Saturday Features

Burning, raging

  • page turner
- Richa Bhattarai

Oct 6, 2018-

In how many ways can you write on loyalties in times of war, fragility and manipulation? Karachi-born author Kamila Shamsie has just done this, for the seventh time, in her latest novel Home Fire. Through her usual brilliant writing, she makes the subject matter seem as novel, raw and hard-hitting as if she were exploring this politically fraught and religion-ridden world for the very first time.

The novel is quite contemporary in this setting. Beginning in the US, a large part of it in London and a few characters spread out in Syria before finally ending in Pakistan, the book delicately examines the angst and trauma of being a British Muslim in these distrustful times. Two sisters, Isma and her ‘almost-child’ Aneeka, are pitted against the British Home Secretary Karamat Lone, the son of Pakistani parents who denounces (and is denounced by) any act of faith or religion that might sully his cosmopolitan, secular image. First, Karamat is spiteful of the sisters for being daughters of a jihadi, then wary of them for being sisters of a jihadi, and finally, punishing towards them for being, respectively, lover and protector of his own son Eamonn. It is very much a modern incongruity laid bare through Skype calls, Twitter trends and tabloid pieces, a brittle discord creeping into every family, society and religion.

And yet, it is a novel as old as time, for it is Shamsie’s interpretation of the Sophoclean tragedy Antigone. Just as Antigone defied the regime of the king and god to fight for a proper burial for her brother Polyneices, here too, the fierce Aneeka accompanies her brother Parvaiz’s corpse and demands that she be allowed to take it back home—home meaning England, where the Home Secretary does not want her or her ‘terrorist’ brother back.

This baseless vilification of all Muslims, the dread they seem to incite in everyone but particularly members of ‘civilised’ countries, is something Shamsie tackles head-on in the novel—she shows, underlines, highlights this othering. In the first chapter, which is Isma’s narration, we follow her as she is interrogated endlessly at the airport, questioned on “Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, the Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites.” After enduring much humiliation, she misses her flight, which would have taken her to her university.

Even then, she is a picture of restraint, the sensible sister who tries to keep her twin siblings from crumbling apart after their jihadi father dies on the way to Guantanamo, and their mother follows suit. While her sister copes relatively well and is on her way to a law degree, the brother is enticed by a jihadi agent to work on sound effects for ISIS propaganda videos in Raqqa. The sisters’ lives, already tainted by their charming but fickle father Adil Pasha—‘Pash, short for Passion’—have to continue under a great veil of secrecy. This secrecy continues well into Isma’s encounter with Parvaiz, and then, later, in the fervent ardour flaring up between Parvaiz and Aneeka, which fuels the entire story. This secrecy, mystery, clandestineness—just like the characters, readers can almost be unable to discern right and wrong, the calculative and innocent, the virtuous and scheming. It is a thrilling yet thought-provoking unfolding, page for page.

The essence of every Shamsie novel is obsession—a daughter clinging to her mother’s memories, a friend preoccupied with another, a son infatuated with his father, a teenager fanatical about his country, and almost always, the lover and the beloved so in unison, they are one and the same. In Home Fire, Aneeka is a besotted sister looking to protect her twin by befriending the son of the Home Secretary, but soon she becomes a devoted lover and cannot bear to part from either of them. What began as a plan soon becomes a game, and then, inevitably, disaster. After surviving state-level interventions and media distortions of their love story, it is a both relief and agony as Shamsie ends their romance with these words: “For a moment they are two lovers in a park, under an ancient tree, sun-dappled, beautiful and at peace.”

Another obsession the novel warns about is the ‘utopia’ which has fascinated youngsters (and the not-so-young) across all ages, time and space. It is the promise of such an egalitarian state that Farooq the agent makes to lure Parvaiz into Syria: “A place where migrants coming into join are treated like kings, given more in benefits than the locals to acknowledge all they’ve given up to reach there. A place where skin color doesn’t matter. Where schools and hospitals are free, and rich and poor have the same facilities… Where you could speak openly about your father, with pride, not shame.”

This dangerous promise, enough to appeal to a nineteen-year-old, is also painfully reminiscent of almost all fights for identity, equality and justice that dot the pages of history. It is also a reminder of how a continuation of the same patterns, of pushing the marginalised still farther away from the brink, can lead to explosions, flare-ups, wildfires that no one can control.

After narrations from five characters that talk of their anguish and worries, their struggle for power and search for acceptance, events and thoughts merge into a fantastic climax—not entirely unexpected, quite a bit dramatic, but still gut-wrenching. It could so easily have tipped into farce, a reiteration of numerous books and movies—it is only Shamsie’s authoritative writing, her ability to make readers develop an intimate connection with her characters that stops it from being so. All through the novel, her writing is flawless, sometimes honey, other times bitter coffee, reminding readers of a story of injustice and contradictions that has been repeated and retold a hundred thousand times, and still rings true at this very moment. It is a conflicting, complex and critical read that every individual, and indeed, each state, must attempt to unravel.

Author: Kamila Shamsie

Publisher: Bloomsbury India

Price: Rs 800

Pages: 260

Published: 06-10-2018 08:15

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