March issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 15 years ago

Expectations are high these days with Pakistani authors creating quite the hype in literary circles at home and abroad. Perhaps that is one of the reasons to not read The Blue Room during this time. Nafisa Rizvi’s debut novel unsuccessfully tries to imbue a somewhat Gothic element into an uncomplicated plot, set against a feudalistic background, in which the wisps of imagination are lamentably lost in thin air. The straightforward narrative is unable to hold the fathomless experiences in the unseen world — instead of creating awe and mystery through magic or mysticism, Rizvi’s created world just appears bizarre and without grounding.

The story follows the ‘unique’ (read strange and eccentric) character of Zaibunnissa, who is born to an affluent landlord in a small agricultural town vested in the feudal tradition. Her life begins in the family’s estate, called Shahi Manzil, and ends in Qasr-e-Zaib, the house she moves into in the city; the book is respectively separated in these two divisions. Zaib’s birth was heralded by a vision her grandfather had about a “captivatingly stalwart young woman” walking in an orchard with four old men dressed in blue robes, followed by a dark shadow which was not her own. Immediately the reader is quizzical whether visions are a norm in this land of fiction, as the writer has introduced the first one blatantly and with undemonstrative language. Zaib’s special gift is in her eyes; looking into them gives her grandfather a “strange sensation of floating in the pools of her cornea.” The secret of these strange eyes obtrudes abruptly from the account of general events, as the eight-year-old Zaib inexplicably inflicts physical pain on her lecherous uncle, who tries to fondle her, by merely fixing her gaze upon him. And next in her teen years, on a conniving villain of a cleric, whom she considers to be the dark shadow in her life for a large part of the novel.

Similarly, without any precursor, the secret of the blue room is revealed promptly as soon as the room itself is. Dare I equate it for you? Keeping the vision in mind of our heroine walking with four old men in blue, within the next 10 pages, our leading lady discovers a room in her haveli with its four walls painted blue and … they speak to her. Yes, they do.

As she grows older, the four walls provide her with “guidance” and increase her wealth of knowledge through their divine wisdom. But as they state condescendingly, “It is completely our prerogative to give you information or to withhold it as and when we desire.” But the talking walls are out of mind when out of sight. Since they are decidedly stationary, they appear in Zaib’s life only when she herself wishes to return to the room. Once she is married and out of Shahi Manzil, the walls’ sequence emerges less and less.

Presumably, the author has picked out the few major themes one can find in a feudal setting: ready belief in the supernatural, specific mention of djinns and their exorcism, black magic, sexual depravity in charlatan preachers and clerics, and the use of women as chattels to appease enemies or affirm allegiance between families. But such struggles on the part of those victims and the evil in the corrupt is held at arm’s length, including the inner voice of all the characters introduced.

You wait for the pool to deepen, but unfortunately it remains shallow. The linear plot remains one dimensional to the extent that the protagonist is unexplained to the readers till the very end. For example, her unacknowledged love for her cousin is utterly unexplored and the reader is taken aback at the briefest mention of her hidden feelings for him just at the end of the novel, to which her husband’s reaction is absent.

If we are allowed to describe Zaib as delusional, if not schizophrenic, then psychological disorders run in the family. Her uncle, Asadullah, believes he is the “saver of souls” and previously imagined, nay was convinced, he was Jesus Christ. Her father Qasim suffers from the Lady Macbeth syndrome, elated by “the orgasmic feeling of soap gliding over his palm …” The cause of these mental issues are never explained.

From the very beginning one is struck with the stony structure of the prose, with no fluidity. Also, one cringes at the surfeit of pedagogy inserted in every exchange of words whether between people or walls. And as time passes, the walls of the blue room spout fountains of such ill advice to a young woman, pouring scorn or jesting with her about her “hubris” which was merely her adolescent pride: “You were silly to think that life would be a bed of roses, young lady,” they warn her when the girl is being married off beneath her, to a man she has never laid eyes on, aware that she is part of some age-old pact her father made.

As the story transpires, the author seemed to have been overcome by lethargy of the mind and does not go far at all to imagine any creative, inspiring, sympathetic or relevant destiny for any of her characters. It is as if they are just carried on pedantically page after page, and disposed off with the most convenient fate when a denouement was required. It is as if the writer must have shut the book with relief of completing a tiresome task she was forced to undertake. The feeling is mutual for the reader.