A historical tapestry

A historical tapestry

We are certainly living in times when any novel on current happenings sounds historical and any historical novel spells a contemporary atmosphere. A God in Every Stone is set in the early decades of the last century.

Almost a 100 years later, men and matters appear the same; only the details are a little different. It was gun battle and killing and maiming then: it is political enmity, communal conflagrations, killing and maiming today. Much of man is still animal.

Kamila Shamsie’s huge talent at writing meaningful and cohesive fiction need not surprise us. She is the niece of Attia Hossain whose Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961) was a revelation in our undergraduate days. It was high-quality writing.

Again, with a grandmother and mother too as writers, Kamila’s felicity with the English language makes her writing easy to read and admire. One is happy that she has been riding the waves of success in the publishing world.

Just 40, this is Kamila’s sixth novel. Her favourite arena is to take a turn in history. Naturally, A God in Every Stone is historical fiction with even one or two real-life characters like the Frontier Gandhi walking through the tale. With such a large dramatis personae, the novelist has the complicated job of recording the winter-infected feelings that move a variety of people. It could be a sailor from Caspatyrus (Peshawar?) in the 6th century BC. Or a sprightly British girl, who wants to get at the silver coronet worn by the Persian general Scylax. Or a 20th century youth who finds the artefact, but also loses it. All the time, Kamila manages a satisfactory reportage, keeping fanciful imagination under rigid control.

Is it a love story? Is there a heroine and a hero? I wouldn’t bet on that. Vivian’s unspoken love for her mentor Tahsin Bey ends with his assassination. Did she unwittingly betray him to the British authorities? After this, the romantic angle is buried deep like Kanishka’s casket. Instead, Kamila’s compelling narrative brings Peshawar alive. To students of Indian history, Peshawar begins from its Purushapura days. During King Kanishka’s rule, Buddhism reached its noon-time glory.

Then came the murderous assault of Sabaktigin whose son, Mahmud of Ghazni, carried on a systematic conversion movement by putting to the sword all opposition. On Peshawar’s earth fell the blood of thousands of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. Peshawar’s converted Afghan populace came to be known as the Pashtuns. Mahmud’s march became unstoppable as kingdom after kingdom fell — Thaneswar, Kanauj, Ujjain. He razed to the ground the Somnath Temple 17 times. It is all a sad story, but our space in A God in Every Stone is only Peshawar, which had become a part of the British Empire during the middle of the 19th century.

A rich historical terrain to choose from for fiction and Kamila has a charming eye for detail. This is early 20th century and the archaeologist Vivian is enjoying her “dig”. There is poetry in the discovery of a slab with a few Greek words: a temple of Zeus! Vivian Spencer is admirable, a “female in manners but male in intellect”. If archaeological exploration is a rich field for ingenious adventures fraught with hope and despair, a full-fledged World War enlarges the stage with more action: the battlefield, Ypres, the make-shift hospitals. Never an undistracted moment.

Britisher, Turk, Pathan: each of them patriotic to their country. With so much of historical details thrown in, the reader could find himself in confused waters but Kamila provides often wikipedia-like information to clear the decks for us: “At home we speak Hindko. We are more Peshawari than Pathan, but we’re also Pathan. But everyone here speaks both Hindko and Pashto and many people Urdu and also English and every language of the world someone here can speak. This is Peshawar.”

What Najib says is very true. So many religious traditions along with their art (now, artefacts) getting entangled with relationships between brothers, lovers, master and slave, man and his country. There is even a Pundit Aiyar in Kamila’s crowd. Unlike Jane Austen working on a “little bit of ivory”, Kamila labours on her large tapestry to achieve steady transformations in Qayyum, Najeeb and Vivian. From violence to non-violence is not easy for the Pathan. The greater heroism prevails, at least for a little while.

Surely all the events in A God in Every Stone must have taken place in time, perhaps as other characters, other events. That is the greater truth of fiction. To conclude in Kamila’s own words: “What is history without imagination, as Herodotus teaches us?”

Kamila Shamsie
2014, pp 311