Book of the month: Bina Shah

IMG_0507

It’s been a month of great reading. Funnily enough, through no deliberate intention, many of my favourite reads of the past few weeks have been novels about women in different parts of the planet. From Chantel Acevedo’s scintillating evocation of Cuba’s past in The Distant Marvels to Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman – an engrossing exploration of the consequences of a lifetime’s bibliophilia in contemporary Beirut – I have found myself wowed by stories revealing the world through women’s eyes. I also took a detour into 20th-century writing to spend a few hours pinioned to my sofa by Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House – a chilling masterclass in how to construct a gripping plot.

Those in the UK keen to get their hands on a good read might find it easier to choose one of the titles mentioned above as, although March’s book of the month is published in the US, it isn’t out in the UK – yet – (although you can get it online). In fact, my copy of A Season for Martyrs was sent to me from Karachi by the author herself.

As you can see from the photo above, it came in an envelope covered in stamps. Inside was the beautifully colourful book, signed with a personal message from Bina Shah, who was one of the Pakistani writers readers recommended to me back in 2012. The novel’s vibrant jacket wasn’t the only striking thing about it: the edges of the pages were rough from where the paper had been cut to make the copy (see below).

IMG_0531

The pages of my edition may be rough, but the same is certainly not true of the novel. At the heart of the book is ambitious student-cum-TV-news-researcher Ali, who is caught up in covering the controversial return to Pakistan of exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007. As he struggles to reconcile his liberal political beliefs and secret relationship with his Hindu girlfriend with his feudal Sindhi family’s views and fraught history, we see something of the national tussle for control and identity played out on the personal level. With myths and episodes from Sindh province’s long, rich and turbulent past interspersing the narrative, what emerges is a powerful and complex picture of contemporary Pakistan.

Shah’s tone is one of the first things that draw you in. Whether she is portraying the health gripes of a British Empire functionary, capturing the patter of a bus conductor in Islamabad, or describing the travails of tenth century Sufi saints – ‘even if you were regarded as the guardian of all waterways […] you could tire of riding a palla fish’ – her prose is engaging, funny, direct and refreshing. It makes her well-equipped to unmask and send up the ‘etiquette of hypocrisy’ that influences much of what goes on in the novel.

Yet satire is just one element in this novel. There are flashes of beauty in Shah’s writing and succinct insights that leave you marvelling at her skill for wrapping human emotions in words. When Ali contemplates his dysfunctional home life, for example, Shah finds a powerful simile in the buildings where he grew up:

How many other houses in their sedate neighborhood, with its old houses built in the seventies, its overgrown trees lining the zigzag streets that flooded during every monsoon season, were like theirs: genteel on the outside, wasting away from neglect on the inside? How many other families lived like fractured glass, cracked but still holding up within the constraints of their frames?

In addition, the novel contains some extraordinarily gripping episodes. From the account of Jeandal Shah’s fight to the death with a cheetah in 1827 and the night-long chess tournament between the young jailer Ahmed and a condemned Pir hours before the overlord’s execution in 1943, to the violent protest that leads to Ali to witness the injustice of the police firsthand, the book brims with urgent and troubling events.

Very occasionally there is a slight self-consciousness to the telling as Shah seems to try to explain historical context or 21st-century Pakistani politics – perhaps to English-language readers in other parts of the world. Now and then, as a character steps forward with a suspiciously slick explanation of events or a chunk of exposition bobs to the surface of the narrative, it is as though the author and her protagonist glance towards the camera, briefly breaking the spell.

(That said, the issue of how much cultural knowledge to assume in readers who may be far removed from the events described is a fine balancing act. Had Shah, who is well-versed in writing about Pakistan for readers elsewhere through her journalism for publications such as The New York Times and The Guardian, included less overt explanation she may well have run the risk of leaving people behind.)

Quibbles aside, though, this is a powerful and engrossing book. It has drama, beauty, wit, characters to care about and important things to say. It is, as Ali puts it himself, a story about what it’s like ‘to be lost and adrift and struggling at sea, and then, finally, to see the shore and begin swimming toward it with all one’s might’.

Now that it’s reached the US, I very much hope a British publisher picks it up so that A Season for Martyrs makes it to the shores of the UK soon too.

