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.