Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Book Review: A God in Every Stone, by Kamila Shamsie

I have always wanted to read Kamila Shamsie, a Pakistani writer based in London, one of the most well-known amongst Pakistani writers of this generation, her reputation on par with say, Mohammad Hanif or Daniyal Mueenuddin. From the blurb of the recently released A God in Every Stone, I was led to believe that I had a thriller in my hands, what with its mention of an young English woman named Vivian Rose Spencer, discovering a temple of Zeus in Ottoman lands, a young Pathan soldier returning home after losing an eye at the Battle of Ypres, a brutal fight for freedom in Peshawar, an ancient artefact and yet another attractive woman, this one green-eyed. The initial pages only added to the feeling that I was on to a page-turner since the Author’s Note tells us that ancient Caria, a part of modern day Turkey, was once a part of the Persian Empire and that the city of Caspatyrus, possibly the old name for Peshawar, lay on its eastern fringes. The novel begins with an extract from 515 BC and we see Scylax with a silver circlet (the ancient artefact!) in his hands, all set to explore the Indus. I was convinced that I was on to something akin to a Wilbur Smith classic set in ancient Egypt.

Though I was entirely misled by initial appearances and impressions, I bear no ill-will towards Shamsie, a case of asking a fruit-seller for a kilogram of fruit, any fruit, the brown paper bag smelling of apples and the pears turning out to be very delicious. Shamsie’s tale travels through various eras, from ancient Persia to the Ottoman Empire to Peshawar in British India. More importantly, it draws parallels between the Carian revolt against Persia, in which the once-loyal Scylax, described by Herodotus as Kai de Kai, one of Darius’s most trusted, played a role and World War veteran Qayyum Gul’s role in the Indian freedom movement, as a soldier in Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan's non-violent Khudai Khidmatgars.

The most outstanding feature of A God in Every Stone is Shamsie’s prose, very British and very beautiful, which weirdly reminded me of Nick Griffin‘s rant about BBC newsreaders who were "glamourous Asian girls with cut-glass English accents”. Vivian Spencer meets a one-eyed Pathan soldier on a train to Peshawar in July 1915. As she alights at Peshawar, she befriends a twelve year old boy, who we later find, turns out to be the one-eyed soldier’s brother. What are the chances of such an incident happening, one might normally wonder, but when one reads Shamsie, one doesn’t wonder since Shamsie makes it sounds so natural though she does make a big deal out of the coincidence. Najeeb Gul, the twelve year old who Vivian had earlier befriended, taught Greek and motivated to seek echelons of higher learning becomes the Indian Assistant at the Peshawar Museum. Najeeb has inherited Vivian’s dreams of finding the silver circlet and in 1930, Najeeb persuades Senior Lecturer Vivian Spencer from University College, London to return to Peshawar to help him find Scylax’s silver circlet. Back in Peshawar, Vivian meets elder brother Qayyum Gul and lo, and behold! Vivian realises that she has met him before. What’s more, Qayyum Gul too remembers the fleeting meeting from many years ago. Once again thanks to Shamsie’s effortlessly eloquent prose, eyebrows aren’t raised.

Shamsie also displays an eye for the extra-ordinary detail, such as when she describes how, when Vivian Rose Spencer meets Qayyum Gul on a train in British India, she knows exactly why Qayyum Gul’s good eye is chapped and reddened. I believe Shamsie when she says that all men who lose an eye, especially those who do so in battle, keep rubbing the survivor for fear of it suffering the slightest damage. Shamsie’s explanation sounds so authentic that I don’t care if Shamsie made that one up or if she did some research. I mean, any man who loses an eye, especially in battle, is bound to keep rubbing the good eye in order to keep it safe. Period. In Shamsie’s hands, all of the characters, from the extremely liberal Vivian Spencer to the Gul brothers to Vivian’s parents to the Ottoman Turkish Archaeologist Tahsin Bey, come alive in believable three dimensions.

For me, Shamsie’s description of British ruled Peshawar (1915-1930) was a revelation, with its Hindu money lenders and traders from Tashkent, Tibet and various other parts of Asia. In the Peshawar of those days, the city’s Buddhist past was not hidden from public view. Rather God actually seems to have existed behind every stone in that beautiful city. I am not sure if that's the case anymore. In any event, I am in no doubt that the Peshawar of yore was a lot more tolerant and cosmopolitan than the present one which is reeling under the Taliban’s thumb. The descriptions of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his red shirts, the Khudai Khidmatgars, only added to my conviction. Just as interesting and authentic is Shamsie’s portrayal of the Pathan soldiers’ lives in war torn France and in England and their relationships with French women and British nurses.


I have read very many volumes of excellent prose to wonder at the end, so what was it all about? It is a well-known fact that many leading litterateurs are incapable of stringing together a decent tale, from beginning to the end. Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone does not fall in that category, though I wouldn’t give Shamsie more than 6 out of 10 for story telling. The novel starts off with twenty two year old Vivian trying to understand her own feelings for her father’s friend Tahsin Bey, twenty five years older, but still an active and attractive man. Close on the heels comes Tahsin Bey’s betrayal by Vivian. Once the novel moves to Peshawar, the reader is allowed to forget the past and leave all that behind. As mentioned earlier, Najeeb Gul grows up to become the Indian Assistant at the Peshawar Museum. Qayyum joins the Khudai Khidmatgars after mulling over the alternate option, to sign up with a Jihadi fighter on the other side of the border. Towards the end, on 28 April 1930 at the Storytellers Market, British troops massacre a number of Red Shirts and Najeeb Gul goes missing. There is so much speculation on whether Najeeb Gul is still alive that one forgets all about the silver circlet and ceases to care about it. Is the silver circlet found at all or is it consigned to the graveyard, as happened to the victims of the massacre? Do please read this wonderful book to find out for yourself.


Kumar said...

A very interesting blog. Read quite a few posts on Indian Intelligence and Book Reviews. Of course, I have not read many of the books reviewed by you including your own as well as A God in Every Stone. Since you write well, the books authored by you surely must be quite good.

All the best & cheers

Winnowed said...

Dear Kumar, thank you very much. I took a quick look at your blog and it looks very interesting.

Anonymous said...

Another excellent classic indeed! The difference between shamsie and kant is simple that shamsie in her writings tends to be loyal to her ethnicity, city, & nation. She is a proud Pakistani, while kant like other writers (sometimes of indian ethnicity)try to malign and paint a gloomy picture.of Pakistan (No offence to vinod the reviewer). Im from peshawar i see tolerant people everyday unfortunately the glib media and 2 billion dollar investment in Afghanistan from across the border has a hand in all the mischievousness caused in Pakistan. This is just what we Pakistani's feel & face everyday and please no offence to you in anyway vinod i loved your excellent review. Thank you Keep it up