August Issue 2009
How the Other Half Lives
There is a sort of easy familiarity in writing debut novels. At least, this is what seems evident from the last decade of debut novels, which have gone on to result in the much-vaunted explosion in Pakistani writing in English. Much of the impulse and source material for the debut novels of people like Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid, Nadeem Aslam, Mohammad Hanif and Daniyal Mueenuddin came from the lives of the authors themselves, with the frequent criss-crossing of boundaries by their fictional characters reflecting the real-life diasporic existence led by these authors themselves.
The Wish Maker is another such attempt at making the life of another privileged, upper-middle-class Pakistani — albeit one in a minority — decipherable to the non-Pakistani world which continues to be befuddled by daily events in this country.
To understand the inner soul of this novel, readers must understand that much of it is based on the actual life of one of the more privileged families in Pakistan — the Sethis. The Sethi family is, undoubtedly, a major part of Pakistan’s politics as well as its history of independent publishing, and it is this background that is an evident undertone throughout the novel. Once the readers understand the family connections of the author (see interview), almost every character automatically falls into place.
The first part of the novel sees the young protagonist, Zaki Shirazi — the eponymous wish maker — return to Pakistan to participate in his cousin Samar’s wedding in Lahore. We are then introduced to the novel’s main characters in a privileged, upper-middle-class household. We meet Zaki’s mother, Zakia who has bravely put up both with the stifling matriarchal environment at home, which is created by her deceased husband’s mother, as well as the difficult circumstances created by the worst years of Pakistan’s worst military dictator, General Zia. Zaki’s cousin, Samar, whose mother, while herself a typical victim of Seraiki feudalism and patriarchy, deposits her daughter to thrive in Lahore’s more cosmopolitan environment. There is also Zaki’s grandmother, known simply as Daadi, a curmudgeonly woman who has had to personally witness a long train of losses and tragedies, whether it is close friendships lost to the partition of the subcontinent, or the loss of her own husband and then of her beloved son, air force officer Sami Shirazi, Zaki’s father. Next up are Sami’s siblings, two sisters who epitomise the crass materialism and greed which characterised the nouveau-riche of Pakistan after the fall of Zia’s dictatorship. Their respective husbands are no better; carpet-baggers of the first order, they fully deserve their spouses.
The novel then flashes back to tell the stories of the main characters in their youth, of the many personal and political choices all the above-mentioned female protagonists made, and which affect their relationships with their loved ones. I believe the strength of the novel lies in recounting how a conservative and apolitical Karachi girl like Zakia is transformed into an empowered, politicised woman of the heady 1960s, able to defy her parents as well as the political establishment in defence of what she believes is right. One of the places where the novel suffers is the way Zakia’s best friend, the de Beauvoir-reading feminist Nargis, lacks character development, despite showing the way forward to Zakia, both personally and politically.
The lack of a father in the Shirazi family is a clever literary device invoked by the author in order to develop his theme of the presence of strong women in the household, each with their own personal and political views. How the presence of these strong women links up with events in the political backdrop — Benazir’s accession as Pakistan’s first female prime minister — is interesting and instructive. While the women in the Shirazi household have their own battles to fight, the millions of women — whose sacrifices and battles made the phenomenon of Benazir Bhutto possible — saw many of their hopes disappear in the political ineptitude and spectacular corruption that was a hallmark of the Bhutto regime. The novel also sheds light on the debates raging in the minds of Pakistan’s women activists in that period, many of them working in NGOs, as well as presenting cameo appearances from celebrated intellectual and literary icons of Pakistan’s recent history, like Eqbal Ahmad, Faiz and Roshan Ara Begum. It is when describing these moments that the author excels. On the other hand, multiple mentions of Bollywood celebrities not only irritate but appear totally unnecessary.
In the midst of this political and social disillusionment of the 1990s, Zaki and Samar’s friendship sprouts up, and each becomes indispensable to the other. Both have a penchant for dangerous liaisons and alcohol. The themes of sexuality and sexual discovery have been treated in a restrained, delicate and amusing way. Class contradictions also abound, despite the presence of defenders of women’s rights like Zakia.
In line with the dictates of the new ‘global’ novel, the writer has attempted to introduce Lahore’s historical and cultural landmarks, albeit within the very limited, elite borders of the Cantonment, Cavalry, Defence, Main Market Gulberg, Pioneer Store, etc. He also showcases the music preferences and tastes of teenagers growing up in that first desperate onslaught of consumerism in Pakistan.
The second part of the novel is much more personal and most probably based on the writer’s own life. Wilson Academy is a poorly-veiled euphemism for Aitchison College, the country’s elite finishing school for the men who dominate Pakistan today, both politically and culturally. So is the Women’s Journal for the Sethi-Mohsin flagship publication The Friday Times. The subsequent meanderings of the novel into various friendships picked up at school, the relationships and their eventual disillusionment and transience are all very familiar to anyone privileged enough to enroll in any one of Lahore’s elite private schools.
We are led through other actual physical excesses experienced by Najam Sethi under the government of Nawaz Sharif, when the former was accused of being an Indian agent, an event transparently fictionalised in the novel. Subsequent political events in Pakistan like the beginning of another military dictatorship and the arrival of enlightened moderation are mentioned but dismissed as being “just politics”, a clear hint at the later, more placid preferences to Sethi.
The novel begins to take a predictable lunge in the last hundred pages or so, as Zaki, alienated by the conformist Pakistani school system and his immediate environment, applies to US universities, enrolls (like the author of the novel himself) and returns for Samar’s wedding. Where the novel disappoints is in the denouement, which is almost like a typical Bollywood masala movie. Earlier in the novel, the poet Faiz answered a young Zakia’s query regarding an impending revolution in the country by saying that she would bring the revolution nearer. But in the end, it is Samar, the spitting image of her aunt, who ushers in her revolution — not by standing up for her rights, or adopting resistance as a political project, but marrying her dream mate. The novel’s blurb grandly advertises the novel as “chronicling world-changing events that have never been so intimately observed in fiction.” I believe that The Wish Maker is not that novel, and this fact places the burden of expectation all the more on the author’s second novel. And when he does write that book, maybe Ali Sethi will mine some more of his family’s illustrious history to tell us about the editorial and political compromises that the Women’s Journal editor made in kowtowing to the half-baked, liberal enlightened moderate General Pervez Musharraf.
Read Raza Naeem’s interview with Ali Sethi.
The writer is a social scientist, translator, book critic and a prize-winning dramatic reader based in Lahore.