In London in the late Sixties, as anti-war campaigns gain momentum, the young Pakistanis Riffat and Shafqat have a passionate relationship, but part on a point of principle. In the early Nineties, Riffat, now a silk farmer and the widowed mother of three, is reminded of the affair by a confession her servant Sunbul makes. Riffat's daughter, Dia, is seeing Shafqat's son...
Independent and pragmatic, Riffat is the most interesting presence in a first novel composed of multiple perspectives. Persuaded to marry a man she doesn't love, she makes the best of her life by reviving the flagging silk industry on a plot of inherited land near Karachi. Silk provides the author with a web of imagery in which she interweaves her many stories. There is Dia, the central character, given to fantasising about personages from Chinese antiquity and their connection with silk; Daanish, the student journalist who comes home from the war-happy US to mourn his father and discover himself in Dia's arms; and Salaamat the driver, who plays the role of catalyst in the discovery of their affair.
The novel is as packed with characters as a Karachi bus, and the ride on which Uzma Aslam Khan takes us is rocky. Several journeys are left incomplete. A lengthy subplot involves Salaamat's involvement with a group who represent the dispossessed of Pakistan. Their debates reveal rivalries between ethnic and regional factions, and the pervasive sense among Sindhis that the "others" - Pathans, Punjabis, Muhajirs - have made them marginal in a land that should be theirs. Salaamat also adds to the novel's polymorphous sexual activity by seducing a (male) companion while spinning fantasies about lustful women.
Salaamat's role is minor but, through his eyes, we glimpse a Pakistan - in particular, the environs of Karachi - that no writer in English has, as far as I know, ever depicted before. Fishing villages and beaches, the flora and fauna, the bus terminals, worksheds, brothels, and the huts where the other half live, are painted in colours as seductively garish as the pictures Salaamat paints on buses. In his world we sense the menace - the guns, strikes and unrest - that loomed over Karachi in the Nineties.
It is to Aslam Khan's credit that she locates Pakistan and its dilemmas so precisely on the map of world politics. Daanish's sojourn in the US during the Gulf War seems included as a device to discuss and denounce American hegemony, but the device works. The contrasts between the developed and developing worlds are enacted in his head. This engagement links Aslam Khan to other Anglophone Pakistani writers of her generation (the novelists Kamila Shamsie and Mohsin Hamid, the late poet Hima Raza), whose work grapples with the social malaises of their country.
Just as Salaamat's politicised friends never add any significant action to the novel, so other dramas - illicit passion, betrayal by jealousy with class implications, past loves echoed in the present - are chronicled so late that they fail to have impact. Two narratives compete for space here: an expansive national allegory in the postcolonial mode, and a delicate erotic tale spun from threads of timeless myth.
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