ROMANCING THE STONE
Shamsie’s breathtaking time travel takes us to one of the most dangerous places on earth
Two brothers, one an unlettered soldier, Qayyum Gul, who has returned from the horrors of Ypres minus an eye. The other, Najeeb, a brilliant autodidact who will become one of the leading archaeologists of his generation. One has dedicated his life to studying history, looking for a God in every stone; the other has devoted himself to making it. Vivian Rose Spencer, a spirited and adventurous Englishwoman who loves Peshawar, the doorway to glory, the Caspatyrus of old, where she can never “rest her eyes in this place with so much to see”. The characters are dwarfed only by the beauty and terror of the events that unfold in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. It is undivided India, and two ideas of independence present themselves to Qayyum. He could join his fellow tribesmen and fight the British with guns and knives. Or he could join Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s unarmed army of Khudai Khidmatgars and shame the British into leaving. His quandary is one that several young Muslims face even today, in some measure. As his angry friend Kalam Khan tells him: You’ll fight for the French who want to keep their land away from invaders but when your brothers want the same thing, you turn the invaders into your beloved.
Najeeb has an ever more difficult choice—to undertake religious training with the mullahs or study the Classics with Ms Spencer. He has to grapple with Qayyum who is determined to overthrow the Englishman’s yoke, and believes Najeeb is being brainwashed. Will Najeeb become a latter day Herodotus or just another semi-literate toiling on the edge of what was once the Persian empire? And what of Vivian, who follows her heart to Peshawar hoping to meet the love of her life, Tahsin Bey?
Outstanding scholarship that brings alive the conquests of Alexander and Ashoka with its echoes in the disputed history of the subcontinent. A vivid account of the increasingly public role of women in England that mirrors what is happening in India now. A heartbreaking chronicle of one boy’s desire to learn which could be true of Malala Yousafzai’s struggle so many decades later. And more than anything else, in the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, a stunning insight into the impact on the forgotten Indians who fought so valiantly for a foreign power.
Shamsie’s prose travels through time and space to create a remarkable book in which factual figures are ever present and yet it is not weighed down by its own importance. In a way writers such as Shamsie are walking in the footsteps of the real-life Vivians, Qayyums and Najeebs, at ease in a multicultural world because their forebears have helped decipher its secrets. The prose is elegant and when the novel ends, it is almost with a start that one realises it was a dream. These characters exist only in our imagination but are so compelling that there are moments when there is just too much emotion— for a land that was and a city that could have been, of which Emperor Babur had said: If a blind man walks across India, he will know when he reaches Peshawar by the smell of its flowers.
There are many points in the book where one finds God. My own personal favourite: When Qayyum meets Buddha’s image in a glass-fronted cabinet in the Peshawar Museum and leans in towards his starving face, suspended over the ridged skin of his chest. “He whispered Bismillah-irRahman-ir-Rahim and the Buddha continued to gaze beyond him, all of Vipers there in his eyes, every dead soldier, and Kalam Khan bleeding to death, cold and alone.” Yes, you can cry. I did.
A GOD IN EVERY STONE by Kamila Shamsie Bloomsbury Price: £ 16.99 Pages: 200 BETWEEN THE COVERS The characters are dwarfed only by the beauty and terror of the events that unfold in the immediate aftermath of the First World War.