Saturday, June 27, 2009

Removing old veneers

Is it merely a coincidence that just as Pakistan re-emerges on America’s security map as a nation to watch, its writers are churning out consistently good fiction at a surprisingly fast rate?

The past few months have seen the launch of Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin, and The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam, besides several other notable books by Pakistani writers in the recent past.

To this list can now be added The Wish Maker, the debut work of 24-year-old Ali Sethi. Sethi is the son of renowned Pakistani journalists Najam Sethi and Jugnu Mohsin, the couple who have run afoul of Pakistani authorities at several times in the past for running The Friday Times, an independent newsweekly published out of Lahore.

It is the nature of the household that Ali grew up in, perhaps, that provides a ready template for his novel. The story revolves around Zaki Shirazi, a young, free-spirited Pakistani boy who grows up amidst a cast of strong female characters.

There is Zakia, his mother, a crusading journalist who also happens to be the editor of Women’s Journal, a publication which, by its very name, must invite trouble sooner or later in a conservative society. This is especially so when Zakia refuses to “behave” at all like a widow, her husband dead in an air crash when she was pregnant with Zaki.

Contrasted with Zakia’s character is Daadi, Zaki’s grandmother, who only bears Zakia’s many “digressions” because she has given her a grandson. Strong-willed women both, Daadi and Zakia are locked in a permanent battle of wits.

And there is Samar Api, Zaki’s cousin, a girl ill-suited to the conventions imposed by society on how proper Muslim girls must conduct themselves. Zaki and Samar have been inseparable from childhood, but as adolescence approaches, the personal and the political must collide in a society that will not allow the two to remain together.

Sethi writes with real feeling for a Lahore that was cosmopolitan and welcoming. The reader can sense the disquiet that liberal, Western-educated Pakistanis like him must feel at the downward spiral that their country has fallen into. The Wish Maker is a product of love, both for the craft of fiction and for what it lets us remember and keep forever.

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This review is slated to appear in Chicago Sun Times.

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