Tag Archives: Pakistan

Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 7

Arundhati Roy’s new novel, only her second since winning the Man Booker Prize in 1997, also starts in a graveyard. A short passage, written entirely in italics, describes the flying foxes leaving the Banyan tree at sundown; as the bats leave, the crows return to roost. The passage, though, is a lament for the loss of the sparrows, which have gone missing and the absence of the white-backed vultures which have been completely wiped out through human agency. Farmers fed their cattle Diclofenac, an aspirin to relax them and thereby increased their milk production, but which proved poisonously fatal to the vultures, whose natural appetite fed on the carcases left for them to clear up.

RoyThe Ministry of Utmost Happiness meanders through and around the lives of two women and three men, but with a cast of thousands whose lives touched theirs briefly, or from a great distance affected what they did in this convoluted, tragic history.

Set in India, but also passing through Kashmir and Pakistan, and spanning many years, its trajectory is the arc of history that includes Partition, the Bhopal chemical disaster, the Coco Cola scandal (about which the book says practically nothing but which gets a passing mention) and the various Kashmiri uprisings and suppressions to name but a few of the points of painful memory that mark the twentieth century in the Indian sub-continent.

Anjum leaves her home with nothing much more than a few household items and some carpets and rugs and set herself up in the graveyard where her family is buried. Like a tree she clings to the earth, suffering insults and casual cruelty, as a tree would – silently. Then an ancient imam becomes a regular visitor, and this calms things down and she is left in peace, thus begins the tale of the hijra.  Born Aftab, the fourth baby in a line of girls, he was the longed-for son of Jahanara Begum. It was only after the midwife left and she was exploring the new life she had produced that she saw to her sorrow that the boy also had girl-parts.

Terrified and saddened Jahanara Begum takes the baby to the shrine of Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed asking that he teach her to love the baby, and it works.

For several years she was able to conceal this terrible fact from her husband, but eventually the truth came out and Aftab/Anjum left his birthplace and went to live in Khwabgah with other hijra. Eventually leaving them to live in the graveyard where she accommodates herself and slowly many other characters join her and their personal histories make up the other parts of this magnificently sprawling book.

The other principal woman in the tale arrives much later, but in many ways the story is as much about her as it is about Anjum. S. Tilottama, or Tilo is a petite and beautiful woman of dark skin, shunned therefore by many of her kind and rejected by her father. Her story really begins at university where she meets the three men who are part of her story, Musa, Naga and Biplab DasGupta. Each of these men love her and she loves one of them and their lives are intertwined with the history of India and Kashmir in the same way as ivy is intertwined with a tree.

Other characters, some appear once and others many times, circle around these two women and become part of the story. But the story is really that of India, because the political and racial upheavals of the twentieth century are the driving forces that throw these characters together, drag them apart, divide them and make them stronger. So that they survive to love, to meet and to share and in the end to understand.

At one point, Tilo writes to Musa saying that on her tombstone she wants written:

“How to tell a shattered story?

By slowly becoming everybody.


By slowly becoming everything.”

The history of India and Kashmir and Pakistan is soaked in blood, and so is this book, saturated in it, rivers of blood flow in the streets and sink into the fields but lives go on, love goes on, courage goes on and babies are born. In the interstices of history, people can and do find happiness.


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Identity – lost, stolen or strayed

For this post I shall concentrate on one author and her trilogy of novels about Bangladesh. Tahmima Anam was born in Dhaka and now lives in Hackney, London. She shares, with my daughter-in-law whom she knows, a love of history.  For Tahmima it is the history of Bangladesh through the stories of its people, for my daughter-in-law it is the history of Pakistan through the story of its river, the Indus. [Empires of the IndusAlice Albinia]

After Partition, there were two countries, India and Pakistan, the latter was by nature of its religion spread over two distinct and separated parts of the Indian Continent, West Pakistan and East Pakistan, which is now an independent nation, called Bangladesh.

