Wednesday, August 05, 2009

On Ali Sethi's The Wish Maker

The most startling feature of Ali Sethi’s debut novel The Wish Maker is that although it is over 400 pages long, its protagonist (who is also for the most part its narrator) is a cipher, registering on our consciousness as not very much more than a pair of eyes. When we meet Zaki Shirazi for the first time, he has just returned to his family home in Lahore (inevitably, for a wedding) after two years as a student in America. What should be the beginning of the book’s action is actually pretty much the end, and Zaki spends his time observing the new Pakistan (“We passed a hoarding on the bridge. It was advertising a new deal for mobile phones...”; “At night I went with Isa and Moosa to see the new places of leisure”) and lapsing into loops of ever-retreating flashbacks.

The Wish Maker swiftly reveals itself, to those with some experience of the genre, as that old chestnut, the three-generation South Asian novel: one tier retailing memories of Partition, the second covering the era of the wars with India and the Bangladeshi independence struggle, and the third, the Pakistan of the present day, both modern ( those"new places of leissure") and medieval when seen through the narrator’s wide-eyed gaze (“She said that such things were common in the villages, where customs were old and went largely untouched by the new ways that developed continually in the cities”). There is plenty of quasi-journalistic observation, a score of aunts, cousins and servants, and a number of songs and weddings, none of which can conceal the instrinsic hollowness of the mind and voice that speaks.

Sometimes such stories can be redeemed by depth of characterization or distinction of language, but strangely enough for someone writing his first book, Sethi shows no desire to contest any of the rules of an old, old game. Although Zaki has been brought up in Pakistan, and has been away for just two years, his eye is always noticing things in touristy ways, such as “old men sitting under trees on the footpath with colourful powders and bottles”, even as his memory is recalling such momentous occurrences as “After the maths period there was the physics period, and after that chemistry, for which we had to go to the chemistry lab in a line led by the teacher...”

Further, the narrator of The Wish Maker seems highly conscious of the need to record—indeed to celebrate—the specifics of Pakistani culture, language and place, while also trying not to turn off a global audience whose apprehension of these things is dim (one of the blurbs on the back cover of his book acclaims it as “a brilliant example of the new global novel”). This leads to a kind of backand-forth covering of bases that often clogs the narration. Sethi is the kind of writer who, when writing about a visit to a neighbourhood, will say that it was “a mohalla, a neighbourhood”, and not one or the other. Sometimes he can write an interesting English: a sentence about how the sun is “like a difficult god, present in the things it made visible” was one of the few bits of the book I enjoyed. But his English is also specked with local colour and subcontinental sounds in the most cliched way, with a carefully italicized “hai” here and a “taubah” there, and (since no narrative is authentic without a sampling of local swear words) one careful mention each of the words “bhenchod” and “maaderchod”.

The same contradictory imperative guides Sethi's attitude towards cultural detail, towards what he thinks should be explained and what only named. Zaki’s cousin, Samar Api, idolizes Amitabh Bachchan, who, Zaki explains, “was said to be the most famous actor in the world”. A police officer sits under “a framed portrait of the Quaid-e-Azam, the founder of the nation” (if an Indian novelist wrote such a line about a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, we would think he or she was being ironic). I have no idea what Sethi’s politics are, but it was surprising to see Benazir Bhutto’s personal and political life described in great detail while, when he approaches the political scene of the late nineties, Sethi devotes a few pages to Nawaz Sharif without ever naming him, only saying that “(Daadi) was pleased when her man won the election”. These are the riddles and puzzles, more than the mysteries of character or situation, that the reader of The Wish Maker ends up pondering.

