April issue 2010

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 14 years ago

In her unique style, Sorayya Khan, in her latest novel, Five Queen’s Road, writes about a new world order in a post-war setting. As in her previous work, the characters in this novel emerge from a conflict situation. In her last novel Noor, she had bravely confronted the breakaway of East Pakistan. In this novel, inspired by true events and actual characters, she delves into the chaos of the partition of 1947. It is life post-tragedy.

The families of Dina Lal, a Hindu, and Amir Shah, a Muslim, share a house left by an Englishman. Five Queen’s Road is the pride of John Smithson at the time of independence. Dina Lal, reluctant to leave his beloved Lahore for a land unknown to him, chooses the house as a safe sanctuary for his family. Amir Khan is the new tenant looking to place his family — a son and a daughter — in comfortable surroundings after crossing the line from the other side of the divide. Irene, herself scarred by memories of a childhood spent under fear of German occupation during World War II, joins the family as the new daughter-in-law.

Over the next 40 years, the grand house with an impeccable garden and spacious verandas suffers neglect as its inmates too go through their own personal traumas. Walls are erected, divisions within divisions take place as the world outside shrinks and encroaches upon the house itself. “Five Queen’s Road and the slope on which it stood had sunk, the way old people curve and shrink as the burdens of their lives become too heavy to shoulder.”

The story unfolds through flashbacks; the past merges with the present, but at no point is the rhythm broken or the reader left confused. None of the events are over-dramatised or glorified, neither is any character shown larger than life. People are dealing with their simple day-to-day lives. The spectre of war hovers in the background, but the author expertly avoids unnecessary details. The pace is slow but does not drag. The charm of the work lies in its utter simplicity. “Dina Lal grew satisfied he had pulled a fast one on the city — indeed the country — that was doing its best to disown him or, worse, drive him away.”

Sorayya Khan has the innate ability of understanding human nature with all its foibles and its tendency to become less human when faced with difficult choices. There are no heroes or villains in her script; it is about real people making unreal selfish choices as they restart life from a holocaust that in both her novels has divided countries, families and loyalties.

Winner of the Malahat Review Novella Prize in 1995, Khan has published in various journals. A masters in International Relations and Politics from the University of Denver, Khan was a Fulbright creative writing scholar in Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1999-2000. Born to a Pakistani father and a Dutch mother, she has spent many years in Islamabad, and currently resides in Ithica, USA, with her husband and two children.