Thursday, March 7, 2013


Against the Himalayas
March, 2013

Against the Himalayas

THINNER THAN SKIN: a novel by Uzma Aslam Khan - A story of identities and conflicts in the meeting place of nations, where differing interests and government indolence have torn through the country

The novel crackles with tension from the moment Nadir, Farhana, Irfan and Wes arrive in Pakistan with their excess emotional baggage. Like a braid that takes shape as separate strands are twisted together, here is a tale that is somewhat scattered in the beginning but gains beauty and form to a tense close.  The story is set against the backdrop of Nadir, a Pakistani man’s sudden relationship with Farhana, and Pakistan’s breathtaking northern grandeur. In Gilgit and Kaghan and Hunza it winds skilfully through glaciers (are they really seeded the way it is bewitchingly described in the book?), the magical Saif ul Muluk lake, and valleys, while silent as an owl a menace flits throughout the pages.
There are magical analogies such as of the magnificent Malika Parbat peak, whose lovers ‘were not meant to gaze at her directly’ but in the lake, like the mirror ceremony at weddings where the bride and groom glimpse each other for the first time.
The cast is drawn with a sensitive hand, with a few problems: Farhana’s father in the US, an ex tabla player accepts his daughter’s boyfriend with paradoxical ease, and Nadir’s descriptions of Farhana are initially in too feminine a voice. But Nadir’s uncommunicative father, and anxious mother are eminently familiar, fed on the fable that Farhana is Wes’s sister travelling with them. What Farhana, ‘one of those people who liked to receive a reaction,’ without waiting very long for it is is something that Farhana has herself yet to figure out. Her German mother and Pakistani father have been rejected by their families. Farhana herself left Pakistan as a very young child. On this, her very first visit ‘back’ as she called it in an unguarded moment, she is uncertain of her own place in the country of her birth, a problem that is echoed time without count today. Can she belong, or is she the foreigner who befriends the locals and gives them a respite from their harsh lives; or should she and Wes stick to their study of glaciers? These questions of relationships and identity run right through the story to its end.
Other more sinister strands run through the book such as the hunt for the accomplice to a bombing in Karachi, Farhana’s patronage of the little nomadic girl Kiran, and its repercussions on the local community.
It was Nadir who said, ‘You cannot barge into a place thinking you can fix it. Who are you? What makes you think you can do that?’ but it was equally illustrated by Maryam, Kiran’s mother’s distaste for the Australian sheep the locals are made to purchase in place of the local breed. Ill suited to the new environment and eventually more costly, the sheep produce forty kilograms of meat as opposed to the locals’ twenty, and eight kilograms of wool as opposed to two that the local sheep produced.  But the longer wool is liable to catch in the local brush they are unable to forage effectively for themselves, and their owners are forced to change their itinerant habits to provide their fodder. It is one of the most important messages in the book, conveyed better here than in any lengthy report.
Here in the meeting place of nations identities are interchangeable and uncertain, as in the reversible shawls Nadir buys Farhana. Here in the same eating place pulau is referred to as palov, pilaff, polu and pilau. Differing interests and government indolence have torn through the country, Arab falconry in the face of a ban, the trouble in Waziristan, the bombings, the Drones, the presence of the army and plain clothes spies and their abuse of the local population.
How can there be no bombing and general unrest?
At the same time as Drone attacks in a village are avenged with the death of seven Pakistanis and one Chinese man, traditional nomadic hospitality wars with sense and a killer wanders through the landscape leaving a false trail for the locals and readers alike.
Nominated for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, this book is an important step in the discovery of Pakistan and political and social relationships.

Monday, March 4, 2013


Whatever will be, will be

If a site plan exists for connections from the main gas pipe to houses, the men from Sui Northern didn’t have it. Seeing them searching for this connection, Lala, the chawkidar next door, suggested they dug at a certain spot. By the end of the day and after trying everywhere else, it was as if an amnesic dog had been looking for a misplaced bone: enormous mounds of dirt and large open pits dotted the verge, punctuated by dusty men. When they finally took their spades to the chawkidar’s spot, they found what they were looking for.

It’s where gas connections usually are, shrugged Lala next door.

Perhaps Sui Northern should consider employing Lala in a bid to improve efficiency.

The six men demolished the green strip and part of the road outside our house, and here’s how the two who actually worked eventually fixed the pipe to the mains: they positioned the new pipe, then welded the pipe to the mains, with a blowtorch. When asked why the blowtorch had been used without switching off the gas at the mains first, the leader of the team said “Hum to aisay hi kartay hain, ji”, followed by the ubiquitous, “Allah malik hai”.

Just to make sure you get the full import of what was done: they did not turn off the gas before exposing it to the flame. So a human stood at this end of a potential inferno and wasn’t blown up, because... well, if God gave people what they deserved every time, there would be few persons left alive in this country.

                                                       massive gas explosion in Virginia

In the Punjab, where this incident took place, safety measures are conspicuous by their absence, and it is macho to be indifferent to security. Punjab is not alone. There is a callous indifference to loss of life and the security of the living throughout the country.

Language has a considerable impact on actions. The cliché ridden language the Pakistani public is fed and has become used to, has taught them to accept lies, shoddy work, laziness, and actions that are at variance with the spoken word, all under a pious umbrella.

Such a conclusion from an inefficient team of workmen may seem extreme, but it is not. The Sui Northern case is just one small example that reflects the whole.

At the garment factory in Baldia Town in Karachi, the scene of Pakistan’s biggest and most tragic industrial disasters, almost 300 people died. There were no safety procedures, nor any emergency exits in the factory. This January, reporters visited the factory again. No lessons had been learnt from the event. Other factories in the vicinity still had grills on the windows, because of which workers were earlier unable to leave the premises. According to workers in these other factories, no safety measures had been taken, still. Only one man said the factory he worked in had fire escapes and workers had been trained in evacuation procedures. Possibly the owner of this factory had a dim inkling of the extent to which God is willing to be pushed.

After the fire, Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf announced a financial compensation for the victims’ families. His rhetoric on the occasion is easy to imagine. And then just a few months later on the PM’s own orders, murder charges against the owners of the factory were dropped with no explanation. There were objections, and Dr Ishratul Ebad asked President Zardari to reconsider the decision. He was assured by the president in the usual grandiloquent manner that the families would not be dealt with unjustly. And the case is set to join others in that well populated place in Pakistan called Oblivion.

Several other fires have taken place since, and many took place earlier. Many people died, and many were injured. Short circuits and other factors have been cited as the cause but it brought memories of the one occasion when a man, entrusted with some wiring twisted the blue wires to the red ones despite explicit directions on keeping the same colours together. His response when questioned was “ji sona lagda ay” (they look pretty this way), and of course the earnest reassurance that “Allah malik hai”.

Who knows when the next factory will go up in flames, but inshallah it will never happen again, and security measures will never be put into place, and if they are, will never be followed. Because whatever will be, will be – que sera sera. Allah malik hai ji. Ameen.