book review

Book Review–Ashes, Wine and Dust

“There are no plans, just people fooling themselves by attempting to design their fates and futures. It makes them feel invincible, even if it’s for a transient period of time.”

Ashes, Wine and Dust is the debut novel of Kanza Javed, which was shortlisted for Tibor Jones South Asia Prize 2013, making her the youngest and the only Pakistani writer nominated for the prize that year.

Set in Lahore and Washington DC, Ashes, Wine and Dust is a journey of a young girl, Mariam, whose childhood experiences of loss of loved ones and memories associated with them make her feel everything a little more deeply. Thus, since her childhood, she feels more connected with the memories of her dada (paternal grandfather) and less with the rest of the family.

Memories of her childhood friends and confidants 10403138_1186536494695904_912160836046943541_nstill haunt her when she decides to leave for the US for further studies and in search for self-exploration. Thus, America awaits her with the mysterious art work of her uncle who had left her family years ago, his family who no longer cares for his work, and an unexpected incident that leaves her vulnerable in an estranged land. And while Mariam is figuring out on how to cope with her current situation, she finds out about the disappearance of her younger brother, Abdullah.

Alone in a foreign country with a brother missing, she blames herself for Abdullah’s disappearance and eventually travels back home in search of clues which might lead her to him.

As the family goes through the trauma of loss of a loved one and ultimately decides to move on albeit slowly, Mariam hangs on to the clues that Abdullah has left and vows to unite him with their family.

Javed’s Ashes, Wine and Dust is an excruciatingly beautiful read with strong characters that are often difficult to find in a debut novel. The story is gripping and engulfed in such an exuberant tone of despair and desolation of the protagonist that it keeps you in the mood even after you’ve finished the book.

The imagery of Lahore with its canals, food, colourful bazaars (markets) and backdrop of Badshahi Mosque in several scenes brings back the love of Lahore for those who have visited the beautiful city and invites those who still haven’t.

While Ashes, Wine and Dust is a powerfully gripping read till the end, it did let me down towards the end. And although the book ends with a closure, tying all its loose ends, I would have been happier had it ended on a brighter note. Nevertheless, the book is a must read of 2015.

Javed has done a wonderful job writing a novel that is unswerving, profound and painfully beautiful till the very end. Ashes, Wine and Dust would be available across Pakistan by the end of November, so get a copy of the book for a reading full of feels.

 

Average rating: 4.7/5

(This review was first published on ETribune)

The Wish Maker By Ali Sethi (Book Review)

The Wish Maker is a tale of an upper middle class Pakistani family run by strong willed women from the point of view of young Zaki who is observant and silent, trying to search for a place in his family and fit in.

What I absolutely loved about the book was the fact that it was not only a coming of age story of a young Pakistani (read Lahori) boy but also a road down the memory lane of 60s and 70s—when liberalism was at its peak, partying and alcohol was not a problem, to when Bhutto was tried in the courts and people were showing their reactions—and late 80s, when there was strong censorship and Islamization (ban on alcohol and the like); change of governments in 90s and Zaki’s family reactions brought a similar wave of nostalgia (although I was very young in 90s and remember very little, mostly from the discussions of elders).

Other than his witty observance of the political scene, growing up of Zaki and Samar Apa in 90s (along with their friends) brought back sweet wistfulness of 90s when kids would regularly visit each other house, cousins would stay over nights, movies would be rented and watched on VCR, TV antennas would be fixed for channels and then Dish Satellite would replace antenna, one landline would be owned by every house and everyone house member would use only that, and later when the emergence of internet Chat rooms was supposedly the coolest thing in the crowd.

Zaki and Samar Api’s relationship throughout the book is one of the many reasons why one cannot put the book back without finishing. Samar Api is older, condescending and intimidating for Zaki but that does not lessen Zaki’s love for her. Zaki is Samar Api’s minion (no matter how harsh Samar Api could be sometimes to him). He does what she says and does not interrupt or correct her even if he knows she is making a mistake. He accompanies her in all her reckless adventures and decisions and keeps her secrets even if it means compromising the truth. The end does not end well for either of them. But for Zaki, Samar Api changes his life in one way or the other.