Here, as a longer example of what seems to me the mechanical nature and aridity of Sethi's narration, is a passage from the book describing a journey made by Zaki's grandfather from India to Pakistan. The passage is told from the point of view of Zaki's mother, Zakia:
[Papu] took trains. They took him from Kanpur to Agra, Agra to Jodhpur, and from Jodhpur into Sindh. The train compartments became crowded. He looked past his window and saw desert turn to desert, and his mind filled with foreboding. He had a little money, and his clothes and his diploma were in his suitcase. He kept the suitcase between his legs. He closed his eyes and tried to think of the city that awaited him, a city he had never seen but had to envision in that moment for its own sake.
'Brother,' said a voice.
It was the old man sitting across from him. He had asked Papu earlier to consider some items, some things he had with him in a cloth bundle.
Papu said he wanted nothing from the man.
'Oh,' said the man, as if hearing it for the first time. 'Oh, I see.'
The train went on shuddering on its tracks. Papu closed his eyes again. And again the man disturbed him, until Papu, unable in that crowded train to change his seat, had to sit with his eyes wide open, his face turned resolutely to the window and his ears unresponsive to the man's increasingly maudlin appeals.
Zakia said, 'Didn't it get any better?'
And Mabi said, 'It didn't.' She knew because she had been with Papu on those trains. She said that in Karachi they had had to sleep in camps...
Oh, so Papu took Mabi along on those trains, did he? But shouldn't we know this from Papu's experience of the train journey, instead of it being tacked on at the end almost as an afterthought? In fact, wouldn't Papu's concern for his wife be central to his memory of those trains, as much as his foreboding about the city they are headed towards?

Unlike in non-fiction, in fiction we are not obliged to accept that something is real, or true, merely because it is asserted as fact, as it is here. Scenes like this demonstrate, by their negative example, that realism in fiction is not a matter of getting the details of history or of culture right, and expecting that one's characters will live and breathe because thrown into this recovered world that is "true". Fiction, too, is a more difficult god than Sethi seems to allow for. Although we are told that Mabi has gone on this journey with Papu, her presence is so anachronistic that for all practical purposes she never leaves home.

And, while on the subject of "increasingly maudlin appeals" that annoy the auditor, here is another passage— one might think of it as the title scene of the novel:
'Samar Api,' I said one night, 'do you think [Mother] doesn't want to get married because of me?
We were lying in wicker beds on the roof. It was August, the last month of the monsoon. All day the rain had been slashing and insistent; trees swayed and fell and lay like logs in the roads, which were swamped. The overhead wires had snapped; there was no electricity in the neighbourhood and the house was dark.
On the roof the night was clear. The clouds had left the moon in light.
'Not at all,' said Samar Api. 'She doesn't do it because she doesn't want to. There's nothing like your first love.' She closed her eyes and released a sigh. It merged with the breeze.
'Samar Api?'
She moaned.
'Make a wish.'
She cupped her hands, brought them to her mouth and whispered the wish, which was chosen without deliberation, without hesitation, then blew it away and watched as it went up into the night.
From sighs that merge with the breeze and wishes that are watched as they go up into the night, it is hard to beat this scene for exertion in making the invisible visible, and for turning yearning into bathos.

Although original and complex fiction in English about Pakistan is being written currently by writers as diverse as Nadeem Aslam, Mohsin Hamid, Aamer Hussein, Mohammed Hanif, Musharraf Ali Farooqui, Azhar Abidi, and Daniyal Mueenuddin, Sethi’s tutelary deity is clearly the Afghan émigré Khaled Hosseini. Hosseini's long and enthusiastic blurb on the back cover ("an engaging family saga, an absorbing coming-of-age story, and an illuminating look at one of the world's most turbulent regions") sounds like just the thing Hosseini would want said about his own book The Kite Runner.

Indeed, the very title The Wish Maker seems to reach out towards the large global audience which delighted in Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Sethi's writing and plot construction replicate many of Hosseini’s faults, though to my ear his prose has a slightly richer sound than Hosseini’s blundering and bathetic narrations. If this banal and almost willfully unsubtle work is really an example of “the new global novel”, then let us turn to our so-called local writers instead.

And two older essays: on Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders and Mohammad Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

[A shorter version of this essay appeared last weekend in Mint]


Uncertain said...

Harsh..... my eyes dissolved in the acid!

Chandrahas said...

Uncertain - You are well-known, and universally loved, for your tender and comforting words. Perhaps you'll read the book post-haste and supply something to fill the breach?

Uncertain said...

Non sequitur :)