Saturday, March 22, 2014

In An Antique Land

This review appeared in today's The Indian Express

At one point in Kamila Shamsie’s new novel, A God in Every Stone, a character writes to another to say: “All these stories which happened where we live, on our piece of earth -- how can you stay immune to them?” Bringing such stories to light to examine history’s long shadow is what the novel sets out to do, as indeed was the case with her earlier Burnt Shadows. That novel encompassed events from the Hiroshima bombing to India’s Partition to 9/11; similarly, A God in Every Stone yokes together events separated by decades through their cumulative impact on individuals affected by them.

Given the emphasis on history, it’s apt that the work of a man known as that discipline’s father plays a large role here. In his Histories, Herotodus mentions Scylax, an intrepid Greek explorer who is supposed to have followed the course of the Indus down to the sea. Scylax’s exploits in particular, and archaeology in general, hold a special fascination for Vivian Rose Spencer, a young, spirited and impressionable Englishwoman who, when the novel opens in 1914, is on an archaeological dig in present-day Turkey. Shamsie’s counterpoint to Vivian is Qayyum Gul, a Pathan from Peshawar who is among the first soldiers of the Indian Army to arrive in France, subsequently being injured at the ill-starred Battle of Ypres.

Vivian and Qayyum, as yet unknown to each other, return to their families in London and Peshawar respectively, and other characters are brought in, notably Qayyum’s younger brother, Najeeb. When Vivian turns up in Peshawar in quest of a lost artefact of Scylax, she finds echoes of Kipling everywhere; she also discovers and then nurtures Najeeb’s own budding interest in archaeology, playfully nicknaming him “the Herotodus of Peshawar”. The stage is almost set for the novel to advance towards the other event that it brackets: the infamous confrontation between British troops and non-violent protestors at Peshawar’s Qissa Khwani Bazaar -- or Storyteller’s Street – in 1930.

Shamsie doesn’t let the weight of all this history get in the way of depicting her characters’ inner lives, rendering them as interesting and absorbing. Her prose is fluid and sensorial, especially when it comes to depicting the sights and sounds of Peshawar, without tipping over into the florid (as with compatriot Nadeem Aslam).

However, given the framework of interactions between characters from different worlds, the action, at times, does largely depend on coincidence. Such are the treacherous currents of an intricate plot, and novelists often have to work hard to keep their characters afloat. (Again, Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows had a similar reliance on happenstance, a cheeky acknowledgement of which can be found in the words that one character in that novel tells another: “Both times you've entered my home it's been nuclear-related. Once was acceptable; twice just seems like lazy plotting”.) While that may be an acceptable and not lazy strategy, it turns out that Shamsie also introduces new characters with defining and almost phantasmagorical roles very late in the narrative, and this does come across as over-egging the pudding.

Another way of reading the novel would be to see it as a series of choreographed exchanges between counterparts. In its pages, there are journeys to the West and expeditions to the East; World War I engagements and Peshawar riots; a chaotic, walled city and its orderly cantonment; Western notions of history and local legends that fill the air in the Street of Storytellers; an embittered Pathan soldier and a naïve Englishwoman both seeking means of fulfillment; Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s non-violent protests and brutal colonial retribution; and the rose-scented intensity of attar contrasted with the mellow fruitfulness of autumn. Such a pas de deux of opposites is everywhere, and it is skillfully done. It is this, along with Shamsie’s empathetic view of characters caught in history’s undertow, that are the defining and often pleasing features of A God in Every Stone.

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