The Wish Maker although a work of fiction is a glaring truth of the events that were before partition (in Lahore) and that occurred right after partition (the fleeing of Sikhs and Hindus, killing of Muslims and Hindus on both sides of the borders) to the way politics impacted the life of rich and the poor in 70s, late 80s and 90s (there is a little glimpse of life in Pakistan after 9/11 as well); which makes is closer to relate—something that lacks in a lot of writings.

One thing that makes this book a little foreign for a Pakistani reader could be the that sometimes while reading, it feels like Ali Sethi has probably written this book as if his audience is non-Pakistani and foreign where he has to explain every tradition and every gesture (such as Azaan) in a simpler, comical way which takes away the desi beauty of it. Otherwise the flow of the story is simple yet magical to grip the attention of the reader till the end.

My Rating 4/5

Taboo! (The Hidden Culture of a Red Light Area)– Book Review

I remember my freshman year at college when I was first exposed to the knowledge of prostitution culture in Pakistan. I was flabbergasted and awed at the same time. I had not watched enough Pakistani or Indian movies for that matter and did not know about the Kotha culture. I only assumed these girls wearing shiny dresses of silk entertaining men in Bollywood/Lollywood songs as dancing girls. All I had read about prostitutes till then was through English novels—and that knowledge too was limited.

Thus Red Light Area was a new term for me. I remember the shock on the face of my seniors when they found out during a discussion that I had no clue what they were talking about. That is how I was schooled briefly on the prostitution culture in Pakistan and, Heera Mandi and Shahi Muhalla of Lahore came as obvious references. At seventeen, I was disgusted at the practices and the culture of a part of our society that existed and lived amongst us, and yet surprised that people not only hadn’t eradicated such a system but also used the services unbeknownst to the family—pretending to be ‘Shareef’ members of the society. But soon I realized that the game wasn’t so simple. Prostitution is the world’s oldest profession after all.

‘Taboo!’ was a gift from a friend, providing me a motivation towards looking into the lives of people who dwell in Red Light Areas.  Authored by Dr. Fouzia Saeed, Taboo takes a detailed qualitative approach to describing the lives of prostitutes. Dr. Saeed’s research extends to a period of ten years where she consistently visits the Shahi Muhalla of Lahore and covers the detailed life stories of people living there, their lifestyles, family system and hierarchy, status of family names and ethnicities.

The book further discusses the history of prostitution in subcontinent and how the elite section of the society had played its part in flourishing the business since the beginning. As Kaisera, a manager tells Fouzia,

‘…they are all hypocrites. Those who speak the loudest are against us are the ones with many children here.’        

It is interesting as well as ironic as Dr. Fouzia points out that the women in this business are considered the lowest of the low in the society, have been seen as evildoers in general and are harassed by the police from time to time but no one questions the men who visit as customers. After all they are the ones helping the business thrive at the end of the day. This argument might also open a battleground for who is worse, the customers or the service providers. But the fact remains, business cannot prosper without either of them.

Similarly, her research also sheds some light on governments’ steps to ban the business from Shahi Muhalla from time to time. The residents of Shahi Muhalla argue that their services are not exclusive to prostitution only rather they produce country’s best musicians and dancers at the same time. As opposed to brothels in different parts of the city (of Lahore) whose sole purpose is sex provision, Shahi Muhalla provides a rounded up entertainment. Evacuating residents from Shahi Muhalla would only make them dissipate to all parts of the city and would be even more difficult to control and keep tabs. This is also partly the reason why brothels have been doing well in recent times according to Shahi Muhalla Naikas (women managers).

While reading it was also very interesting to note the faith these people in God—leaving everything to God in every matter—and their struggle for them to earn ‘Halal ki roti’ (Kosher earning) in their words. They would look down upon begging and stealing and would pride themselves in earning by hard work. It only reflects as to how different people have different ways of looking at things.

Taboo is thorough, well researched and backed by facts and history. In addition, it not only provides insights to the lifestyle of residents of Shahi Muhalla but also narrates the stories of several prostitutes, their dreams, aspirations and the bonds Fouzia develops with the residents along with time, thus keeping you engaged till the very end.

Average rating: 4/5