Broken Verses–Kamila Shamsie


This novel has a slow start, but the premise is lovely. Aasmani is a young woman struggling with loss.  Her mother was a feminist activist living “in sin” with Pakistan’s greatest poet, who was brutally murdered presumably by government agents.  One day she walked out to the sea and never returned, presumed dead by all by Aasmani, who by turns rages against her mother leaving her over and over as a child and then that final day, and who hopes and believes that she is still alive somewhere, perhaps looking for the Poet, whose body was beaten nearly beyond recognition, and whose identification was confirmed by a distant relative who had not seen him in years.  Aasmani struggles, also, against any expectation that she might follow in either of their footsteps, and she frustrates her family, her very stable father, stepmother, and sister, by underperforming in mediocre jobs at which she never stays long.

She is just started in one of these mediocre jobs for a television station when she is caught up in a mystery that gives her hope that the Poet, at least, may still be alive. Her mother’s friend, Shehnaz, has returned to acting and brings with her letters written in the code.  Aasmani’s mother and the Poet created the code to correspond during those times when one or both needed to leave the country for a time—and only they and Aasmani knew it.  The letters purport to be from the Poet, who has been kept prisoner for years.  Aasmani decodes the letters and begins to trust Shehnaz’s son, Ed, who delivers the letters to her and allows her to share her doubts and hopes about the letters.

Shamsie creates an intriguing portrait of Karachi and characters set in Pakistan who are like all of us in their griefs and hopes, but different in their political/personal realities. The fraught mother/daughter relationship takes center stage rather than the political oppression of women or the political corruption and turmoil in which they live.  Those items, so often given the spotlight, are context.  Broken Verses is a worthwhile read, if not a quick one.


Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition–Nisid Hajari

midnights furies

Never before have I read a history that gave me nightmares. I will never forget the ghastly scenes of massacre in this one.

I do not know much about non-western history, but I knew enough to know about India’s partition to know that it was bloody.  What I did not know was how bloody for how long and to what degree.  Nisid Hajari is not a historian, but a journalist.  To tell this story he used what he calls “demi-official” records:  personal papers of those involved, including politicians, diplomats, spies, and ordinary people when possible.  He, of course, also appeals to newspapers and other media outlets of the time.

Hajari begins with India still under British rule, but in that period during which independence was certain, but the details were still being negotiated.  Three personalities dominate his narrative:  Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League; Nehru, leader of the Hindu Congress; and Montbatten, the Brit comissioned to bring the whole lot to independence.  Jinnah comes off poorly–a failed dandy and a paranoid politician who foments fears whose consequences he does not think through.  Nehru comes off nearly as badly.  He is an idealist, a follower of Gandhi, who wants big change, but does not have the leadership skills to move beyond his early style of personal leadership to the grand stage.  This becomes clear when riots are raging against Muslims in Indian cities and Nehru, unable to sleep, storms around the streets confronting mobs, as if he could stop the violence one person at a time.  Such adventures were heroic, but also pitiful and pitiable.  Montbatten is the rational, charismatic Brit in over his head and forced to deal with a difficult situation and two big characters, one of whom seems immune to his charisma (Jinnah).  His decision to move ahead independence, while noted to be a huge mistake, is not given nearly enough responsibility for what ensues.

That is my overall critique of Hajari’s narrative.  Because he begins in 1946, so much of what undergirded the tensions between Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs goes unexplored.  The role of the British themselves in fomenting hostilities between the groups, as they did elsewhere in other colonies, in order to divide and so not only conquer but rule more quietly, is left untouched.  In fact, in the first half of the book, I was repeatedly annoyed by the way the British seemed civilized observers of their less civilized and mostly mad (former) colonists.

Once independence occurred, however, it became difficult to argue that anyone was truly civilized or that civilization itself is more than a veneer.  As each side ramped up fears of the other, Jinnah to guarantee he would receive an independent Pakistan, the Sikhs to defend against depredations and division in the Punjab, and Hindus to counter fears of Muslims, roving gangs began attacking, then torturing and massacring their fellow Indians who practiced the wrong faith.  As in nearly every case of such violence, the violence against women and children was particularly cruel.  Not only were they murdered, they were humiliated and violated before being put to death.  When such treatment was not actually happening, rumors of it happening were used to fuel the violation and degradation of women on the other side of the conflict.  Train cars of mutilated corpses passed from India to Pakistan and vice versa.  Sikhs sat calmly on train station platforms waiting for the arrival of cars full of people to massacre and planned military-style campaigns to root Muslims out of the countryside.  Hajari never gives a total for those lost in the months surrounding partition, much less a total that includes those attacked alongside the Kashmir and Hyderabad military campaigns.  I found myself wondering 1) how the peoples of India get along at all today and 2) how their population rebounded from such tremendous losses.

Gandhi is assassinated.  Jinnah dies from tuberculosis.  Nehru has a long reign and India enjoys a period of stability denied to Pakistan.  Pakistan is born a country of paranoia with a sense of deprivation, which it uses to justify the use of non-official guerilla campaigns against its neighbor.  Hajari quickly traces, in the last two pages, Pakistan’s turn to fundamentalist Islam to unify its people in the face of repeated losses on the battlefield and economic failure.

This book begs two more stories.  First, the story of the use of religious division by British colonizers in India and second, the story of Pakistan’s internal politics since the death of Jinnah.  If Hajari’s quick notes at the end are even close to accurate, the British have much to answer for in the way they handled Indian independence and the way they set up or enhanced the divisions that created the fault lines revealed in that independence.

A mechanical critique.  Hajari uses the names of his characters with great ease and fluidity, which can be difficult for a reader new to this topic.  Jinnah is also the Quaid.  Nehru is also Jawaharlal.  There are many, many names in this story and I had trouble keeping the players straight, which was made more difficult by Hajari’s inconsistent naming, even of key players.  More consistency or, even better, a table with the major players, would have been a huge reading aid, along with a map noting key cities and provinces, especially those in which conflict was heaviest.

I am grateful to Hajari for writing a book that has seared this story onto my memory and that will push me to read and learn more.  His introduction and conclusion convinced me that doing so is crucial to understanding global politics today.

Finished 4/26/15