ROMANCING THE STONE

Sham­sie’s breath­tak­ing time travel takes us to one of the most dan­ger­ous places on earth

India Today - - LEISURE - By Kaveree Bamzai

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.

KAMILA SHAM­SIE

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