I read a lot of books. For research mainly, or so I tell others and myself but also for pleasure, for comfort and to know myself better. I read fabulous books and ordinary ones, heartbreaking books and healing ones, smart books and hilarious ones, and I have a system of shelving these in idiosyncratic ways. I give away a lot of books too, sometimes because I can’t stand to have them in my house and sometimes because I realise guiltily I have multiple copies I don’t need. And I rarely loan them out. I’m sure the ones that I do loan to very special friends burn in their hands until they return them. The bibliotaph’s burden. We all have something to carry, do we not?
I try to read the world in the voices of the world. Three recent books have been on my mind so much that I feel compelled to unpack their hold on my consciousness.
Kamila Shamsie’s A God In Every Stone follows the journey of Vivian Spencer from England to Turkey to Peshawar in the troubled years from 1914 to 1930 when colonialism compressed the lives of a disparate band of people and left a trail of personal and global destruction. Vivian’s legacy is loss. She loves the Turkish archaeologist Tahsin Bey and follows him into the ancient city of Caspatyrus (modern Peshawar) but betrays him anyway, echoing the subcontinent’s colonial enterprise; the aftershocks of which its people continue to feel today. Years later she befriends Najeeb Gul, a young Peshawari boy whose troubled older brother will unleash his own brand of destruction within the countries that have used and discarded him. Shamsie uncovers the layers of the ancient landscape where her story is set, turning an unflinching eye towards the lives buried beneath and superimposed over those layers. This novel is fiction at its truth-telling best. “Why sigh over lost mulberries instead of giving thanks to the engineers who saved the city from floodwaters? said Qayyum and Najeeb threw his hands in the air in exasperation. Lala, why can’t you see that the past is beautiful” (p263).
Nadeem Aslam is another writer who walks confidently into the murky territories of war, loss, race and religion. I read The Blind Man’s Garden on a recent plane trip from India to Perth and remember feeling like I couldn’t take my eyes off the page in case I missed something. Aslam’s writing always evokes a sense of doom. When this writer decides to place his characters inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban while their families attempt to live lives of ideological beauty, the result is beautiful, raw and intense. And scary. The slow build-up of horror swept me up entirely and dumped me, metaphorically on the other side, bleary-eyed and stunned. Rohan, the blind man of the title, knows that “history is the third parent.” When both his son and foster son leave him in his garden of memories to go and help save wounded civilians from the Taliban, Rohan remembers that his ancestors had played a part in the loss of Muslim lands to nonbelievers. “This was the century-old taint that Rohan had tried to remove by spreading the soils of Allah’s six beloved cities here. Mecca. Baghdad. Cordoba. Cairo. Delhi. Istanbul” (p11). Nadeem Aslam and Kamila Shamsie both know their landscape, their people and their sorrows and understand how the world will always come to the doorsteps of those whose lives are considered expendable. We live in times when the words ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ cause fear or at least discomfort in a Western context. Here are two contemporary writers (and there are several) unafraid to write the complexities that define the politics of terror, fear and justice.
Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness took me through a journey of the country of my birth and showed it to me in ways that confronted, broke and made me whole again. Roy uses myth, larger-than-life landscapes and people, and the minutiae and particularities of lives lived under fear and despair to describe love and joy. Aftab/Anjum lives his/her life in the crumbling graveyard of an Old Delhi neighbourhood. Anjum distances herself from her genteel family of birth after deciding to live as a woman despite being born a hermaphrodite. And yes, there are troubled boys across the country with legacies they cannot contain in their bodies; boys like the enigmatic Kashmiri Musa who loves the South Indian Tilottama. Under the vast canvas of modern India and the lives she follows, Roy’s fierce, iconic politics is never disguised. “Today, as the saffron tide of Hindu Nationalism rises in our country like the swastika once did in another, Naga’s ‘foolish faith’ schoolboy speech would probably get him expelled, if not by the school authorities, then certainly by some sort of parents’ campaign” (p165). Roy has her detractors, most of whom appear to think she ought not to fiercely criticise a country that shelters her, but like Shamsie and Aslam, Roy’s truth shines through the refracted prism of fiction.
These were difficult books to read and grieve over. They fed my pessimism. They made me long to hold those I love fiercely. They made me wish someone would ask me to run a course on reading that elevates you and makes you want to be a better person and a better writer. They spoke to those nerve-endings that tingle when I know I am being transformed. And most of all, they taught me how hard it is to write elegantly about difficult things and how astonishing it is when complexity and tragedy combine to create beauty.
First published in Southern Crossings