Saturday, 2 June 2012

Book Review: Night of the Golden Butterfly by Tariq Ali

Night of the Golden Butterfly is the fifth book in Tariq Ali’s Islam quintet, a collection born in response to the Islamophobia generated by 9/11 and its aftermath. Like the first four books, the idea seems to be to show the civilised face of Islam to the rest of the world. The first four books in this quintet were set in places and epochs ranging from Granada after the Re-Conquest by Ferdinand and Isabella, Saladdin, Ottoman Turkey at the turn of the twentieth century and Sicily in the twelfth century when it was ruled by the Normans. The fifth one, Night of the Golden Butterfly, is set in the present and the locales vary from the Fatherland (as Pakistan is referred to throughout in this novel), London, Paris, Beijing, Kunming, Dali and even Hoi Chi Min City in Vietnam.

Night of the Golden Butterfly could be semi-autobiographical since Dara, a writer from Lahore who is the main narrator of the story, bears a striking similarity to Tariq Ali. The novel begins with Dara’s friend Plato (real name-Mohammed Aflatun) calling in an old favour (which a young Dara had promised to repay with interest) and demanding that Dara write Plato’s story. Dara agrees. The reader is led to believe from the opening chapters that the novel will be all about Plato, but it isn’t. Instead, Night of the Golden Butterfly is the story of Plato and his friends’ circle to which Dara too belongs. Plato’s story takes up maybe a fourth of this 275-page book. Plato, Dara and their friends are the cream of Lahore, all of them moneyed, with Plato, a refugee from Ludhiana, being the only exception, but Plato makes up for his lack of money with his wit, sophistication and intelligence. We are talking early to mid-sixties. The crowd is essentially left-wing, intellectually honest, morally incorruptible and largely atheist. It is also a cosmopolitan crowd, though since the setting is Lahore, most of them are Punjabis. There’s Tipu, a Bengali communist from Chittagong, Hanif Ma, also called Confucius, an ethnic Hui from Yunnan, whose family has settled in Lahore and Jamshed, a Parsi. The honest, atheist, socialist, cosmopolitan values continue to rule the roost till the end of the novel and it is these values which Ali holds up as an example of modern Muslims, for the rest of the world to see.

Soon the friends finish college and leave Pakistan for greener and more diverse pastures. They don’t exactly keep in touch, because one of them, Zahid, is (wrongly) suspected of having betrayed Tipu, to the security forces who were on the lookout for him. However, their paths and the paths of their wives and girlfriends keeping crossing each other for the next forty or fifty odd years. I found Night of the Golden Butterfly to be a very interesting read because it gave me a glimpse into the mind of Ali. How secular and cosmopolitan is Ali? Very. How Punjabi is he? Equally so. Night of the Golden Butterfly has dialogues which are from the horse’s mouth, capturing the rustic and earthy Punjabi atmosphere of Lahore, which Dara, Plato and their other friends carry with them wherever they go.

Ali is a man of very strong likes and dislikes. In Night of the Golden Butterfly, Dick Cheney happens to one of the objects of his disaffection. Zahid turns out to be a successful doctor, married to Jindié, Confucius’s sister and Dara’s one-time heart-throb. Living in the US, Zahid turns Republican and is part of the medical team which operated on Dick Cheney (in one instance, this operation is said to take place in 1999, in another in 2000), saving his life. Jindié is true to her socialist, left-wing ethos and is bugged with Zahid. Zahid’s children don’t speak with him for a month. Then comes 9/11 and we are told that ‘within twenty-four hours of 9/11, Cheney instructed his staff to make sure that Zahid was removed from his medical team. The Muslim name was enough. He came home that night looking like a beaten dog.’ Zahid, Jindié and family moved to London within months after that. Now, I am pretty sure neither Dick Cheney nor any other senior White House official fired a member of his staff on account of religion, either before 9/11 or afterwards. True, Muslims did face (and continue to face) a lot of prejudice in the United States after 9/11, something brought out very well in Mohsin Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist, but to say that just after 9/11, Dick Cheney fired a doctor who was part of the team which had saved his life, is a bit over the top.