Its independence was only won after a bitter civil war in which thousands of people died, and many became separated from loved ones and family through accident or choice. Many families sent children to the West when things in the East became dangerous.

Anam 1.jpgSo we begin the loosely connected trilogy which starts with A Golden Age, before Bangladesh is independent. In March, 1959, a  young widow with two children is forced by her husband’s brother, to give away her daughter, Maya and her son, Sohail and he and his wife take them from her to Lahore – in West Pakistan.

Throughout these three novels, one has to keep reminding oneself that in this situation, women, especially wives and mothers, have absolutely no autonomy, once married a woman belongs to her in-laws, body and soul; widowed but with children, the children belong to her in-laws and even the court will uphold their right to make important decisions on the children’s behalf; widowed without children and you can be cast adrift, to return to your own family or worse still kept as near to slavery as it is possible to be in your in-laws home – and this can even be the better of two evils depending on the circumstances of your birth.

But Rohana is not defeated, with some money and a plot of land she builds a house to rent out and within ten years she has got her family back, a day of celebration that is a reason for a party every year. Still unmarried herself, she rejoices in her independence and in the company of her children, by now it is 1971.

The situation in East Pakistan, though, is less satisfactory. Elections have been held but there is still not a government, no national assembly has been called and the underlying tensions are building up. Produce had been flowing out of East Pakistan, but the money it made never came back into the country and was spent in West Pakistan, on projects in Karachi and Islamabad; in 1970 there was a cyclone, many East Pakistanis died and no aid came from the West.

So begins the war of independence, and we follow the fortunes of this family…

Tahmima Anam’s second book is called The Good Muslim and concentrates on Sohail, though we still follow the fortunes of his sister and mother.Anam 2

The war of independence has affected Sohail so profoundly, that he becomes a more fervent Muslim.  He tries to persuade young people to adopt a more serious attitude to religion.

His sister Maya, who has been away for many years, is shocked by her brother’s fundamentalist attitude and when he decides to send his son, Zaid, to a madrassa it causes ripples in the family which have consequences for all of them.

Anam 3The third book of the trilogy which came out recently is The Bones of Grace. Maya’s husband had returned from the war physically damaged after being captured, they have adopted a daughter, Zubaida and it is her pursuit of identity that really defines this novel. It is, at its heart, a love story but underlying that is also the search for belonging, the lack of her own identity bleeds into her life choices, as a palaeontologist she has been looking at the terrestrial links of the ancestors of the whale, one of the only creatures to crawl from the land into the sea, rather than the other way round.

We start are Zubaida is preparing for an exhibition of the bones of Ambulocetus, the animal that decided to go to sea. The entire book is written as a love letter to a man, Elijah Strong, who is the thread that links all the events in the book, but who in the end has been lost. This is the expiation, the long apology and the final recognition of the truth, only possible because Zubaida has finally an identity.




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not keeping it in the family

This blog is about my daughter-in-law’s new book.  She wrote one before about her travels in Pakistan called Empires of the  Indus, which was thrilling if a little scary to read – luckily we all knew she had got back safely!  Her latest publication is a novel set in Delhi and is about the latest avatars (don’t know what that is? – Hindu Mythology it is a physical manifestation of an entity or person, often a deity) of the characters Leela and Meera who are linked by their destiny to each other, their first appearance is in the great epic MahabharataLeela’s Book, Alice’s novel bring the characters and their associates to 21st Delhi and through various settings and adventures resolves their reincarnation.

What is wonderful about this book is the way in which Alice has created and brought to life modern Delhi: its juxtaposition of wealth and poverty; Muslim and Hindu; myth and reality in a complex and vivid story of tremendous verve and brilliance.  You can feel the heat, smells and people all crowding round you as you read.  It is full of an Indian whimsicality and it is laced as well with the terrible dichotomy of city life in all its small tragedies and triumphs, a city where the open sewer runs right past the gate of the rich man’s mansion.


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