books

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)

Book Review: Their Language of Love by Bapsi Sidhwa

The stories in Their Language of Love are rich and languid, told in a fashion that is engulfed in an affluent and graceful historic aura. Bapsi Sidhwa’s work is not new to me but I fall in love with her writing even more every time I read her. Her short stories are as much witty and sarcastic, vivid yet baffling as her novels. She portrays her characters as people you would meet in your everyday life, and yet they are powerful and inspiring, offering an unpretentious exuberance.

The most attractive part of her work which keeps bringing me back to her is the realistic portrayal of the sub-continental history, before partition and the 60s, 70s, 80s and early 90s, and the depiction of ease with which the local diverse communities would mix. Similarly, Sidhwa’s reminiscence of the roads and streets of Lahore, its nooks and corners, old gates and shrines, with a colorful paint of historical pallor makes one want to go back to the old city and see it with the author’s keen eyes time and again—it never tires you out.

Bapsi Sidhwa’s short stories are based on the theme of reconnection to roots—of culture, background, language and the commonality that brings the sub-continent together—whether it’s Feroza the spoilt American-turned kid, Roshni, the dark Parsi bride on the American soil or Sikander and his family who are trying to adopt the American ways.

The Language of Love (Short Stories) by Bapsi Sidhwa

Rating: 4/5 

Small Places

I like small places. Places with low ceilings, faded rugs, round coffee tables, colored cushions and early morning rays of sun through open windows. Where you could sit at a corner, detached from the world and yet feel connected to everyone in the crowded room who is here to have breakfast, drink coffee, or read a book. Where you could meet your friends or the person you love and show them the secrets this world holds through that window from where the sun shines. Where you could listen to everyone’s voices and whispers and could tell the language they speak—of love, goodness and beauty—but not be able to tell what they might be thinking. Where you could marvel at the people and the life that exists outside that small coffee shop, like a silent movie, without judging their motives unlike those of big places and high ceilings.

Big places with high ceilings and glass floors and high tables make me anxious. They hold mysteries and secrets people are not sure to reveal. Big places give refuge to high pitched laughter which doesn’t reach the eye and to people who are more concerned about what purpose you bring them than whether you would like to have tea or coffee—they wouldn’t care if you like to have both. It’s difficult to gauge their feelings. So I choose small places with big hearts. Small places with memories of seeing each other the first time. Small places and dog-eared books. And paragraphs you’ve read a hundred times and still cannot get over them.

Small places and Sunday mornings and Friday nights, when you have all the time in the world to discuss with them, how time flies and why days change.

Small places where no one cares whether the wooden table is newly polished or why the rug still has coffee stains.

I choose small places because they make me realize of the connection I have with the things that are still alive, and with people who still believe in the magic of faith, truth, love and beauty.

Book Review– The Book of Lost and Found

A story of finding love, losing and finding love again. The Book of Lost and Found revolves around a love story of two young people but doesn’t quite end on a happy ending. But sometimes, love stories do not necessarily have to have a happy ending. It’s the imperfection that makes them striking.

The Book of Lost and Found is a debut novel by British author Lucy Foley. Set in London, Paris, Corsica and New York, the author has beautifully strung together relationships and events which unveil the story of love between two friends, Tom and Alice, who find each other fifteen years after they first met at Winnard Cove when they were six years old.

When Kate—an emerging photographer—is handed over an old sketch of a beautiful woman who resembles her late ballerina mother so closely, Kate decides to find out more about the mysterious woman in the drawing. And that is how she gets to know Tom Strafford, the artist of the drawing. Soon Kate finds out about the relationship between herself and the woman in the dr20150116_212357awing, and Alice’s unfaltering love for Tom, but things are not as simple as they seem. Tom has a bright career ahead of him while Alice doesn’t want to burden him with her own problems. This is when Alice makes a decision for both of them that will change the course of their lives.

While Tom pursues his art career and becomes one of the greatest artists of twentieth century, Alice relocates herself in Paris and chooses a path for her that demands hard work, bravery and courage despite the bleak future that might lie in front of her.

At the same time, in her struggle to find answers to the story of Tom and Alice, Kate not only uncovers answers to questions that have been bugging her but also someone who would make her feel special.

The Book of Lost and Found is a beautiful story of relationships and sacrifices, of relationships and friendships lost and found, of dark times and the will that changes those times into a journey worth remembering.

Lucy Foley, with her debut novel has proved herself as a great storyteller, carrying the story back and forth skillfully without exhausting the reader. The exquisite locations throughout the novel add to the classic frame of reference to which the book itself relates to.

