s most famous locations? It’s in the background, no one’s calling attention to it, but they’re all there. Central Park, The Met, Washington Square Gardens: you get the point. Kamila Shamsie does the same thing, but with global, life-altering events. It’s a microscopic view of the individual life in the face of large-scale change, and that is where the beauty of the book lies.

But let us start at the beginning.

The Summary

 Yes, I know everything can disappear in a flash of light. That doesn’t make anything less valuable.

It’s August 9, 1945, and Hiroko Tanaka, the disgraced daughter of a father who dared question the morality of children involved in Kamikaze flights, is very much in love, but with the wrong person: Konrad Weiss, a German living in Nagasaki, trying to understand their culture. In this instance, we know the bomb is going to fall, but what is more interesting is the xenophobia, the patriotism, the secrecy and the betrayals. Shamsie makes us care more about Hiroko’s mother’s death, about Konrad’s disloyal friend, about their secret love affair, than the devastation that we know is about to occur.

Since her mother’s death, she had taken to interpreting the silence from her father as an absence of anything worth communicating rather than an inability to form a new configuration with his daughter now his beloved wife is no longer around to serve as the voice to his thoughts.

That’s not to say that the bomb is just background noise. No, the bomb changes things, but we are now at the heart of those who suffered through it. There is no fine distance, no aloofness to be hidden behind. Shamsie is not concerned with talking about governments and politics; she wants you to look at the human who lives through war time, who survives, who has to learn to pick up the pieces later.

When the war’s over, I’ll be kind.

Fast forward to 1947 and the subcontinent, where Hiroko lands into another area full of upheaval. Going to Delhi, to the home of Konrad’s sister Ilse, now the married Elizabeth Burton, Hiroko is trying to escape the brand of Hibakusha, as hard a task as removing the bird shaped scars on her back from where the kimono she was wearing at the time of the bomb burned into her skin. Tensions in the area are chaotic with the upcoming partition into India and Pakistan, and it is here that we stumble into the world of the Burtons, a British middle aged couple, and Sajjad Ashraf, the husband James’s bored servant. It is here that, even as the outside world changes, it will be Hiroko’s presence that will cause the greatest change.

She saw her words filtering into his thoughts and becoming part of the way he saw the world.

Japanese, British, Hindustani. In the first half of the book, Kamila Shamsie is obsessed with nationality: which country do we come from, and how does it affect us? The Burtons, with their disintegrating marriage and their son sent out of the country because of the conflict, are as removed a part of the subcontinent as Sajjad Ashraf is in love with it. His Dilli/Dehli, where his whole family resides, is his life. He is in love with the culture, the poetry, and as reluctant to leave the city, but his blooming romance with Hiroko and the subsequent events put a twist in fate that brings us, once again, down to the level of the human reacting to the large, the international, the encompassing.

It seemed to Sajjad these were the kinds of things said so that repetition made fact of conjecture. He’d know what to do with an Urdu masterpiece written by an Englishman. He’d read it. Why pretend it was more complicated than that?

We move swiftly from the streets to Dilli to a pit stop in Istanbul before suddenly we’re in Karachi, the living, breathing city of Pakistan, where Shamsie’s prose shines at her best. It could be because she grew up here, but there is yearning in the writing here. If not for anything else, books like these should be read just for the breathtaking command over words, the mixing of emotion and thought and politics and culture all in one perfectly formed sentence.

He cursed under his breath the government which kept trying to force religion into everything public. His mother, with her most intimate relationship with Allah, would have personally knocked on the door of Army House and told the President he should have more shame than to ask all the citizens to conduct their love affairs with the Almighty out in the open.

In Karachi is where the story starts to show its desire to connect its characters. Raza Konrad Ashraf, whose very name is an amalgamation of religions and nationalities, is the book’s product of interconnectedness, Hiroko and Sajjad’s son, and it is here that Shamsie explores parenthood and adolescence like she understands what both these dual experiences can feel like.

She was overwhelmed by a felling of sorrow for her boy, for that look in her eyes which told her he knew and had always known that he would have to take that most exceptional part of himself and put it to one side. She knew what Sajjad would say if she tried to discuss it with him: ‘If the greatest loss of his life is the loss of a dream he’s always known to be a dream, then he’s among the fortunate ones.’ He’d be right, of course, but that didn’t stop this pulling at her heart.

Throughout the book’s course we careen throughout history, from Nagasaki to Hindustan to Karachi and then finally, inevitably, to 2001, where the shadow of 9/11 looms large over New York City and Afghanistan. It is over here that the Weiss and the Burtons will find their way into the lives of the Tanaka and Ashrafs, all the while spanning across greater demographics. We are no longer just concerned with nationalities, but with ethnicities, with religion, with the divergence of groups within groups and individuals whose particular choices can affect all those around them.

It seemed the most extraordinary privilege – to have forewarning of a swerve in history, to prepare for how your life would curve around that bend.

There is much to be said about the book’s ending, and about how who we are defines what we think. But speaking too openly will only reveal an ending that should be read to be savoured.

Was pride supposed to temper grief? She wanted him alive. Why was this man standing here, talking as though there were ways of dying that rendered death bearable?

The recommendation:

Recommended for everyone who is a fan of historical fiction/ interested in geopolitical change/ looking for a serious, good read. This book is literary fiction at its finest, not too pretentious or long to bore the reader, and not too glib or arrogant to put one off. Put this on your to-read list right now.

Why should rules of conduct be the only things untouched by war, she once asked him? Everything from the past is passed.