The Wish Maker, By Ali Sethi

A child's rites of passage in a troubled land

Reviewed,Arifa Akbar@arifa_akbar
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:14

Pakistan has just shaken off military rule and now see-saws between democracy and anarchy. The North West Frontier is erupting with civil unrest; Kalashikovs are sold next to candy bars in the bazaars of Peshawar and the tragic fortunes of the Bhutto dynasty have hit the headlines once again.

It may sound like a news bulletin describing the present day woes of Pakistani but Ali Sethi's debut novel, The Wish Maker, uses the sadly circular political history of his home country – from its birth in 1947 to the present day – to tell the story of three generations of characters who live in a middle-class, liberal enclave of Lahore.

The "Groundhog Day" aspect to the country's politics is vividly depicted, from the deaths of two Bhutto leaders (President Zulfikar Ali's hanging in 1977 and his prime-minister daughter Benazir's assassination in 2007), the various martial regimes followed by short-lived democratic governments, and the Dark Laws which have held back women for decades.

But the Shirazi family is untouched by many of these darker forces in their daily lives, or so it first appears at least. The household is largely comprised of women who are free of the clichéd narratives of enforced marriages and marital subjugation. Young Zaki Shirazi is Sethi's central, semi-autobiographical narrator, whose father died when he was two months old. Aside from his boyish voice, the book leaves the interiors of men very much at its margins.

Zaki lives with mother, Zakia, a campaigning journalist who is often too distracted by incendiary editorials to pay much attention to her son, his domineering grandmother, Daadi, and older cousin , Samar Api - whose own mother has deposited her from village life to the Shirazi home.

Their stories are largely about childhood and its various rites of passage – sexual, emotional and intellectual. A patchwork portrait of Pakistan emerges through these cross-chronological narratives, from Daadi's hopes as a young woman before partition to Zakia's landscape of beer, boyfriends and later, religious repression, and finally to Zaki and Samar's Lahore of the 1990s, filled with young love, bootleg alcohol and pot, but also the return of radicalism.

While the Dark Laws are not as relevant to this family, they are present around its edges. Zakia meets young women who are raped and punished for it under brutal tribal law, Daadi's sister, Choti, reflects a rural existence where men discard their wives for younger models; many of the Shirazi women are liberated but they don't take their freedoms for granted.

Sethi's motivation for this first novel was to clear up the "American misconception that Pakistan was a Middle Eastern country", and it emerges not as a Wahabi monolith but as a place of liberal cities and conservative provinces; a culture well penetrated by Bollywood, satellite television and Western advertising, with all the contradictions these elements bring. It hails a female leader but in the same breath, condemns her. As an imam says in a prayer sermon during Benazir Bhutto's reign: "A woman was now running the country the country, and making the kind of mess she ought to have made inside her kitchen."

Sethi's narration is engaging and funny, and although it rambles off into distracted corners at times, it is slickly structured. It takes us from the present day, back across personal and political histories, and returns to a bittersweet ending which reminds us of the power of making wishes and the miracle of having them, even in part, fulfilled.

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