April issue 2014

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 5 years ago

Ancient Greek explorers, Peshawar’s famous Qissa Khawani Bazaar, World War I and India’s independence struggle all come together in Kamila Shamsie’s recent novel, A God in Every Stone. To say that worlds collide would be an understatement.

Set in the early 20th century (1915-1930), the novel centres on the lives of three characters. There is Vivian Rose Spencer, a young Englishwoman with a love for history and archaeology, who leaves behind war-stricken Europe for Peshawar in the hope of finding an ancient artifact. On her journey, she briefly meets a soldier from the British Indian army, Qayyum Gul, who is also returning from Europe after losing an eye on a battlefield. And the third character is Qayyum’s younger brother Najeeb, who ends up welcoming the British woman instead of his brother when they arrive at the train station in Peshawar. He becomes her tour guide, and she his tutor. Qayyum, in the meantime, tries to rid himself of the ghosts of war and to grapple with his loyalties to the Crown and his own people.

Admittedly, that’s a very reductive summary of a novel in which war and peace, women’s role in society and male camaraderie, romance and friendship all intersect.

Reading A God in Every Stone, one can’t help but marvel at the amount of research Shamsie must have done, and that too on topics as diverse as 5th century BC Greece and India’s independence struggle against the British.

The connection between the two worlds — which few people would know of, even in Pakistan — is that the ancient Greek explorer, Scylax, trekked all the way to the Indus River and, at least in the world of the novel, his circlet adorned with figs and leaves may be buried somewhere in Peshawar. On her own in the city (the other British living in Peshawar provide only pleasant company, and sometimes not even that), Vivian finds that the only person who can help her in her hunt — or at least share her interest in it — is the teenaged Najeeb. She teaches him that Herodotus is the father of history and that the Pactyikes he describes in his work are none other than the Pathans.

The novel is densely populated with historical information but Shamsie never allows it to slow down the plot. History is so seamlessly interwoven into the narrative that never does the novel appear dissertational. In fact, the story moves rather swiftly, frequently switching between locations and characters. And rather than painstakingly delineating every development in the plot, Shamsie chooses to jump ahead from 1915 to 1930, by when Vivian has long returned to England, Najeeb is an employee of the Peshawar museum and Qayyum is a follower of independence activist Ghaffar Khan (better remembered today as Bacha Khan).

As with Shamsie’s earlier novels, her eye for detail results in striking imagery. Take for instance, this scene in which Qayyum, still acclimatising to his new glass eye, goes for a walk in the streets of Peshawar:

“A tarpaulin flew off a donkey-cart. The load of hand mirrors caught the sun, threw circles of light up onto surrounding facades whose windows flung the glare back into the eyes of the men on the street — camel drivers, Victoria-drivers, merchants, customers, wayfarers. Dazzling chaos. A bolting donkey, an upturned cart of turnips, a man walking into a tower of brass urns; the blur of other things falling, colliding at the periphery of Qayyum’s vision.”

And, without forcing it into the narrative, Shamsie cuttingly examines the politics between the British characters and the locals. When Vivian and Qayyum meet for the first time, for instance, he asks her why the English enjoy digging for “old, broken things,” to which Vivian replies that she doesn’t know. Shamsie then writes:

“He used to think it was humility, this readiness of the English to acknowledge ignorance. But he had come to understand it was the exact opposite — to be English was to move through the world with no need to impress or convince. Was this so because they had an empire, or did they have an empire because this was so?”

In her speech at the Karachi Literature Festival earlier this year, Shamsie spoke of the debate surrounding writing about Pakistan in English versus Urdu. One of the questions often raised in this ongoing debate (which perhaps should now be put to rest) is that English writers address an international audience rather than a local one and that English fiction cannot faithfully represent local experiences. But in the case of a novel like this one, the world described is so familiar yet strange that the question of using English fiction to educate non-Pakistanis about the country becomes a moot point.

Towards the end of the novel, the action — and the violence — escalates, perhaps even to a fault as the scenes become more abrupt and frenetic. But, for the most part, the novel is deeply layered with history and poetic detail, making it perhaps one of the best novels written by Shamsie, who has already won international accolades for her work.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s April 2014 issue under the headline, “Brush With History.”

Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.