Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Glacial Love Story

This appeared in the latest edition of TimeOut Mumbai.


In a time of unmanned drones, sudden explosions and military convoys, a couple travels to Pakistan’s far north to study, among other things, the habits of glaciers. A tragic incident involving a nomad’s child strains their relationship as well as illuminates the changing lives of those who inhabit a region suffused by reflections of jagged mountains on crystalline lakes.

That’s the scenario of Uzma Aslam Khan’s fourth novel, Thinner than Skin, marked by a quivering sensitivity of tone in the manner of fellow novelist Nadeem Aslam. The protagonist, for example, is given to musings such as: “I'd held the bitter taste of the glacier melt in my mouth as the silver disc eased deep into the river's skin”.

The novel’s main strand is the first person account by Nadir, a budding photographer, telling of his relationship with Farhana, of German-Pakistani ancestry, whom he meets in San Francisco. As their alliance deepens, they decide to visit their homeland and travel to the frontier along with two other friends. From the start, however, it’s a relationship marked by contrasts: “We loved each other for precisely opposite reasons. If I loved her because she did not remind me of my past, Farhana loved me because she believed I was her past”.

Nadir and Farhana’s odyssey is undercut by the story of a family of nomads, and of their lives’ ups-and-downs. The future of their children apart, they have to deal with the dismissive attitudes of forest officials, spies, soldiers and militants, among others. There’s a wealth of information in these sections, especially to do with the way people live and trade in one of the crossroads of the world.

The carefully-woven prose has many languorous descriptions of inner and outer states as well as a subterranean unfurling of plot. However, there’s a one-sidedness to the manner in which the love story is depicted, filtered as it is through Nadir’s solipsistic musings. As characters’ thoughts circle obsessively around their actions, the pace of the novel can sometimes become as sluggish as of one of the region’s glaciers that it describes.

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