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.


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.