A Season for Martyrs by Bina Shah (Delphinium Books, 2014)

Pakistan: the long view

There were lots of choices for Pakistan – and lots of visitors to this blog with opinions about which book I should go for. Writers such as Daniyal Mueenuddin, Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Bapsi Sidhwa came up several times in discussion and I had plenty of possibilities to check out when it came to choosing the work for this post.

However, when I started to research the suggestions, there was one book with such a fascinating story behind it that, when I discovered how it came to be published, I knew I would have to read it. Recommended by both Waqas and blogger Fay, who kindly shared her personal Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist with me, The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad might never have made it into print. In fact, the first draft of the book, which Ahmad wrote in the early seventies, was locked in a trunk for 30 years and presumed lost by its author after it failed to find a publisher in Pakistan. Luckily, as the novelist told Publisher’s Weekly last year, Ahmad’s wife Helga kept the key, and when Ahmad’s brother heard about a literary competition the work was brought out once more and quickly passed to Penguin.

Framed around the life of Tor Baz, an enigmatic nomad living in the border hills of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet during the mid-20th century, the novel reveals a volatile and fragile world. Orphaned young when his parents are killed by their tribe because of their elopement, Baz passes through a range of groups and guardians, eventually carving out a living by selling information to rival factions in the region. Along the way he crosses paths with lonely soldiers, a mad mullah, people traffickers, prostitutes, a naive European in search of his roots and a wife fleeing the tyranny of travelling with her husband’s performing bear. And, as the British Empire retreats and the borders of the region’s newly declared nations take shape and harden, a desperate struggle emerges between the old ways of life and the modern order.

Ahmad’s depiction of the border region’s landscape is extraordinary. Wild, haunting and treacherous, this ‘tangle of crumbling weather-beaten and broken hills’ and the plains beyond it seem to have as much character and agency as the people who make their lives there. The landscape even moulds their personalities, teaching them ‘to be deliberate in their actions and slow in responding to emotions’ with its silence, harsh beauty, 120-day winds, and wide, open spaces across which pursuers can be spotted from miles away.

Yet for all its magnificence and antiquity, the landscape is in many ways little more than a rumpled blanket that can be shaken by external powers, tumbling those upon it into confusion. As a result of the closing of the borders and the political changes in the region in the late fifties, many of the local tribespeople run up against unfamiliar forces with which they must do battle in order to survive. Sometimes, tradition and ancient wisdom gain the upper hand, as when the nameless foreigner ventures into the off-limits Afridi territory of his father’s youth only to die a bewildered death, or the local official sent to challenge the Bhittani tribe over colluding in a kidnapping finds himself locked in a ‘battle of wits’ with the tribesmen and is obliged to give up because ‘he could offer no story to counter the old man’s logic’.

More often though, the traditional ways and those who practise them are warped and broken by the weight of a modern system that leaves no room for ambiguity. As the nomadic, stateless Kharot people discover when they attempt to cross the border to the pastureland their tribe has used for centuries and which their animals need to survive, ‘the pressures were inexorable. One set of values, one way of life had to die’ – and die in the most brutal of circumstances.

Such tragedies bring out Ahmad’s most passionate and beautiful writing. In these moments, his disarmingly stripped-back style – characterised by insights such as ‘hope does not die like an animal – quick and sudden. It is more like a plant, which slowly withers away’ and the description of a murdered Mengal tribesman sliding ‘down in small jerks like a broken doll from the saddle to the ground’ – concentrates itself into powerful direct appeals. Perhaps the most moving of these concerns the execution of seven Baluch tribesmen, who, when asked to explain the murder of some rivals, find that their lengthy discourse on the history of tribal relations in the region holds no power to impress the court. ‘Fables have no use here. They are not evidence,’ says the judge, going on to sentence them to death and paving the way for Ahmad’s most memorable pronouncement on what such decisions cost:

‘What died with them was a part of the Baluch people themselves. A little of their spontaneity in offering affection, and something of their graciousness and trust. That too was tried, sentenced and died with these seven men.’

This is that rare breed of writing that springs from deep love and knowledge of a place and the people who live there. It is not saccharine, picture-postcard sentimentalism, all rose-tinted nostalgia; nor is it explorer’s obsession, tripping over itself in its eagerness to analyse and explain. No: it is a love that has been forged and tempered by years of living in and absorbing a region in all its beauty, brokenness, brutality and brilliance. Astonishing – and well worth the wait.

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad (Penguin, 2011)