LOSTIN THE LEGEND S OFTHE MOUNTAINS
In Fatima Bhutto’s first novel, set in the tribal region bordering Afghanistan, The political and the personal merge in a powerful narrative of dissent
When a novelist goes behind the headline, there are two possibilities. The resultant novel could be a docudrama desperately seeking the adjective political. In such pages, history is a jarring intrusion, not what the philosopher would have called, and what quite a few masters of post-War Europe had shown us, “being in the world.” Or, it could be a novel where the headline is a distant echo in memory, a persistent reminder of how irredeemably you are trapped in history. Such novels are the story of the living caught between the mercilessness of yesterday and the astonishments of today, and it is the eternity of that story, not the immediacy of the headline, that makes them part of the canon. Fatima Bhutto can’t escape the headline, and it is a recurring one in this century of fear, in this age of hate. Pakistan is where terror is a banality, god is a slogan, the general is the arbiter, and democracy is still a blood sport. Post 9/11, there is hardly a headline of terror without a Pakistani touch. In its evolutionary tale merges the variations of power, ranging from the despotic to the divine; and the fallen democrat is denied even the semblance of martyrdom.
This Pakistan forms the ancestral as well as the existential grammar of Fatima Bhutto— granddaughter of the executed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, daughter of the assassinated Murtaza Bhutto, niece of assassinated Benazir Bhutto and the poisoned Shahnawaz Bhutto. In her literary inauguration as a memoirist three years ago, it was the poignancy of this unenviable author introduction that gave Songs of Blood and Sword a rare historical resonance: a memorial service to the Republic of Ghosts. In her first novel, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, it is the Pakistan of here and now that animates the pages. Set in the tribal town of Mir Ali in Waziristan, which shares a border with Afghanistan, it is a novel in which the headlines we are familiar with—of drone wars and Sunni bloodlust, of tribal exceptionalism and radical freedom struggle, of jihadists and generals—are shorn off their sensationalism and infused with the anxieties and intimacies of human relationships. The politics of the crescent moon—brutal, opportunistic and subterranean— is denied the clarity and convenience of black and white in this novel; the shadow of lives betrayed and marginalised humanises it with the pace and urgency of a thriller.
The story is built on the actions of three broth-
ers and two women—and the stoicism of a town in the mountains—on a Friday morning, from nine to noon, to be exact. Aman Erum, the eldest brother, has realised his American dream in a deal with the state, and he, now back in Mir Ali, continues to pay the price. He is the informer. Sikandar, the middle one, a doctor, is the normal guy driven by the nobility of duty. Hayat, the youngest, has inherited the legend of the mountains from his father. He is the rebel. Samarra is the girl who once waited for Aman, then betrayed by him—and marked by the state. She is the revolutionary. Mina, the wife of Sikandar, is a victim, and the undying memory of her son consumed by the flames of hate has made her a funeral crasher. She is the unsolicited solace dispenser by the side of the young martyrs of the mountains. She is the mother who reclaims the dead. The traveller’s back stories make their eventful journeys on that Friday morning a remarkable passage in political fiction. Their stories become the shared narratives of a people set against the passions and pathologies of a remorseless state.
Two outstanding set pieces in the novel bring out the savagery as well as the absurdity of the struggle in the mountains. In one, Samarra tells her military interrogator, “it is not my country”. Minutes later, “he stood on her hair in his standard-issue ox-blood boots. From where she lay, Samarra could see how his leather boots shone against the grime of the floor”. She overcomes fear and tells him before the final assault on her, “I know you are the first in these sixty-six years of your great country’s history to have sold its skies. What have you left untouched?” In the other, when Sikandar and Mina are waylaid on the forest road by Kalashnikov-wielding Talibs and Sikandar is being questioned on his Muslim—read Sunni—credentials at gunpoint, it is the scream of Mina—scream of the mother scorned—that saves life. She lobs the greatest slur— Zalim! (Unjust)—at the so-called “students of justice”. Justice lies orphaned outside the passion plays of Pakistan, and in this novel by a writer who is in a permanent argument with her homeland, the struggle for justice is a bargain the young and the abandoned are condemned to lose.
History has failed Pakistan. Only imagination can redeem it. As Fatima Bhutto has done.