Basti by Intizar Husain

This is a Pakistani novel from 1979, set during Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan, but with lots of flashbacks — to a pre-Partition life in India, to Partition and the migration to Pakistan — and dreams going further back still, to India’s First War of Independence.*


The earliest scenes of pre-Partition India are seen, through a child’s eyes, as idyllically multicultural, which makes Partition a sort of fall from grace. Partially that’s just the contrast between the innocence of the child and the cynicism of the adult; but there is a sense reading the book of a great deal of political and ideological energy being expended and great changes being achieved, and none of it making life appreciably better.

Politics aside, it’s just a very well-written novel (hat-tip to Frances W. Pritchett for the translation). As well as the flashbacks, parts of it are in the form of letters, diary entries and dreams. The result is atmospheric and impressionistic, and occasionally confusing, especially for those of us who don’t have the cultural context. But it has a very strong sense of place, a great eye for detail, well-drawn characters and natural-sounding dialogue.

This is the second book from Pakistan I’ve read for the Read The World challenge; I felt I ought to be able to do better than the last one (Kartography by Kamila Shamsie), which was fine but nothing special. Basti is a definite improvement.

*i.e. the Indian Mutiny/Rebellion/Revolt of 1857.

» The photo of the Tomb of Bibi Jawindi is from Wikipedia; it’s by Shah zaman baloch and used under a CC by-sa licence.


Things posted to Tumblr: Gandhara bodhisattvas

I’ve been enjoying posting stuff to A London Salmagundi, and I find the convention of posting pictures without commentary rather liberating, because I am a relentless tweaker of my own prose and constitutionally incapable of being brief. But sometimes I find myself wanting to explain why I think a particular image is so interesting or beautiful. So this is the first of what may be a series: ‘things I posted to Tumblr’.

These bodhisattvas are from the part of the world that US foreign policy types refer to as ‘AfPak’; the top one, the older of the two, is from Hadda, now on the Afghan side of the border; the other is from Peshawar in Pakistan. But when these were made, and for over a millennium, it was the location of the Gandhara kingdom.

I only know that because I just looked it up on Wikipedia. But what I did already know was that these are in a tradition called ‘Greco-Buddhist’. This is art from a place where two worlds meet. Alexander the Great conquered the area from the Persians in the 4th century BC; hundreds of years later, the Hellenistic influence was still powerful enough to result in works like these.

That top one, from 1st-3rd century AD, is particularly extraordinary and particularly beautiful, I think. The style is recognisably Greek; the hair, the sculpting of the features. But the face looks Indian, and he has the long ears of the bodhisattva.

The other, slighter later (3rd-5th century) is less remarkable, less strikingly classical; more what one expects a bodhisattva to look like. But it’s still a lovely thing.

Just the existence of Greco-Buddhist art was amazing to me, because Alexander the Great and Buddhism lived in completely different parts of my brain. It’s like reading one of those counter-factual novels — what would modern Britain have been like if the Nazis had won the war? —  except, you know, it’s actually real. There really was somewhere where Buddhist monasteries were decorated in the style of ancient Greek temples.

The fact that the resulting art is beautiful just makes it even better.

» The Hadda bodhisattva at the Musée Guimet; the Peshawar bodhisattva at the V&A.


Kartography by Kamila Shamsie

Kartography is my book from Pakistan for the Read The World challenge. It’s a novel set in Karachi in the 90s with flashbacks to the 70s and particularly the 1971 civil war when East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Raheen and Karim have a tangled relationship which parallels, and is haunted by, the tangled relationships of their parents twenty years earlier. It’s a love story, a family saga, a book about ethnic and class tensions in Pakistan.

Given that the Read The World challenge has lead me to some pretty obscure and unusual books, it was a nice change of speed to be reading some mainstream literary fiction that was actually written in English. But I wasn’t blown away by this one. I was quite pleased with it when I first picked it up: Shamsie can certainly write, and it’s well observed and lively… but after a while it started to annoy me slightly. The dramatic contrivances are just a bit too contrived and a bit too relentless: every page has to ratchet up the emotional tension, so there’s a constant stream of twists and misunderstanding and surprises. There’s never a lull or a pause; it’s a bit soap-operaish in its piling up of plot devices.

So I didn’t hate it, but I probably could have found a better book for a country like Pakistan. Quite possibly I would have enjoyed one of Shamsie’s other books more, for that matter. But there you go; win some lose some.

» How fast you want to go? is © Edge of Space and used under a CC by-nc licence.


Just not cricket

What a complete farce. I just hope the England players and management have the sense to keep their heads down and stay out of the argument as much as possible. Let Pakistan and the ICC sort it out between themselves.

EDIT: Simon Barnes is good on this.


The ‘cricket test’

Talking about cricket and politics yesterday, one thing I didn’t mention was Norman Tebbit’s famous ‘cricket test’. Tebbit is a Conservative politician, and in an interview in 1990, he said

A large proportion of Britain’s Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for? It’s an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?

I actually think he’s right that it’s an interesting test, even if it’s a mistake to read too much into it. After all, if someone is from a Pakistani family and has grown up with a cricket-mad father telling them stories of Javed Miandad and Imran Khan, it’s natural for them to support Pakistan and that sporting allegiance doesn’t necessarily prove anything about their patriotism. It’s only cricket, after all. And yet you kind of hope that somewhere along the line it would seem natural for them to support England.

The reason I bring it up is that yesterday England were playing Pakistan in Leeds, a city with a large Pakistani community. Playing for England was Sajid Mahmood, and some of the crowd were chanting ‘traitor’ at him. Which seems a bit pointed. It didn’t seem to harm his bowling — the opposite if anything, he took 4 for 22 in eight overs — and he laughed it off afterwards, saying “It was probably my dad down there instigating it!” But still, it’s another example of cricket’s habit of getting dragged into the politics of post-imperial multicultural Britain.


Pakistan Quake

At least 19,000‘ may have been killed by an earthquake in Pakistan. England’s newly popular cricket team are playing in Pakistan in a month’s time. Please, someone, find a way of using this to raise a lot of money for charity. Who’ll be the first bank to offer a donation for each run scored by Andrew Flintoff?