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

India Today - - LEISURE - By S. Prasan­nara­jan

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.



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