Surviving strife

Last Updated 19 October 2013, 15:13 IST

Shahrukh Husain’s ‘The Restless Wind’, set in the backdrop of communal violence in Gujarat, delves into Ramzi family’s hidden past and a tangled web of relationships
Monideepa Sahu writes.

The Restless Wind piques the reader’s interest from the very beginning with fine details and a strong and engaging protagonist. However, a restless wind blows through the closing chapters, leaving a heap of tangled threads. Hana, the ailing matriarch of the Ramzi clan of Muslim gurus to the Hindu rulers of Trivikrampur in Gujarat, knows her end is near. She needs to clear up what she can and rectify mistakes of the past before 21st-century sectarian violence ruins the age-old communal harmony of her beloved Trivikrampur. She chooses to reveal these stories she should have told long ago to her dear niece Zara, whom she summons to their family home in Qila.

Zara is a young high-flying human rights lawyer in London. She feels guilt and grief every time she hears of Asian asylum seekers deported from the UK. Zara is shaken by the suicide of Parveen, an Indian victim of communal violence. She forsakes the opportunity to shine as Queen’s Counsel and resolves to help such women safely rebuild their shattered lives. While visiting her Aunty Hana, Zara hopes to connect with people in Gujarat willing to meet deportees from the UK at the airport and help integrate them. Zara is riddled with doubts; regarding her marriage to Peter, her professional commitments, her filial ties and her sense of belonging. Her mother Nyla abandoned her as a child, leaving her desolate and damaged.

Born in Pakistan where her late father lived, Zara perpetually feels an outsider. “I never felt Pakistani... how could I? I never lived there,” she tells her former lover Jay, the scion of the Vamana rulers of Trivikrampur. She felt most at home in Trivikrampur, where she grew up. Yet simmering communal tensions make her feel alienated upon her return after 10 years. “Now India won’t let me feel Indian, I’ve no heritage in Britain.”

The theme of communal prejudices runs through the novel, and the author explores its many aspects in a balanced manner. The opening pages introduce us to the demon of communal violence in present-day India. The armies of dispossessed, who flee for safety across boundaries of sea and land, are Zara’s clients who seek asylum in Britain. The author balances this with specific acts of goodness. Zara’s client, Parveen’s family, is massacred by communal forces in Gujarat.

Yet a Hindu auto driver guides her to safety. Other good Hindus rescue Parveen after she is raped and brutalised. Hindus like the “Swami guy” help Muslim victims of communal violence, and themselves end up as “fucking asylum seekers in the UK,” with no housing, no NASS allowance and a dog’s life. Zara sees racial and cultural prejudices everywhere among the British as well, with “hooligans chanting racist and misogynist obscenities.” Zara comes home to Quila to find its walls charred by arsonists protesting against “the Ramzi-Vamana bond and the blurring of religious boundaries,” dating back to the legends of the Green-clad Man, who founded the Ramzi clan.

The first half of the novel leads us to expect further exploration of the inner life of Zara and other major characters and the intricate dynamics of communal harmony and disharmony in India. However,  the latter half of the novel overwhelms with a profusion of new characters and sub-plots. Hana dies before revealing her secrets to Zara, who resolves to uncover them on her own. We are rapidly introduced to Zara’s cousin Saif, the spiritual head of the Ramzi clan, his wife the peevish and suspicious Pebbles, their mentally-challenged daughter Sharmeen and her cousin and lover Kamran.

Things happen so fast, that we do not learn enough of their true feelings. We are told, for example, that Pebbles and Saif are deeply in love. Yet Pebbles plans a shopping spree for her daughter’s trousseau just after his sudden death. Did Aunty Hana really alienate Zara from her mother, while professing to love her? Dilkash’s demented narration of Nyla’s past is one example of too obvious and expedient a plot device.

Too many things involving too many people happen simultaneously in the latter half of the novel. Each of these many subplots is potential Bollywood material. As things stand however, they give the impression of outlines rather than fully fleshed out characters and their stories. There are mysteries galore with Sita Devi and her strained relations with Hana, who were formerly like sisters. Sita Devi hints that her son Jay and Zara may share the same father, making Zara cool off toward her former lover.

Before we can quite assimilate these, we are rushed through Noor Jahan’s missing bangles, the cloak and dagger operations of social activists groups such as Ankahi, Nyla’s disappearance and continued silence and then her sudden reappearance and happy reunion with her daughter Zara. Add to this a kidnapping groups of rabid vigilantes, an assassination gone awry, an ancient curse and Zara’s reaffirmation of her love for Peter. In the end, the reader gets a heaped smorgasbord platter with many delicious yet confusing components.

(Published 19 October 2013, 15:13 IST)

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