The End of Innocence, by Moni Mohsin

Death and dishonour in a Punjabi garden

Aamer Hussein
Friday 23 June 2006 00:00

When nine-year-old Laila observes that winter trees "are full of sky", her older, wiser sister corrects her: "They're not full of sky, they're naked." But Laila has an old habit of finding magic in the world around her. When she sees a film based on a legend of star-crossed love, she feels that Heer should be more like her 15-year-old friend Rani, the inventive, pretty granddaughter of a family servant, than like the buxom, hairy movie star who plays her. Like Heer, Rani embarks on a love affair with a stranger. As little Laila knows already, the kind of love that "tears you away from your family... is dangerous". But Rani wants it all; romance, adventure and the big bright city. Punishment awaits her.

Moni Mohsin's accomplished and moving first novel deals not only with the aftermath of a dangerous love, but with its effects on an entire community: retribution, revenge, and the terrible complicity of the heedless in the destruction of innocence. Deeply sensitive to nuances of class and gender, she dissects the diseased psyche of an "honour" killer, showing with patient insight how such crimes are often not so much the result of premeditation as spontaneous violence, with family or clan members conspiring to cover up what has been done rather than colluding with the murderer's action. Adopting the uncomprehending perspective of a child, she creates a claustrophobic atmosphere of doubt and ambiguity, made all the more compelling by Laila's unwitting indictment of her playmate.

The End of Innocence is unusual in its setting: the rural farmland of West Punjab, delineated in its changing colours and seasons with the minimal brush-strokes of a Japanese artist. The simple, sensuous prose reflects the multilingual world in which its child protagonist lives, moving easily from Western references to translations of local proverbs and citations of folklore. Sabzbagh, the name of the village, translates as "Greengarden", which is no doubt symbolic as it can denote, in Urdu, a world of illusion.

The pace of the novel is leisurely and at times hypnotic; dramatic momentum is built up late, crowding events into its last third. Though the central perspective is Laila's, we see the world through a range of viewpoints. Laila's liberal father, her well meaning but self-centred mother, her widowed matriarch of a grandmother all have their say. Such a technique demands, perhaps, an inevitable sacrifice of intimacy.

Mohsin's novel is set in 1971; a careful attempt is made to parallel Laila's loss of innocence with the division of Pakistan, when Bangladesh demands independence and India steps in. The threat of war surfaces in conversations. A guest reflects on past and future: "We weren't meant to split, to shatter. I was there when the country was made." Echoing her 30 years later, Laila's father claims: "We will not go to war again. If nothing else, we've learnt how ruinously expensive it can be."

Aamer Hussein's 'This Other Salt' is published by Saqi

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