[book review] …
Kamila Shamsie’s second novel Salt and Saffron (2000) is a work on the partition of India in 1947. Dard e Dil, a feudal family suffered during the partition like any other in India and Pakistan. Kamila has brought out the pain, sorrows and love of the triplets Sulaiman, Taimur and Akbar in her writing. Their father, a wealthy land owner thought “bearing the names of great kings would enable his sons to face up to any crisis, but he never paused to think what would have happened if the namesakes Sulaiman the Magnificent, Akbar the Great and Taimur, sometimes called Taimur Lang or Tamburlaine, …. had been born brothers!”
In 1938 Taimur disappeared while the boys were being sent to Oxford to get their degrees. He later wrote a letter saying that as they were born the year after the Jalianwalla massacre and “I lack your gift for erasing, nay! Evading history.
This is our curse: Akbar and Sulaiman, we are kites that have their strings snipped. We went to school in a place with out any sun, and believed this meant we had no need for our shadows. I am not an Englishman nor are you. Nor can we ever be, regardless of our foxtrots, our straight bats, our Jolly Goods and I Says
No more anglicized Percy, I.
I am now Taimur Hind.”
All the three brothers were close to Aliya’s dadi, Abida, who loves them all. What Shamsie does in Salt and Saffron is that she breaks apart the fake pride or snobbery of the Dard e Dil family by carefully depicting a character like Taj’s mother, who works as the midwife of the family but gives birth to Taj, whose father was an unidentified member of Dard e Dil.
Since the Dard e Dil family later lived in a posh area of Karachi, Aliya and Samia, who were educated in the west, feel uneasy when Aliya meets a boy from Liaquatabad, which is not an area where the rich and famous of the city can even think of treading upon. When Aliya tries to get close to him the only thing keeping her from that is the locality of his ancestral home even though he has never been there himself.
The partition of 1947 left the Dard e dil family divided in India and Pakistan and the differences exist even though they lived in America and England. Taimur’s daughter Mariam comes to live with Aliya’s family as her parents have passed away. A lady who only speaks to the cook Masood later elopes with him. This causes immense shame to the family and they see it as a disgrace, with one of the aunts saying clearly, “Family reputation is the most precious jewel in a young bride’s jehez.” She sighed. “There was a time we were so close to the heavens no stigma could reach us. But what we were we no longer are.”
Along with the story Kamila Shamsie shows a lot of wit in her book. The question of identity is a primary one in Salt and Saffron. Aliya wants to retain her Pakistani identity and choose a life partner who values that identity. While her family tries to get her married into an aristocratic family, she is very much in love with Khaleel, a ‘desi’ living in the UK. When she meets her dadi’s cousins in the UK, who are from the Indian side, she realizes that they are enemies and don’t even support the same cricket team. Even though Shamsie describes the pride or Naz of being a Pakistani, she herself travels around the globe, getting her education in the United States of America and later going to live in the UK. That is how her entity has been shaped.
Kartography(2002) is Shamsie’s third book set in Karachi, the spider plant city where you might find, according to the narrator, fossilized footprints of Alexander the Great. The book deals with a heartbreaking love story, depicts the ethnic conflict which pervades Pakistani society. The story is about 1971 war of independence of Bangladesh, which the writer terms as a civil war.
Karim’s main aim in life is to become a cartographer and give names to the places in Karachi ‘where the streets have no name’. Both Karim and Raheen are fascinated by the city of their birth and they keep coming back to it, abandoning the luxuries of the west. Maybe that is why the author has titled the book ‘Kartography’, with a K.
To me, though, this book is about a beautiful Bengali girl growing up in Karachi and her plight in 1971. Maheen, who does not know any other city as her hometown, is humiliated and tortured verbally and morally as things go from bad to worse during the Bangladesh war. She is alienated, ostracized from the very society she has grown up in. Just then her fiancée declined to marry her which was like the last nail on her coffin. Maheen is a Bengali, but love knows no borders. So she is in love with a Pakistani boy named Zafar. In 1971 Zafar’s friend Shafiq asks him:
“How can you do it? You are going to marry one of them. You are going to let her have your children. How?”
Shafiq’s baby brother’s body was mutilated in erstwhile East Pakistan and his remains could not be identified. So Zafar’s friend will mark him as a traitor if he marries a Bengali woman. Maheen marries Ali and has Karim. Zafar, on the other hand, marries Maheen’s best friend Yasmeen and they have a baby girl who is named Raheen, the suffix borrowed from his ex fiancée’s name.
Kamila Shamsie brings out the pain Bengalis living Pakistan felt in those days. It is unthinkable how drawing borders can transform friends into enemies overnight.
A waiter spills a drink on Laila, another friend. Her husband stands up and lands a slap across the waiter’s cheek and screams,
“Halfwit Bingo! Go back to your jungle.”
Maheen witnesses the episode and is close to tears. A beggar spits on Maheen in public. Even Zafar is hated by most people for being a ‘Bingo lover’.
“ ‘71 was madness”, says a friend.
After the war is over Zafar says:
“Happy? Why should I be happy?…… Three days ago we surrendered to the Indian army. Of course we are not happy. We’ve lost half the country and most of our souls.”
Karim, Maheen’s son, who has always thought of himself as a Bengali and thus in a minority like the Muhajirs of the Muhajir Qaumi Movement, said to Raheen and her friends:
“We didn’t learn anything, did we, from ‘71?”
The generation of children born after 1971 hardly know anything about the war, as evident from a letter Raheen writes:
“We are nearly forty-eight years old as a nation, young enough that there are people who have lived through our entire history and more, but too old to put our worries down to teething problems. Between our birth in 1947 and 1995, dead bang between our beginning and our present, is 1971, of which I know next to nothing except that there was a war and East Pakistan became Bangladesh, and terrible things we must have done then to remain so silent about it. Is it shame at losing the war, or guilt about what we did try to win that mutes us?”
Towards the end of the novel there is a letter from Zafar to Maheen explaining what made him betray her after the war, what made him decide not to marry her. At one point he says:
“Pakistan died in 1971. Pakistan was a country with two wings. I have never before thought of the war in terms of that image: a wing tearing away from the body it once helped keep afloat —- it was a country with a majority Bengali population and its attendant richness of culture, clothing…. Oh, everything. How can Pakistan still be when all of that, everything that East Pakistan added to the country?….. How can Pakistan still be when we so abused that image —- first by ensuring that the Bengalis were minimized and marginalized both politically and economically, and then by reacting to their demands for greater rights and representation with acts of savagery?”
Zafar’s confession does make one wonder who Kamila Shamsie has in mind. Maheen can grow out of her character to become the pervasive national identity that is so abused, humiliated at the hands of the Pakistani military. Born in 1973, Shamsie may represent the post-71 Pakistan generation’s view.
In both the novels Shamsie aptly describes how drawing borders will make people suffer through insurmountable pain no matter what the cause may be. Since both Salt and Saffron and Kartography deal with nations emerging out of chaos, one can understand that the writer has a strong sense of history. But both the novels have too many characters. That makes the reader go back and forth to find out who is related to who. The stories about families are woven in the political turmoil of South Asia, which makes them a very interesting read.