Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Nostalgist's Map Of Pakistan

This appeared in today's The Sunday Express


At the heart of Ali Sethi's debut novel is a tale of transgressive love in which the protagonist tries to help his cousin to win over the boy of her fantasies. On this slender peg Sethi hangs a series of portraits of people's lives over the years, centring on Lahore in the Eighties and Nineties. Though the author's skill in observation and ability to delineate a large cast of characters is evident, The Wish Maker is too much of a loose, baggy monster to be entirely satisfying.

The novel opens with the young Zaki Shirazi returning from a Massachusetts college to his Lahore home for the wedding of his cousin, Samar Api, a close childhood friend and ally. From here it moves back and forth in time to fill in the blanks in the lives of Zaki, Samar and their families and friends.

We learn of the journeys of the independent women whom Zaki has grown up with: these are, among others, his feisty mother, editor of a progressive Pakistani publication; his doughty grandmother, who’s lived through Partition and the travails of Pakistan; the spirited Nargis, his mother’s friend and an activist lawyer; and the pious Naseem, their household help. As is the case with many recent works by novelists from Pakistan writing in English, the country’s politics is very much part of the backdrop. Episodes such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s hanging, martial law, Benazir Bhutto’s dismissal and laws relating to the status of women are enacted offstage, and provoke animated debate and activism especially among Zaki’s mother and colleagues.

Details and anecdotes abound throughout, in step with a succession of effective set pieces. Sethi’s prose is full of quick, glancing observations even though the occasional choppiness of style becomes, after a while, more of an affectation than anything else.

It becomes clear soon enough that The Wish Maker is a nostalgist’s map of Pakistan. The book encompasses childhood pursuits and misdemeanours, the setting up of an independent magazine during a conservative time, the reaction of a family to the arrival of a satellite dish, sojourns at the house of uncles and aunts, the influence of Bollywood on impressionable minds, the schedule of a school that Zaki attends and a great deal more. Then again, there are other episodes, such as an account of a vacation in Spain or Zaki’s time in his American college, that – however ably narrated –seem merely tacked on and do little to expand the novel’s ambit.

The Wish Maker doesn’t restrict itself to portraying an upper middle class lifestyle; the cast of characters is carefully chosen to touch upon various shades, from the feudalism of the provinces to the upward striving of the middle class to the decadence and cynicism of the affluent. This all-encompassing approach may seem like a strength because of the ambitious, almost Tolstoyan, breadth of vision, but in this case turns out to be a weakness due to the dispersed and scattered centre of gravity that ensues.

Another quality that drains the novel of vitality is that Zaki, as a protagonist, is more acted upon than willing to act. Indeed, we have little sense of him as an independent agent, as his growing years are almost wholly defined by his relationships. Since many sections of the novel are told from his first-person point of view, the inevitable outcome of this submissiveness is a degree of narrative languor. Samar Api, the wish maker of the title, is a much more engaging character, and it’s a pity she isn’t present for a larger part of the novel.

Like the improvised time capsule that Zaki and his schoolmate bury in his backyard, The Wish Maker is chock-full of bits and pieces that are redolent of life in Pakistan. Had Sethi’s talent had been matched by greater control over his material, the novel would have been the more compelling for it.

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