Thursday, 12 December 2013

Book review: Shadow of the Crescent moon is drive by non-fiction

-originally published by Sunday Guardian 16th November 2011

by Aneela Z Babar


Leblanc believes that our ‘social transportations’ are like our identities, so in Bicycle Citizens (1999) she negotiates the streets of Oizumi perched on a bicycle, following the paths a Japanese housewife might use while dealing with the political system. As a result, Leblanc too starts to ‘see’ the political world as the ‘housewife politician’ does.

Fatima Bhutto in her interviews has spoken about how she has had opportunities growing up, and recently as a journalist, to visit the Land Beyond Peshawar-Bara Border, that she has travelled a lot; to Quetta, to Afghan refugee camps in Peshawar. The Shadow of the Crescent Moon could then have provided us with the vantage point of an insider/outsider to a land forever blighted to live in newspaper headlines as the “troubled tribal region of Waziristan”. Sadly, the town of Mir Ali—the theatre of the main action in The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, only comes across as how one would imagine a restive border town to appear out from a taxi window. These are snapshots. It is drive-by narrative non-fiction. Shadowed gullies. Snot smeared children and battery chicken. Bhutto’s characters flounder about in segments that read as “a situation round up” of Waziristan— (hyperlinks one may click at the end of a news report to get 200 word “Who is X and why do they hate Y so”) and their lived world of muddled spaces. Kitchens with people mumbling, sitting rooms where mourners gather, cold vacant stairways where students conspire.

Bhutto is writing about people whom I can recognize, a point in space, a moment in time I may have frequented once but I have none of the elation I would have, say reading Shamsie (Salt and Saffron for one that cunningly unpacked class and spatial politics in Pakistan). There is none of the putting down a book and buying a copy for a friend “Here, these are our stories”. It could be for Shadow.. narrates a surreal cartography, a land where the markers of Eid appears so late in the book, though it keeps on reminding us that it is Eid day right from the first page. The characters inhabit a strange landscape where “ladies...clutching their bags of material and patterns” visit the reluctant tailor, who hands them “the measuring tape and turned his back while they shyly read out their measurements. As Zulfiqar copied the numbers down, he blushed”. When these reticent, bashful exchanges could just be avoided if they carried a naap ki kamiz as women do in their bags along with the material and patterns. The strange land of Mir Ali is stuck in a time warp where Eid is in December, when the reader may know that the last time it was Eid in December, it was 2008. And The Shadow of the Crescent Moon cannot be set in the Eid of 2008 (or the years before that) for it has been months since its protagonist Aman Erum returned from his years in the US, and years since his visa interview at the US Embassy where he reads about a President Obama justifying drones off a news ticker on TV. So Toto, where are we?
So a tale of three brothers and a rain swept Friday Eid morning.
Aman Erum, the eldest, has always wanted to get out of Mir Ali and the family business, and so earlier in the book he sells his soul to the Army-Amreeka nexus. Thus, forever making us view the Pakistani student abroad as not only torn between the With Us or Against Us predicamen; but with now the binary divisions getting further redefined with the students abroad being either preoccupied with ablutions and maintaining gender segregation or spying on his/her compatriots. Doomed if you do, visa revoked if you don’t.

Sikander—a textbook middle child, is a doctor at the government hospital, when he is not racing over rescuing his wife Mina, her emotional health on a quick downward spiral. Mina’s character sketch alternates between the calm she experiences gate crashing funerals, stalking and laying claim to the grief in the “lines of other mother’s faces”, gathering solace from there being a “community of widows and the bereft who knew how she suffered”; and returning “vengefully to the wounded woman that spat and swore and paced until she was let out again”. There is something feral about Mina as she scours the newspaper pages for death notices and obituaries; a silent despair as her husband Sikander watches her, seeing flashes of the woman he remembers from a time ago, but that woman “comes and goes in waves”. There is something to how the two relate to each other that reminded me of another couple-- Sufiya Zinobia Hyder and Omar Khayyam Shakil from Rushdie’s Shame, or perhaps Mina and Sikander are just drawn this way.

Samarra, the young woman with the beauty spot in her eye, is the one that Aman Erum loved once, still does, but there is a betrayal that divides them now. Her character now has to negotiate sentences like “One can track operations in Mir Ali based on Samarra’s syntax”.

There is also the mysterious Colonel Tarek with his ZiaulHaq “eyes weighed down by darkly lined bags and small smatterings of sunspots” playing with his wedding ring slowly and speaking in foreboding tones slower.
And then there is Hayat, the youngest son, the rebel who now questions the cause. But before that he has to manoeuvre the most socially awkward exchange that comes across as Bhutto chooses to translate select endearments in the text into Pashto.

In this case Zainab, the classic filmy white haired widow mother reaches out and “mouths in Pashto into her son’s citrus-scented ear”

a ‘Za tasara mina kawam,’

Translated as, I love you.
Now Pashtun mothers will articulate their love for their sons in many tongues, but to phrase it in the literal sense? As in how one would field the “So what is I love you in Pushto?” query we are accosted with (once you are done answering that other question, “Are there any cuss words in Pashto?”—Only in Mir Ali I would say.

‘Wale?’ he (Hayat) breaths back. Why?

My Thoughts Exactly.
Samarra and her ill fated love affair, Hayat, Sikander, Mina, Aman Erum, the Colonel and the city of Mir Ali quickly plummet towards their heart wrenching end, but not before Mina has had the chance to launch herself onto a Talib in a most jiyala fashion
“Zalim! Der zalim aye! Bey insaf!”
I half expected her to end in a “Zalimo! Jawab Do Zulm Ka Hisaab Do” but I dont think the Pushto subtitles for that were ready yet.
The Talib true to bad cinematic form unleashes a
‘Khaza—‘ Woman. He tries to interrupt her, to remind her of her place and their space but nothing can reach Mina now’.
Déjà vu, I am sitting in a Peshawar cinema watching Badar Munir brandishing a Kalashnikov, all the while dreading being blown up by a suicide bomber.
These things probably never end well.