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Jagged Little Pill

A smooth interweaving of silken imaginings and the seamier side of Pakistani society
By Uzma Aslam Khan
Penguin Rs 396; Pages: 488
In the late 1980s, Sara Suleri commented wryly: "Subtlety: that word cropped up often when Pakistan attempted to talk about itself in history. It was at the cutting edge of our border with India, that great divide of sibling rivalry: when India described our portion of the map of the subcontinent as ferociously mean and skinny, we bridled and said that actually it was subtle and slim."

Fourteen years later, "Indian writing" (with or without the "in English" qualifier) is a well-known category, treated with the same familiarity as curry powder and take-away vindaloo. For a brief period during the boom of globalised desi writing, Pakistan clung on to one or two writers—Suleri, Bapsi Sidhwa—and murmured defensively that its contribution might be skinny, but it was also, well, subtle.

Over the last few years, other voices began to emerge: Mohsin Hamid, who wove a wonderfully clever blend between the historical and the contemporary world in Moth Smoke; Kamila Shamsie, whose novels brewed fantasy out of the stuff of everyday domestic life in Pakistan; and now Uzma Aslam Khan, who drew attention first with the patchy but imaginative Story of Noble Rot.

Trespassing is not a skinny book, either in terms of actual size or in terms of the themes it addresses, and while Khan’s prose may be subtle, her style is as forceful as any of the great storytellers who have emerged from India. Trespassing doesn’t need the apologetic pigeon-holing of nationality in order to hold its audience. Unlike recent authors touted as the first of their kind ("the first novel in English from Nepal/Tibet/Kirghizstan"), Khan is creating a tradition and style of her own as a writer that needs no adjectival help from the term "Pakistani".

The trajectories of the two main protagonists of Trespassing criss-cross and connect at several points. As a student in the US during the First Gulf War, Daanish has learned that his background and his religion make him an uncomfortable pebble in the great melting pot of America. His attempts to break the silence that surrounds discussion of the war have him reclassified, in his professor’s eyes, as an Islamic malcontent, an ungrateful citizen of the Third World questioning the divine right of the First to blast any place on the map it chooses into smithereens. Back in Pakistan as an eligible bachelor of the first water, he discovers that his American experiences are unimportant, even threatening, given the image of the Amreeka-returned those at "home" hold on to like a talisman.

At a carefully arranged meeting between potential groom and potential bride, Daanish affronts convention by paying more attention to Nissrine’s friend, Dia, than to Nissrine’s own pinkly displayed person. Dia is every bit as disenfranchised in Pakistan as Daanish was in the US, her gender as obvious a handicap here as the colour of his skin was there. Rebellious, chafing against the restraints imposed on her ostensibly liberated class, Dia has a double handicap: her mother, Riffat, broke the norms by which respectable women were supposed to abide when she not only set up but successfully ran a silk farm in Sindh. As Daanish and Dia draw closer together, everything conspires to keep them apart: societal convention, the ever-present fear of kidnapping, the lack of privacy and family history.

The thinly suppressed violence of the society they live in has seeped into the environment, suggests Khan, as she overlays the lives of the humans with swift sketches of other creatures they share their homes and land with. She writes with an admirable absence of sentimentality about the turtles engaged in a dangerous, threatened quest to lay their eggs near the sea as men absently kill them for sport. The silkworms on Riffat’s farm are objects of wonder, metaphors for a past that encompasses myth and distant travellers as well as the present, but they also possess a distinctly unmetaphorical reality. "The cocoons moved. They were never found in the same corner where they’d been left. Nor had [Dia] ever actually seen the movement. It made her shudder to think the sleeping pupae could not only produce enough force to shift, but seemed to know when they were alone."

Khan’s forays into the subterranean life of Pakistan, via the lives of secret mercenary gangs or the odd friend in America, are interruptions in the smooth, closely woven fabric of her story, adding little to the final pattern. Under the weight of a packed narrative, Trespassing often judders into melodrama, but Khan allows it to soar again into intensely imagined life. At the core of the book, for all its silken imaginings, lies the violence that has become the casual companion of every social exchange, every relationship in contemporary Pakistan. It’s the tension between the smooth thread of Khan’s prose and the jagged edges of the society she seeks to describe that drives Trespassing and makes it a memorable read.

OUTLOOK: 30 June, 2003
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