In his debut novel, Ali Sethi, a Harvard graduate and son of the publishers of the The Friday Times journal in Pakistan, brings a certain élan to his portrayal of Pakistan as seen through the eyes of young urbanites.
His characters manage to find pleasure even when the odds are stacked against them. There’s usually a way around everything— whether it’s martial law, Islamic ordinances or family rules. Alcohol and bars might be banned, but there’s always the neighborhood liquor smuggler. As one character says, “Everything goes on underground. Everyone does everything … parties-sharties, coke-shoke, anything and everything.” The list goes on—orgies, partner swapping, gays. And bombs.
Zaki Shirazi is the boy at the heart of the novel. Zaki grows up in a house of women. There’s the liberal, feisty, journalist mother who gets hauled off to jail for her articles. There’s the traditional grandmother squabbling with her way-too-independent daughter-in-law. There’s the family maid, more mother to Zaki than his own. There are the hilarious aunts Hukmi and Suri, a sort of Tweedledum-Tweedledee Greek chorus to the grandmother. And there is Samar Api, technically an aunt but more of a cousin. Zaki watches her grow up and mature much quicker than he does, as her girlish crush on Bollywood idols turns into a dangerous, secret, teenage love affair with an older man. “Zaki, I am in Ell Oh Vee Eee,” she announces. It is quaintly put but a transgression that will change their lives irrevocably and send them spinning into different directions, until a wedding brings them back together in a shower of marigolds.
Sethi has a wonderful ear for dialogue and the sing-song cadence of English (“God promise”) in the Indian subcontinent. His portrayal of a young, affluent generation in a city like Lahore is vivid and realistic. Turbulent politics whirl around the lives of youth but never overwhelm the narrative. There is the rumble of war, nuclear tests, and growing Islamic fundamentalism, but Zaki and his friends ostensibly worry more about curfews their parents impose than the ones imposed by military dictators. His account of how he and Samar Api sneak out of the house to go stalk her older boyfriend is a treat to read.
It is in the details of ordinary life that Sethi triumphs. The grandmother is passionately Pakistani and deeply suspicious of India. But when her television set with its two channels (Doordarshan and PTV) stops working just when she is getting ready to watch Chitrahaar, the Bollywood song program, she freaks out.
“My India is not coming,” she cries.
This curious love-hate sisters-under-the-skin relationship between India and Pakistan is splendidly evoked by Sethi. Where he struggles is keeping the story itself focused.
Characters show up towards the end of the book without much preamble. Sethi tries to show the creeping tide of Islamic fundamentalism, especially among the poor, through the story of Yakub, the son of the family maid Naseem. It’s an interesting story but feels tacked on at the end. What is perhaps most telling of the class gap in feudal societies is that though Naseem raises Zaki and Samar Api, they never seem to have met her own son.
The key relationship in the book is the one between young Zaki and Samar Api but at one point Samar Api is whisked away to her village home and disappears from the book. The reader is left instead with detailed accounts of Zaki’s school days, his efforts to become a class monitor, his friends at school, all of it well-written but without the emotional heft of his relationship with Samar Api. That relationship is so central to the novel that Zaki himself seems to lose some of his color when Samar Api exits the scene. Her love affairs are chronicled through his observant eyes but his own budding sexuality remains somewhat opaque, coyly hinted at but not fully explored. Instead we get a thumbnail sketch of his life in the United States—“I went to the Nineties Dance, to the South Asian Dance, to the Islamic Society Banquet, and I went to the Queer Dance, and stood beneath the colors of the rainbow, which were mine.”
If his peephole view into love and its transgressions has had any effect on how Zaki evolves as a man, it is left for the reader to guess. Though the book opens with a grown-up Zaki coming back from America to attend Samar Api’s wedding, by the end the prolonged absence of Samar Api from the pages has rendered her somewhat of a stranger to the reader. Their much anticipated reunion feels muted.
Even if the story sometimes seems to lose focus, Ali Sethi is a marvelously engaging writer with a deceptively light touch who astutely captures the contradictions that bedevil Pakistan’s society. He writes the story with love, because it is a story about love on many levels. At one level is Samar Api’s love for her Bollywood prince. At another level the book is about Pakistanis dreaming of democracy but returning again and again to the same cast of characters—Benazir Bhutto and Nawaaz Sharif—like going back to the same lover even after your heart has been broken.
Sandip Roy is an editor with New America Media and host of its radio show New America Now on KALW 91.7 FM.