April issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 12 years ago

Encompassing the story of two generations of women, Ayesha Salman’s Blue Dust perambulates between the lives of Zaib and her sister Devi and then, Zaib’s daughters, Alya and Sonia. The main protagonists, Zaib and Alya, dominate the story-line which moves from the past to the present throughout the novel. Reading Blue Dust is tantamount to entering a disorderly dreamscape where the experiences of its women create a strange, unexplained uneasiness. Zaib’s life, though privileged, is a wellspring of unresolved episodes beginning from her childhood, when the disappearance of her playmate, described in the book as the ‘servant-girl’ Ghazala, leaves her bereft, her mother’s Christian background makes her feel lesser than her peers and her beautiful, Oxford-educated sister Devi’s marriage to a man she hardly knows, following a failed love-affair, leads her to learn of the reality of unrequited love. In her adult life Zaib encounters further discord; a marital rift, suicidal tendencies — she is unable to conquer her oppressions and finds no real solace in her children. Melancholia and the inability to find her exact place in her world gnaw at her. The adult Zaib awakens every day to a reality of her own choosing, not the one that life has given her — her escapism is surreal.

Inevitably there are several dark notes in the story. “She had been working towards wiping out her mother’s sadness all of her life…” feels Zaib’s daughter, Ayla. The author does not make the lives of her characters easy; grief and darkness hover in every crevice of the story and an inexplicable unresolved relationship with the past lingers endlessly, even when the writer brings the women to happier places and better times. The author’s narrative hops, skips and jumps from one woman’s life to the other to create a rather haphazard mosaic. Salman ventures to unearth and describe the earliest and most elemental experiences that shape her characters and her analysis tends to decipher a little too much. The characters are too self-indulgent in their introspection, too caught up in the life of emotion to see any other world outside of it. The detailed description of how they feel, though beautifully gleaned, takes away from the story-telling. Maybe the reader would like to cruise through the story rather than wade through thick puddles of sludge or experience something like bad weather on an aeroplane.

Stylistically influenced by magical realism, elements of the fantastic blend into the story-line. Often the most banal incident is given surreal dimensions; in reality Zaib has several demons to contend with and for her they seem to take a real shape. Her fear of ladybirds leads her to imagine them as life-size creatures and for an older Zaib, when a centipede in the garden frightens her, she imagines matchstickmen climb up her legs and she thinks, “She had opened the door to centipede land.”

There is a certain Suleri-esque quality to Salman’s novel — she brings family life to the forefront. While Suleri’sMeatless Days was a compendium of the writer’s own memories of childhood and youth in Lahore, Salman’sBlue Dust is brimming with similar memories of a time gone by, especially the description of Zaib’s childhood, her relationship with her parents and sister and the comings and goings in their home. You can imagine high-ceilinged drawing rooms, tea being served on an old-fashioned trolley and “the dripping smell of tuberose and fried food.”

While Blue Dust chronicles three generations of a family through its trials and tribulations, it bravely addresses a whole gamut of issues that this Pakistani family encounters: class distinction, unrequited love, arranged marriage and fidelity, sexual molestation and pedophilia, teenage forays with sex and drugs, mental illness and depression. The list is long and shocking and Salman weaves it all in with agility.

Blue Dust is a must-read to experience the unveiling of private emotions and sequestered incidents that are often not seen or spoken of.

This book review was originally published in the April issue of Newsline under the headline “The Life and Times of…”

The writer is a former assistant editor at Newsline