BROKEN VERSES by Kamila Shamsie. Harcourt, 2005. Paperback, 338 pages. $14.00
Whenever place becomes as prominent as the characters in a novel, things of great depth begin to happen. In Kamila Shamsie’s fourth novel, Broken Verses, an intelligent meditation on loss and yearning, the novel’s setting, Pakistan, comes alive in vivid and colorful description.
In a phone interview, Shamsie relates to me her love of Pakistan and seems a bit surprised at my surprise! “Yes, I love it, it is my home after all! I love a lot of cities, among them London, New York City, Bombay, and I love the life that I find there, I accept the way life is in these places. I feel the same way about Pakistan. No doubt, Karachi is troubled, but perhaps because of this, you feel protective about it. There is this way in which there is a danger lurking there. There are dangerous groups that exist there and I suppose there is always a sort of edge, but it is a city in a country that I will always love.” This comes through loud and clear in the pages of Broken Verses, where Aasmaani, a young 30ish woman yearns for her mother, who has gone “missing” years before. Pakistan is a place where these events, tied to political transgressions, happen, yet people thrive and live meaningful lives, accepting the fact that this is the way the world works.
Aasmaani’s mother Samina, a political and social activist goes missing two years after her lover, the Poet, is brutally murdered by government agents. Aasmaani persists in the belief that she has been abandoned by her mother, who had left her many times before to follow her lover into exile. What follows is a riveting and often-wrenching narrative of a daughter who suffers tremendously from her untraditional upbringing in a country that prizes propriety and convention.
Shamsie relates how she began thinking of a character who was suffering somehow, inside of herself, but there was potential, somehow, to overcome this. She had the idea of someone who started to receive messages. “The first line came to me … I can’t even explain where that comes from, but it did. The idea definitely started with the Poet and Aasmaani, but Aasmaani was, perhaps, the most difficult character to figure out. I knew that this could really develop into something: a woman thinking about her famous dead mother.”
Aasmaani takes a job in a television studio, where she works with the son of a famous actress. Shehnaz Saeed was her mother’s friend some years back and one of the people deeply affected by her loss, as well. She passes on a letter she received to Aasmaani, claiming it could be from a deranged fan or it could come to mean something. It is written in a sort of code and Aasmaani is sure that she is only one of three people who can interpret it. The other two are her mother and the Poet. Thus begins a riveting and suspenseful mystery surrounding the two people that Aasmaani has cared for most in her life. In Shehnaz Saeed’s house, Aasmaani looks for evidence of her mother’s former presence, and ruminates on their past:
How often had my mother been here between the Poet’s death and her own disappearance? Those were the two years when conversation between us slowed to a trickle. I spent so much—the idiocy!—of those years slamming doors and saying things like “It’s none of your business where I’m going.” That particular sentence came out when something of her old self was awake in her, and she replied, “Fine, then I won’t tell you where I go when I go out.” It was in my hands, she made it clear, to choose to end the foolishness of that reciprocal silence, but I was too proud to do so. And where had that pride got me? Right here, in the doorway of Shehnaz Saeed’s house, knowing nothing.
Throughout the narrative is a Karachi of both beauty and danger, a throbbing presence of heat, dust, honking horns.
The writing of the novel was a “time of intensity” for Shamsie. “It wasn’t very easy going. There were parts that had me stumped for a while, but I just kept working through it.” The novel is more of a humanistic tale than a suspenseful one, and the intensity that Shamsie may have experienced during the writing has definitely carried over onto the page. “In this book, I have deliberately set Aasmaani on the road to the truth, a path that she must take to ‘save’ her life.”
The meditation on the bond between mothers and daughters is poignant. The pain that sears mind and body when that relationship is severed is articulated with such an acute sense of language, one can’t help but feel the desolation and urgency of the path that Aasmaani must tread. Despite a loving father and stepmother, in addition to her younger half-sister Rabia, whom she adores, Aasmaani will exist as a sort of guest in her own life until she finds the answers she desperately seeks:
I was a body, yes, but a body freed of everything that is other than corporeal. Sometimes the only way to be is to remove yourself from yourself. It cannot be done, of course. But illusions—no, delusions—are so much more effective than people give them credit for. I could live for longer than anyone imagined in the delusion that I was just the body of Aasmaani, with nothing within it.
But even that perception is an illusion. Because while Broken Verses is all about loss and deprivation it is also about eventually overcoming of it.
|Michelle Reale is an academic librarian and a fiction writer, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia.|