Saturday, January 29, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Secret Daughter: A Novel

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Author: Shilpi Somaya Gowda
Reviewed By: Afrah Jamal
Published in Daily Times / Saturday, January 29, 2011

Published under the title: Family Matters
Reprinted in The News Today
Posted in SouthAsianMediaNet
Quoted in Shilpi Somaya Gowdas Website
Reposted on Shilpi Somaya Gowda's Facebook

“East is East & West is West” and strange things happen when the twain set out to meet.

Secret Daughter mixes compelling drama with daring social commentary to create a powerful narrative that speaks a universal language. First time author Shilpi Gowda’s summer job volunteering at an Indian orphanage provided the inspiration for this fictional tale. This is a story of origins — alternating between themes of abandonment, alienation, female infanticide and cultural identity.

This ambitious venture juggles multiple storylines with dexterity in a well-choreographed performance with a plot that takes 21 years to develop. It goes back and forth between a poor Indian couple living a life of quiet desperation half way across the globe and a rich American-Indian pair living the American dream. The couples are polar opposites in every way but they have been bound together by a daughter. American Somer and Indian Kris are doctors whose meet-cute is typical that takes an unexpected turn when they adopt a child from an Indian orphanage.

Birth parents of Asha are victims of circumstances who make questionable choices (they hail from a society one where one is burdened with a girl but blessed with a boy) and lead unremarkable lives. Yet the book keeps them in sight, to establish the sacrifices made by the birth mother, to watch the father chase mirages of a good life in the ‘big city’, using them as a conduit to stream all the negativity and misery surrounding the forsaken. These two represent the nameless, faceless majority standing on the sidelines whose dreams have been swallowed by the abyss.

Shilpi Gowda’s thought-provoking novel is not a black and white portrait that is content with assigning traditional roles or promoting stereotypes. The mother-in-law does not come with a broomstick, the brute will redeem himself, and the underdogs will get a chance to shine.

Shilpi has cast a wide net. A lot of cultural debris gets caught up. It serves to illustrate some critical social issues: the unadorned truth about life on the streets in a third world nation, how little girls are disposable and glittering cities harbour dark secrets.

The book exposes the social chasm that exists within the Indian society, which the poor are unable to bridge. Other third world nations can relate to it. She even manages to give India’s infamous slums a major role in a way that the keeps the readers interest from flagging. Surprisingly, none of this encroaches upon the individual stories running in parallel.

Both the father and the adopted daughter are carriers of a dual identity and their story is propelled forward by a different set of parameters. Kris, who distanced himself from his roots suffers from bouts of nostalgia seeking refuge in memories of home. At one point Somer’s natural horror of an alien culture and her unnatural resistance keeps raising the invisible barriers and end up becoming a direct cause of familial angst. Asha’s curiosity about her birth parents and heritage provides an ideal opportunity to bring forth the contrasts between her life of privilege and the one she narrowly avoided.

The writer, born and raised in Canada, builds a bridge over the two worlds that allows both sides to cross over and celebrate (not fear) diversity. This is a beautifully crafted masterpiece by a gifted narrator who has embedded complex themes into a simple story in a way that makes it entertaining and educational at the same time. Despite its grim beginning, tidy little ending and raw imagery, it is a timeless tale that stands apart for its easy narrative style, insightful observations and unflinching portrayals.

Aside from a graphic scene of miscarriage, the book stays in PG-13 territory. While it deconstructs the mysticism surrounding the eastern culture, at its core lies a heartfelt story that strives to heal the breach between East and West. Secret Daughter is already a bestseller and has earned rave reviews in the international arena. It will be released in Pakistan in February 2011.




William Morrow; Pp 352; $ 17.99

Sunday, January 16, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Scorpion’s Tail — The Relentless Rise of Islamic Militants in Pakistan and How it Threatens the World

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times /January 15, 2011
Reviewed By Afrah Jamal
Author: Zahid Hussain

The realisation that something had gone terribly wrong dawned on Zahid Hussain in the summer of 2007. To him, the siege of the Red Mosque in the heart of Islamabad demonstrated how much Pakistan had been knocked out of alignment since pledging allegiance to the US’s new war. The ensuing showdown, which he terms as the “deadliest battle with militants since President Musharraf joined the US led fight”, raised a giant red flag impossible to miss. Extremism had come knocking on the capital’s door. He ended up making the noxious fumes sweeping across the land (and its carriers) the subject of his next book.



The Scorpion’s Tail — The Relentless Rise of Islamic Militants in Pakistan and How it Threatens the World confines itself to the insurgency part of the equation. It sifts through mounds of data in an attempt to pinpoint the core weaknesses of counter-terrorism policies devised to root out terror that have only ended up sowing fresh seeds of discontent. As it retraces the footsteps of a nation in denial to one in turmoil, readers are made to analyse the past nine years frame by frame and identify the numerous errors of judgement that have weakened the state’s writ, leaving the region exposed to a toxic ideology.

Award winning journalist and correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, The Times of London and Newsweek, Zahid Hussain uses his extensive knowledge of the region to run through a checklist of things Pakistan needs to do if it wants to come out with its sovereignty intact. Since some of these tactics (peace deals, etc), used to counter the extremist threat, have failed on a spectacular scale, he readily picks them out of a line up.

The idea of a countryside dotted with training camp facilities might appear incredible from afar till one factors in the terror summits being held out in the open by 2004, the fall of Swat and the steady rise in terrorism. It started when scattered remnants of past mistakes came together to form a cohesive network that threatens to turn ordinary people into monsters overnight. He shows how Pakistan was allowed to become a haven for a motley crew of vagabonds whose old job descriptions might have bewildered some since they included a former chair-lift operator from Swat, a housepainter from the US, a graduate student from Quaid-i-Azam University, and the Faisal Shahzads (failed NYC bomber) of the world.

