Mainstream, VOL LII, No 7, February 8, 2014
Supplying Heat to the Pressure-cooker of Life
Monday 10 February 2014, by
The following is a book review sent to us by the reviewer from Lahore for publication in this journal.
The Shadow of the Crescent Moon by Fatima Bhutto; Penguin Viking; pages: 231; Price: Rs 499.
Fatima Bhutto ingeniously crafts her first novel, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, around life in a small town in the frontier province of Khyber PakhtunKhwa. The fictional town of Mir Ali is a microsom not merely of the North-West Frontier region of Pakistan but also of the country as a whole. Every decision of the characters in the novel is a hard decision not easy to come by.
The environment of Mir Ali is suffocating for the three brothers: Aman Erum, Sikandar and Hayat. They belong to a middle class family. They feel physically insecure, politically uncertain and financially under pressure. They are confronted with hard choices brought about by the rapid pace of social change that is sweeping not only through Pakistan but also through all of South Asia. Which way shall they go? What are their choices? Do they have to let things roll on and resign to whatever the future brings? Do they choose to survive by collaborating with the forces that are trying to engineer their future, serve alien interests in the hope that they can share benefits even if those benefits are limited in range or scope? Or do they decide to fight the forces that threaten to usurp their freedoms and destroy their culture and identities?
Bhutto brings the predicament of her characters to the reader right at the onset of the novel. It is Eid day. Unlike previous years, the three brothers decide to pray in different mosques lest they all fall victims to an explosive device. Ever since religious places became a target of suicide attacks, choosing the venue of Eid prayers proved to be a matter of life and death.
Fatima Bhutto, as if a student of Dostoevsky, weaves narrative within narrative in the fabric of the novel with skill and subtlety. Fiction seems to come out of her pages as reality, perceived by the common man.
Inayat, the father of the three brothers, had seen in the 1950s how in town after town, civil wars were lit by the wide scale violence of the Army—a violence that spanned over decades and finally reached its zenith in the War on Terror. He had predicted the day …The state would begin to fight its own.
Neatly choreographed, the novel is full of poignant description and phrases: ”There is no cause greater than justice in Mir Ali.” Be it the description of a roadside, ragtag restaurant, or when a hysterical Mina, attacks a talib as he bashes her husband, the reader can feel his own presence at the spot,
THE author describes in powerful prose how the generation of Inayat’s children and for that matter the bulk of the populations of the former colonial countries had changed. “The oppressive state beat this generation down by being bigger and stronger and faster. It beat them down by being exactly what this generation aspired to: phones, computers, access to the world. The state had all these things.” Eventually the battle as they had known would come down to this: those who wanted to be a part of the global system would not be kept outside it on account of nationalistic beliefs and codes of honour set by their parents. The struggle would be redefined… Freedom, the dream of generations, no longer meant anything. It is bartered for convenience, but not by all.
Conflicting loyalties emerge as each of the brothers chooses a path. All three want to protect their lives and avoid becoming victims of rampant violence and plunder around them. Maintaining their freedom as individuals as well as members of the Mehsud Tribe poses a big problem in the face of the oppressive machinery of the state.
Rejecting the prejudice against women in our society, Bhutto gives them a central role in her novel. They are the heart of resistance in Mir Ali, as if to say that a freedom movement without women is a sterile movement. Mina, the wife of Sikandar, and Samarra, the daughter of the disappeared hero Ghazain Afridi, come out in the novel as individuals with enormous courage and daring. Each one of them bravely resists in her own way. The reader will find it difficult to decide which one of them is more endearing.
Those who refuse to barter their freedom have to bear the oppressive acts of the state. They become the protagonists of the novel, supplying heat to the pressure-cooker of life in Mir Ali. They carry wounds inflicted by the actions of the state. These wounds broke the spirit of some and ignited it in others. There are those who saw that it is not worth dying for freedom, and those who felt that it is not worth living without it. At the penultimate point in the novel, Hayat asks one of the rebels: ”You know you will never be able to go home again; Are you prepared for that? You are ready for your life to be taken…” For which the rebel replies: ”What life, Hayat jan?”
There is never a dull moment in Mir Ali. Surprises await the reader page after page.
The reviewer, Dr Mubashir Hasan, was Pakistan’s Minister for Planning and Finance in the government of Z.A. Bhutto in the seventies of the last century. An ardent champion of India-Pakistan amity, he has played a key role in fostering friendship through dialogue between the peoples of the two countries. He heads the Punjab unit of the Pakistan People’s Party (Shaheed)—set up in homage to Murtaza Bhutto, Fatima’s father who was assassinated in Karachi some years ago, and led by Ghinwa Bhutto, Murtaza’s widow.