I had often heard it said in the last couple of years that while Indian authors in English had made a name for themselves internationally and were widely read worldwide for quite some time now, Pakistani writers had of late started to catch up too. In that context, Kamila Shamsie’s name often came up as the one to watch out for.
That, and the glowing blurbs on the jacket from the likes of Salman Rushdie and William Dalrymple, made me pick up this book by Kamila Shamsie. Well, if nothing, this book brought home to me, not for the first time, the fact that blurbs mean nothing. And certainly any by Salman Rushdie ought to be taken with a pinch of salt–this being the third book boasting of a blurb from him which I found totally blah.
The main problem with this novel is the plot. A good plot, I understand, has to have a few twists and turns to keep the reader interested. However, just as everywhere else, the law of diminishing returns operates here too–too much of any good thing is a bad thing.
And so it is with Burnt Shadows–the plot is so convoluted as to be totally implausible. For you to like a novel, you’ve got to relate to the situations being described at some level– and it is difficult to relate to the events in this novel because they are so obviously contrived.
Consider this– Hiroko, a young Japanese schoolteacher based in Nagasaki, finds her world reduced to a smouldering heap of ash on a fateful August day in 1945. Her German fiance (it is not quite clear what he was doing in Japan) and most of Hiroko’s family perish. With nowhere to go, she eventually ends up in Delhi and that too in the summer of 1947, a few months before independence and the accompanying partition.
Why Delhi? Because her deceased fiance’s estranged half-sister Ilse was there, married to a high-ranking British Raj official. The couple reluctantly take her in and Hiroko very soon falls in love with their Muslim employee Sajjad –quite strange, I thought, for someone apparently still so much in love with her dead fiance. She also develops a close friendship with Ilse which is to last a lifetime and which forms a kind of parallel theme of the story.
Anyway, Sajjad and Hiroko get married shortly before independence, and after a tortuous chain of highly contrived events, end up living in in Karachi.
From the the late forties, the narrative leaps to the eighties in Karachi where Sajjad, Hiroko and their intelligent albeit naive son Raza lead a fairly comfortable middle-class life. Ilse has since divorced her husband and lives in New York with her son Harry who works with the CIA.
Now Raza gets willy nilly involved with the Afghan mujahideen when he befriends an Afghan refugee boy, more out of naivete than anything else. This sets off another chain of events, ultimately leading to Sajjad’s death.
Raza is wracked by feelings of guilt and gradually gets drawn to Harry and the dark world of espionage and covert operations. He shifts base to the US. Hiroko follows him in 1998, terrified/disgusted by the nuclear explosions conducted by India and Pakistan( umm, by that logic she should have left Pakistan way back in 1974 when India and Pakistan exploded their first minor nuclear devices, no?)
Soon enough, it is time for 9/11 to happen. Apparently Hiroko has a knack for being at the wrong place at the wrong time–at Nagasaki in August 1945, at Delhi in August 1947 and in New York in September 2001.
Raza’s one-time Mujahideen connection returns inevitably to haunt him. From then on the Innocent-Muslim-hounded-by -paranoid-Americans theme plays itself out, even as Hiroko watches in horror. The strength of the bond between herself and Ilse’s family is severely tested. The novel ends rather abruptly with a monologue of sorts from Hiroko.
One thing I had heard said about the book was that it was an ‘ambitious’ saga spanning generations and continents . Ambitious sounds complimentary but I now understand that it was actually a veiled criticism–well it certainly is ambitious in the sense that Shamsie built up such an unwieldy plot and thought she could pull it off. Heh.
Overrated. And avoidable. Life is too short to be wasted on badly written fiction.