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.