January issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Published 16 years ago

As the year ended with the Indo-Pak peace process in tatters, the book I’ve been urging my friends to read is Basharat Peer’s moving and evocative Curfewed Night — part memoir, part reportage of life in Kashmir from the ’80s until 2005. Peer describes an idyllic childhood in a Kashmiri village, which is shattered in January 1990 when Indian troops open fire on pro-independence Kashmiri protestors. The fervour for azadi leads Peer and his friends to attempt to join the militants crossing into training camps across the border. He writes about this in a way that illuminates the atmosphere of a moment that can make young boys decide that their future lies with the gun. It is only the intervention of his family that changes the course of his life towards education and the written word instead.

The older Basharat Peer, a student and, later, journalist in New Delhi, is struck by the absence of good literature about Kashmir — with the sole exception of the poet Agha Shahid Ali — and determines to return to Kashmir in order to chronicle the lives of those who didn’t have his chance of escape: the boys who joined the militants, the mothers whose sons never came home, and all the other Kashmiris whose lives, in one way or the other, have been caught up in the violence. He talks also of the pundits who had to leave, of the militant who tried to kill his own father and of all those militants who laid down their arms. In doing this, he takes Kashmir out of the realm of rhetoric and politics in which it languishes too often in Pakistan, and returns its stories to the people of Kashmir themselves. It should be required reading for everyone on both sides of the Indo-Pak border.

The work of telling stories about the world’s most troubled locations is not, of course, the provenance of non-fiction writers alone, as Nadeem Aslam shows in his extraordinary new novel The Wasted Vigil. Set in Afghanistan, it follows the lives of a cast of characters — Russian, English, American and Afghan — from the time of the Soviet invasion right up to the American invasion. Aslam has the rare ability to look unflinchingly at the worst excesses of history without ever allowing beauty and love to stray out of the field of his vision. He employs a particularly challenging third person perspective which burrows into the minds of each of his characters and allows you to see the world through each pair of eyes — revealing their conflicting certainties as well as, in the most unlikely situations, their common humanity. Structurally complex, emotionally gripping and, by the end, heart-thumpingly page-turning, this is an exceptional novel by one of the finest contemporary novelists.

If Peer and Aslam tell us about the places just across the line (Durand and Line-of-Control) from Pakistan, it falls to an Englishwoman to tell stories of our own nation, many of which were unknown to me. Alice Albinia’s Empire of the Indus is a wonderful account of the author’s travels up the Indus River. Gloriously disregarding the received wisdom which says it’s unsafe for women — let alone foreign women — to travel unaccompanied through the country, Albinia finds hospitality all along the Indus and its tributaries (in Afghanistan and Tibet, as well as Pakistan). She also finds a twofold tragedy: the environmental ravages that are destroying the great river, and the sharp narrowing of beliefs and opinions that is laying waste to the rich religio-cultural heritage of the lands through which she travels.

There is, of course, a clear transition from the narrowing of beliefs to the Zia years. This brings us to perhaps the most joyfully celebrated book in Pakistan, in this or any other year: Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes. One of my friends described reading it as “a little touch of revenge for all that the nation endured in those eleven years.” It’s funny, biting, tragic, angry but perhaps most strikingly of all, extremely suspenseful — even though we all know exactly how it’s going to end.

There were, of course, wonderful books this year which had nothing to do with Pakistan and its neighbours. A few that come to mind are Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, a moving and often funny story of a woman whose old friend comes to stay while undergoing ‘alternative therapies’ to combat cancer; Ali Smith’s short story collection The First Person and Other Stories, full of wit, wisdom and heartbreak; Michel Faber’s The Fire Gospel, which tells the story of an archaeologist who discovers an Aramaic scroll written by a man who was present at the Crucifixion and the consequences that occur when he publishes the contents of the scroll.

There must be more, but much of my reading this year was taken up by the inaugural Australia-Asia Literary Award, for books published in 2007. The winner was David Malouf for his Collected Stories, which I can’t praise enough — if the whole tome is hard to come by, try his short story collection Every Move You Make.

The year ahead promises plenty of delights, including Aamer Hussein’s novella Another Golmohar Tree, and Daniyal Mueenuddin’s debut short story collection In Other Rooms, Other Worlds. Both are stunning works, adding to the rapidly burgeoning oeuvre of Pakistani fiction in English.

Kamila Shamsie’s new novel Burnt Shadows will be published in February 2009.