Ali Sethi’s debut novel would have been just another coming of age novel, if it were not for the milieu it is set in, and the characters that make up the narrative. Zaki Shirazi lands in Lahore for the marriage of his childhood companion Samar. As the house is caught up in the wedding, the book goes through the life of three generations of women – each layer peeled back to reveal another.
Samar, who lives with her Daadi, away from her own parents, and in the company of her cousin’s son, Zaki, though they are close enough in age to be cousins themselves. The adventures, and misadventures of childhood, fleeting friendships soon forgotten, adolescence, crushes, rivalries, booze and hash have all been well captured and the generation that has grown up with video cassettes, ‘dedication’ audio tapes, the beginning of cable television – Kevin Arnold etc will be able to identify with this.
Zaki’s mother, forced to bring up her son on her own, after her fighter pilot husband dies in a crash, has an uneasy relationship with her mother in law and tries to balance the needs of her young son with her own need of having an identity, as a journalist (who staunchly supported Benazir Bhutto only to feel let down and then become pragmatic) and magazine editor.
And finally Zaki’s grandmother (Daadi) who has a strong influence on everyone who lives in the house, and her relationship with her sister, and the people who live with her.
In the course of their lives, we get to see glimpses of Pakistan’s turbulent history, and present – from Partition to the hanging of Zulfikar Bhutto to the reigns of Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and Musharraf. Through different characters, the author also manages to give us snapshots of the cultural/religious/social landscape.
Ali Sethi lets Zaki and a few other characters meander a little outside of the structure he has built, but much of it adds to their depth, a reason for why they are the way they are. There is clearly an element of autobiography in the book, and what I would have really liked is for the author to dwell on the relationship between Samar and Zaki in the present and if/how it has changed with time. Perhaps the only glimpse he offers is in the last line of the book, and that was a bit disappointing especially since the author has created many interactions between Zaki and the other characters to portray the changes/constant nature of bonds.
Poignant at times, wistful a bit, and humorous once in a while, this is a good read if only to show how similar we are in many ways to those across the border.
Psst, a small milestone, this happens to be post #900 Thanks for reading