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Under The Falcon’s Eye
North Waziristan. Tradition and modernity snipe at each other, as three brothers follow their own grim destinies.
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The Shadow Of The Crescent Moon
THE SHADOW OF THE CRESCENT MOON
BY
FATIMA BHUTTO

PENGUIN INDIA | PAGES: 240 | RS. 499

Fatima Bhutto’s debut novel is set in the scarred outer regions of Pakistan, one of those territories that the state looks down on and rules with ‘ox-blood heeled’ violence. Mir Ali is located in North Waziristan and should rightfully have been a place out of a dream with clear blue skies, mountain peaks and rushing streams where the children go to fish with their families in summer. Instead, it is a place where young men and, sometimes, older ones disappear with no explanations given, where families pack their bags and prepare to vanish once their sons are gone. However, Fatima Bhutto chooses to introduce the troubled one-horse town not through straight description, but through three hours in the life of three brothers: Aman Erum, recently returned from studies in the US, Sikandar the doctor, and Hayat. The day happens to be Id and because Mir Ali is the place that it is, there are snipers on the rooftops looking down on the town as the bazaars slowly open.

The three brothers will be praying in three different mosques, as organised by the youngest Hayat, which sounds ominous, and the reader begins to anticipate a bomb blast or a suicide attack. However, the anticipation is delayed. Fatima takes us back in time to give a background to the Id day and its acquired air of ominousness. The narrative follows the three brothers in three different directions, which turns out to be a journey back and forth in time, following the divergent routes that their lives took.

Aman Erum, the eldest, is determined to leave town for a place where the crescent does not overshadow his life. So he applies for a student visa to America and goes in a newly tailored polyester suit to answers questions pertaining to 9/11 that he never dreamt he would have to consider. In leaving Mir Ali, he leaves behind Samarra, a girl defined in terms of a long, untidy plait and a beauty mark that frames her eye, a girl who he has loved from the carefree days full of lazy angling.

Sikandar is a doctor with a manic wife who attends funerals and tries to lay out the dead and is herself acutely depressed. There is mention of a son, a child with flashing shoes, a timid boy—it does not take too much guessing to realise that the child is probably dead, and through some kind of political violence. Mina, the wife, is never descr­ibed; again, Fatima keeps her character outlining minimalistic—we see her in terms of kohl lines drawn with a matchstick—but her rage and grief culminate in a kind of tsunami that embarrasses even the Taliban into shame.

As for Hayat, he becomes a freedom fighter who partners Samarra. The two of them have the plan to end all plans and bring military rule in Mir Ali crashing down.

 
 
The conscious paciness of the chapter names, combined with narrative restraint and detailed back story, can be frustrating.
 
 
For a long time, the three strands do not merge and the reader is busy wondering how it all ties up. It could well be the outline for a thriller and Fatima’s chapter titles are a countdown desig­ned to increase the pace, but this, combined with the holding back of the narrative while the back story is deta­iled, can occasionally be a little frustrating. And, barring the fleeting mom­ents of poetry and romance, the novel, told in Fatima’s clean prose, is undoubtedly bleak. Mir Ali has its fair share of rubbish heaps, stray flea-bitten mongrels and funerals, the standard-issue scenery that Indian readers will recognise only too well. Among all the grimness, one rare flash of humour stands out,  concerning the tailor who reluctantly makes salwar kameezes for Mir Ali’s fashionable women, throwing the tape measure over to the women and letting them call out their own measurements while he writes them down with his back turned, blushing.

Being the daughter of Shahnawaz Bhutto, Fatima Bhutto is well qualified to write a book like this one. She understands the consequences of military rule and the way border people are marginalised till they become rebels.

However, in this book, possibly because it is literary fiction and her debut in the genre too, she chooses to leave a great deal unsaid and sometimes flits over the surface of things, so that many motives seem difficult to understand and many characters not fleshed out enough.

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