Similarly, the Pakistani army also gets its share of the overblown Tariq Ali pie. After introducing his readers to Naughty Lateef, ‘the spirited wife of a junior officer eager for promotion,’ who sleeps around with two generals at the same, leading them to fist cuffs, we are told that in the Pakistani army ‘the pretty wives of the more obedient junior and nor-so-junior officers were regarded as fair prey, occasionally to be had with the full agreement of the husbands eyeing a rapid promotion or a sinecure in the military-industrial enterprises and pleasantly surprised that their wives had turned out to be such lucrative investments.’ To begin with, there are the only two Generals at any given time in the Pakistani army, namely the Chief of Army Staff or COAS and the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, unless of course the Army Chief becomes the President of Pakistan, as Musharaff did, in which case the post of Vice Chief of Army Staff is created and the occupant would also be a General. Thus while the current Pakistani army chief is General Parvez Kayani and the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee is General Khalid Shameem Wynne, the next senior-most officer would be a Lt. General. This information is easily available on the internet and one would expect a writer of Ali’s stature to get his facts right. To say that Naughty Lateef was sleeping around with two Generals, (who are not shown to be at the apex of the army pyramid), and to show a third general heading the Inter-Services-Intelligence, which is currently headed by Lieutenant-General Zaheerul Islam, is downright silly. Also, it is very unlikely that the highly Islamized Pakistani army, for all its faults, has a widespread culture of senior officers taking up with the wives of junior officers.

I guess if Ali doesn’t like someone, he will go all out to attack him, even at the expense of the truth or his credibility. Ali does some thing very similar in The Book of Saladin, the second book in this quintet, where he claims that crusaders attacked and desecrated Mecca. Is Night of the Golden Butterfly fact disguised as fiction? Partly, yes. However, some of it is fiction, disguised as fact, within a work of fiction.

The best part of the book for me was Ali’s descriptions of Jindié’s and Confucius’s Hui ancestors and their life in Yunnan. In case you haven’t guessed, Jindié is the golden butterfly who has lent her name to the title. I had a vague idea that China has a Muslim minority generically referred to as Hui, who are very similar to the Han and speak mandarin or dialects of mandarin, but didn’t know till I read this novel that Yunnan province saw a rebellion against China’s Ming rulers in the middle of the nineteenth century in which a Muslim ruler held out against Ming China for eighteen years. Dù Wénxiù, uncle to Jindié’s and Confucius’s great-grandmother Quin-Shi, changed his name to Suleiman and banned the use of pork in Yunnan which had Kunming as its capital, though Dali was its most beautiful city. Sultan Suleiman was a moderate soul, one who treated all his subjects, both Hui and Han, Muslim and non-Muslim, alike. Likewise, his subjects, both Muslims and non-Muslims rallied around him, as he valiantly fought the Ming rulers, who had the support of traitors like Ma Rulong. Ultimately the rebellion failed and the Jindié’s and Confucius’s family left for Burma, from where, after a stint in Calcutta, they ended up in Lahore. Ali holds up the Hui rebellion in Yunnan as an example of how moderate and secular Muslims have been in the past, something on the lines of Moorish Spain or the Muslims in Sicily. Mind you, the description of the Yunnan rebellion forms a small part of the story.

