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.