Saturday, 4 July 2009

Book Review - The Wish Maker by Ali Sethi

I have just finished reading The Wish Maker and the sights, sounds and smells of upper-middle class Pakistan are still with me. Though I am nowhere near Pakistan, I can still see around me the crowded thoroughfares of Lahore. If twenty-four year old Ali Sethi’s main objective was to convey to his readers an idea of what life is like for Pakistanis of his class and ilk, he has succeeded admirably.

Having spent all his life in Pakistan, except for a brief holiday to Spain, Sethi’s protagonist Zaki Shirazi goes to the US for his higher studies. The novel starts with Zaki’s return to Lahore from the US for his cousin Samar Api’s wedding. Actually Samar Api is not his cousin, she’s his father’s first cousin and consequently his aunt. However, Samar is generous enough to treat him as a cousin most of the time, though occasionally she reminds him otherwise.

Zaki’s father was an airforce pilot who died in an accident when Samar was ‘minus two months old’. Zaki is brought up by his mother Zakia who is a journalist and a political activist. Surrounded by women, his mother, his paternal grandmother – Daadi, the domestic help Naseem and Samar Api, Zaki has an unusual childhood. For example, he gets to accompany his mother to a political protest and they end up spending the night in police custody. Zaki is sent to a posh school where he makes some friends and even tries to get picked (by his teachers) as a class monitor. There is a surprising amount of politicking, buttering up and back stabbing involved in getting picked as the class monitor. School politics almost mirrors the politics played by adults in the big, bad world outside. Zaki gets into trouble once in a while. What child doesn’t? Sethi does a very good job describing Zaki’s school life. I’ll leave it to you to read the book and find out more for yourself.

Zaki’s cousin Samar Api is an Amitabh Bachchan fan and when she has an affair, she is looking for her Amitabh. When Zaki returns to Pakistan for Samar’s wedding, he knows that the London educated lawyer she’s marrying is her Amitabh.

By way of flashbacks and otherwise, Sethi tells us the story of three generations of Pakistanis. We are shown Papu and Mabi, his maternal grandparents. Papu migrated to Pakistan from his ancestral home in India and he ends up as the General Manager of a posh hotel. Mabi is the hostess of a Chinese restaurant inside the hotel. We get to know how Zaki’s parents met. We are shown the (decadent?) lifestyles of some of Zaki’s cousins. As I have mentioned earlier, one gets to smell the real Pakistan, albeit from an upper class balcony.

Political events in Pakistan form the backdrop to this story. One gets bits of commentary on everything from the Partition, the various coups that took place in Pakistan, Zulfikar Bhutto’s execution, Benazir Bhutto’s election etc.

Sethi’s language is pretty straight forward and matter of fact, except when he makes a conscious effort to use poetic language. This happens only in a few paragraphs and they stand out. No, I’m not saying they don’t gel with the rest of the book, but they do stand out.

All in all, I would definitely recommend this book, though I am sure that Sethi’s best is yet to come.


I have a few grumbles about the book. My main crib is that Zaki’s relationship with Samar Api is not covered as well as it ought to be. After Zaki lands in Lahore for Samar Api’s wedding, he doesn’t go and meet her and the reader doesn’t meet her either, except when the wedding actually takes place. You are told that Zaki and Samar are very close, but you see Zaki going around town with his other cousins, and Samar doesn’t make an appearance for a while. In fact, the only time Zaki and Samar are shown to be close and talking and exchanging secrets is when they are both very young and they have a few mutual friends. After Zaki is moved to a posh school, Samar Api sort of disappears. Samar Api doesn’t have a presence in a large swathe of the book.

My only other point of dispute with Sethi, and I am nitpicking here, is the scene which takes place in the days just after the US started to help the Mujahideen fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Zaki’s mother, the political activist, is shown telling a retired Brigadier that the US and Pakistan were making a mistake by helping the Afghan fighters. Just before she does that, a visiting American intellectual and a friend of Zakia, declares that the blowback (from helping the Mujahideen) would be costly. If Sethi didn’t have the benefit of hindsight, I doubt if he could have written anything of this sort. Just after the Soviet invasion, I don’t think there were any Americans or Pakistanis worrying about the “blowback” from helping the Mujahideen. In those days, the only serious dangers the world faced came with a capital C – Capitalism and Communism, depending on whose side you were on. Religious fundamentalism was not a major problem. Many Arab nations such as Egypt were going through a phase of Arab nationalism and socialism.

I’m sure we’ll get to read a lot more of Sethi in the days to come.

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