The second best thing I liked about this book is Ali’s depiction of the upper class Pakistani elite, which sounds very authentic. Ali’s characters, who quote from Stendhal and Balzac at the drop of a hat, sleep around a lot. Dara goes to bed with two of Plato’s partners, Alice Stepford and later with the Sindhi beauty Zaynab, who was at one time, married to the Koran (so that her brothers could inherit her share of the ancestral property. I understand that marrying the Koran is not unheard of in Sindh. Incidentally Plato turns out to be impotent, despite much camouflage to the contrary and Dara takes up with Plato’s women only after he finds out. Dara never gets to sleep with Jindié though at one point he comes pretty close. Please read this book to find out why Dara and Jindié never get to make love – it’s got something to do with Dara’s love for coffee. Towards the end of the book, Jindié confesses to having had a couple of liaisons, one of which is, lest you start wondering if Dara and friends sleep only with fellow light-skins, with a Tanzanian. Of course, one in a while, a character from the higher stratum turns religious, as Jindié daughter Neelum does, though she is still a good human being. One friend, Anis, a closet homosexual, is tormented so much by his parents that he commits suicide. Jamshed the Parsi and Tipu the Bengali communist (and Zahid for a brief while) are the only ones who turn to mammon at the expense of their values and of these, Jamshed comes to serious grief.

Money is never an issue for Dara and friends. Either they are extremely successful in their chosen professions, like Zahid is, or they have inherited a lot of wealth or they have a lot of wealthy friends. The only time we see a glimpse of poverty is when Plato, after moving to the UK, is forced to work as a waiter, as a newsagent and finally as bus conductor. However, even then Plato doesn’t despair. Just like every upper middle class individual from the sub-continent, Dara and gang are used to being waited upon hand and foot. When visiting Zahid at his Richmond mansion, Dara, just to be difficult, asks for Pomegranate juice and is told it’s possible. Towards the end of the book, Dara, Zahid, Zaynab, Alice etc. are to congregate at Zaynab’s country mansion in Sindh where they get to see Plato’s final work. They arrive in Karachi. ‘Zaynab’s brother had thoughtfully organised a helicopter and we were met off the gangway by flunkeys. ……… The flunkeys took our passports and escorted us to the hotel’s VIP suite……….. We were taken to our guest cottages, with mine the closest to the house. I was greeted by a refrigerator overloaded with Muree beer, but demanded fresh lime juice without sugar and a jug of tamarind juice with ice and honey.

Does Night of the Golden Butterfly succeed in exhibiting a moderate and civilised Islam to the outside world? I am not too sure. You see, the bulk of the characters amongst Dara and Co. are practising atheists and left-wingers who have no right to claim to speak for the global Islamic community. More importantly, they form a very minuscule percentage of the global Ummah. Ali does make a few attempts to rope in the common Muslim on the street into the camaraderie and global fellowship exhibited by Dara and friends. We are told that once, ‘after giving a lecture in Olso, I dragged a group of newly arrived Punjabi migrants who attended my talk to the Munch museum to show them their new country’s greatest artist. Some were reluctant to waste precious time, but came anyway. All of them were stunned, and one, Salah, who became a dear friend, had moist eyes, as he whispered in Punjabi, “This is an artist who knew inner pain. Our Sufi poets say that the cure for that lies in oneself. Neither Allah nor a psychiatrist can help.” Do please take a look at Scream and decide for yourself if newly arrived Pakistani-Punjabi migrants in Norway are likely to be so touched by it.

Ali’s characters are deeply upset by the Islamophobia and anti-immigrant feelings aroused by 9/11. They fight back at times. When Zaynab is asked one too many times why female circumcision takes place among Muslims, she responds: “If men can be circumcised, why not women? It was a sign of our equality. Anything a man could bear, so could we.” Once while Zaynab is walking around in Paris, she sees an African man without papers being arrested by a gang of policemen. “It happens in Fatherland all the time, but here too Dara? I was really shocked. People watched in silence and turned away.” “Just like Fatherland,” I told her. “It happens all over Europe. In Italy, they love burning gypsies and taunting Muslims. Repression and cowardice in the face of it have become everyday occurrences. Africans from the colonies, kids from the banlieus, are often treated like shrivelled leaves. Kicked into the dirt. You’ll get used to it.” One is left in little doubt that repression in Paris hurt Dara & Co. much more than anything that might take place in Pakistan. Of course, the fact that Dara and his friends are very unlikely to be so tormented in Pakistan could be one reason for this dichotomy.

Here are links to my review of the first four books in this quintet:

Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree

The Book of Saladin

The Stone Woman

A Sultan in Palermo

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