PS: Thanks to Harper Collins for providing review copy of the book.     

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

Her Story

The fountain pen dropped. With it spread all of its black ink on the floor that she had filled only minutes before. Perhaps its nib had broken too. It had been a gift from an old friend, a mentor, on her twelfth birthday who told her that she would do wonders with this pen.

Only this would have been a dream unfulfilled. Someone else’s.

Only she had been trapped—tricked into believing that she could write.

Though there were times that she had actually written—letters to people, to God, had been published in children magazines and won contests, but it had never mattered to her. For her, only one story mattered. The one she was born with. The one that she carried wherever she went.

She did not even look down at the white floor which had now been stained. Another friend lost, she thought. Another dream shattered.

Her gaze drifted from the notebook to the sky outside the window which showed a streak of white light.

The sun would be out soon. It was 5 am.

Another night of insomnia gone. Another day looking forward to be lived. It had been two years precisely, she recalled. Two years since the nights veiled her, the days depressed her. Two years since her first rejection. ‘No ma’am, we’re looking for something more solid, something more interesting to grab attention.’ She couldn’t tell him but that’s what my life has offered me all those years.

She had remained silent.

She had waited.

No shortcuts. No references. She had walked the long way. Actually she had preferred the pain. The fruit you eat after a hard labor is always sweeter. She remembered his mentor’s words. But the fruit didn’t seem to be coming.

5: 10 am. The sky was almost blue. Clear. Crystal. The two-day continuous rain had washed away all the dirt, drained all the filth with it. But she was not impressed. It had brought back all the colors too. The greens of leaves, the browns of trunks, the gray of the winding road below. The rains had stopped making sense for her.

Why did the heavens cry? She knew it was never meant for her. But she had yet to find out.  

The first time she had entered the office with her blue notebook, the man hadn’t even looked up at her. He didn’t have time for amateurs.

Then came another rejection and then another.

A woman asked her if she had been published before. She gave her the references. But the woman with the parrot nose and hawk eyes said, You don’t understand dear. Not these little articles in tabloids and magazines. A Solid hardcopy. Yes dear, that’s what I’m talking about. It had been a voice firmly practiced. Gentle but firm. Gentle but lacking the kindness of a humane tone.

 She began detesting the word ‘solid’. Solid plots, solid copies, solid writings, solid publications—but her life had never been considered solid for once.

5: 23 am. The ink had dried by now. There were no signs of rain today. But it had left its signs nevertheless; the cool air hitting her face, the umbrellas still hanging in people’s balconies, the muddy trails in park’s neighborhood and the bugs that had come out of nowhere—the weather had surely changed.

Her story was still unfinished. All her interviewers had wanted a drama, a twist and a climax. But her story had been even and unwavering. Not exactly happy or happening—it had been woeful—but unflattering. Maybe, she thought, maybe it was time to add a climax.  

She picked up the fountain pen with the broken nib from the floor seeped with ink.

Maybe this time, they will have a story with a climax and an ending.     

The clock read 5:29 am in the morning.

The Book Thief (Book Review) by Markus Zusak

I think the words that would most certainly describe the book for me would be: devastatingly beautiful.

The author has narrated the story of young girl in the times of war in Germany—a child who grows up watching the death of her brother, abandonment from her mother and restarting of another life at Himmel Street, only to be torn apart again by the death of the people who she has loved more than herself.

Despite the story being narrated by Death itself, the novel is never suffocating with the fear of the inevitable—the death, unlike many of the other wartime books that constantly grip the reader with a constant, uneasy suffocating vibe. Rather, it tells a tale of small acts of happiness—of playing accordion, of rolling cigarettes, of playing soccer in muddy Himmel Street, of friendship and book-thievery, of calling Saumensch and Saukerlto your loved ones, of the wagers of getting kiss for a reward, of secrets of hiding Jews and unveiling it to your best friend on the branch of a tree; of growing up and understanding your emotions and the moment of accepting that your best friend may also be your lover.

The Book Thief is a story of veiled, unspoken expressions that Leisel has for her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubberman; her best friend, Rudy Steinner; the secret of Hubberman household, Max; and Ilsa Hermann—her savior and Frau Holtzapfel—who would listen to her reading.

It is a novel that almost had me crying when Leisel saw the corpses of her Papa and Mama. But it turned almost black when Leisel saw Rudy, lying lifeless. Leisel was late, too late to express her feelings for her best friend, her next-door neighbor, her partner-in-crime and her lover.

It’s a book that one would want to read again—at least once, in one’s life time.