The writer inserts a history lesson to explain how an alien ideology that runs counter to the foundations of this state has managed to secure a foothold. He divides the blame evenly between the US leadership and Pakistani top brass for missing the signs that the militants were evolving into a “tightly woven constellation”. “The key flaw,” he argues, is that the strategy in the fight against insurgency has failed to account for the groups’ ability to regenerate. Insurgencies after all are built to withstand conventional military might.

He recaps the events of the past couple of years, focusing on the advent of terror in this region, the reach of extremist forces and the limitations of the security services, marking off shocking instances where regional bureaucrats played host to the most wanted. Also included are the underlying causes that spur a local insurgency and what happens when the imported remedies fail to cure local problems. He returns to the Red Mosque as the moment that led to the “loosely affiliated Pakistani Taliban groups into forming an official alliance” and President Musharraf’s catch-22 where neither appeasement nor action appeared to work.

Most people are familiar with the Taliban’s loathsome practices but they might be surprised to learn how militants managed to sway some women, convincing them to take girls out of schools. As common people complained of being pursued by predators in the sky, Zahid uncovers the story of the predators on the ground, recounting horrific stories of child suicide bombers snatched from madrassas. Those who continue to cast extremists as patsies or unwitting pawns can take another look at the Taliban or al Qaeda mission statement, watch a sample from their reign of terror and the fearful toll it has exacted.

Dousing flames of intolerance with firepower alone may not always be wise and the author concludes that “political settlement is the only endgame”. Since its publication, another chapter has been added where an outbreak of religious intolerance threatens to devour the minorities and moderates alike. Zahid Hussain presents an updated map, highlighting political quagmires and religious minefields, that illustrates how waging a successful ‘hearts and minds’ campaign calls for fighting on multiple fronts.

Published under the title: Resident Evil

Free Press; Pp 244; Rs 1,195

Saturday, January 1, 2011

VIEW: The Man Who Made A Desert Bloom

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, January 01, 2011

By Afrah Jamal

“O Lord! We have crash-landed!” was Hafeez Khan’s first reaction when his aircraft touched down in what appeared to him the middle of nowhere. The plane was one that could land on unprepared surfaces, which is just as well since there was nothing remotely resembling a proper airstrip at that time in Abu Dhabi. Awaiting him was a king with a dream, a desert starved for greenery, and a dusty blueprint of a future that appeared far-fetched.

Today, three things strike first time visitors to the beautiful city of Al Ain — tree lined avenues, roundabouts and the absence of tall buildings. Al Ain, which is the other city in the state of Abu Dhabi, in the past bore an unfortunate resemblance to a gigantic sandbox.

It was not that long ago and Abu Dhabi state had just struck it rich with black gold. But no one could mistake any part of the Trucial state of the 1960s for the ‘garden city of the Gulf’. Khan may have felt that he had stepped back in time but his real task was to help usher in the future. What the king probably needed was a magician. He got the next best thing. Pakistani horticulturist Hafeez Khan soon learnt that he was an integral part of the future mapped out by Sheikh Zayed. This was despite the mournful tidings received from the community of international agriculture experts who did not think anyone could ever make this desert bloom; the land itself, which had remained a blank and inhospitable canvas since time immemorial, seemed to echo their skepticism.

He must have cut an impressive figure at the time with his university degree and a surname Khan, which the natives automatically assumed made him a direct relation of Ayub Khan — the then president of Pakistan. Al Ain alternatively made a startling impression on the young Khan. “There was nothing there. Nothing!” He repeats to quell the “but surely” rising in anyone’s mind. Times were different; life was difficult but, he adds, Pakistanis were respected.

Abdul Hafeez Yawar Khan, originally from Pakistan, was studying in Beirut at the time. H H Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1919-2004) was the first ruler of the state of Abu Dhabi and later President of UAE. Reportedly, “members of the Al Nahyan family” have ruled since the beginning of the 18th century, “longer than any other ruling dynasty in Arabia.” Khan, who came out to help change a city’s fortunes, had originally packed for a year. Half a century later, he is still there.

Al Ain — the birthplace of the Sheikh — was destined to become a model city. When asked how long it took him to achieve this miracle, he replied with a faint twinkle in his eyes: “I’m still at it.” Khan is a gracious host and a veritable treasure trove of the city’s modern history. He fondly remembers the king who had a grand vision of turning Al Ain into an Eden and no qualms working besides his subjects to help propel his dreams faster. Khan who can easily pass off for an Arab now, knew no Arabic then and he and the king communicated through an interpreter. Till one day the king paid the interpreter to flee, forcing Khan to learn the language — fast.


He is eager to show off his adopted city and explains its many idiosyncrasies. Al Ain, unlike its sister city of Abu Dhabi, is vertically challenged because its ruler decided that there was enough space to grow horizontally instead of upwards. Khan muses over his late friend’s love for greenery that bordered on obsession; such was the king’s enthusiasm that in many cases the trees came first, the roads after. And then there is the saga of the poor sinking donkeys that led to a very important discovery. While selecting their flora, they had not catered for the fauna — grazing wild beasts. When the offending wild beasts were banished to the outskirts of the town, word got round that they had started to sink. The king acted on Khan’s information and subsequent digging at the site of Jabel Hafeet Mountain revealed a fresh water spring.

Finding Mr Hafeez Khan, who is now a UAE national, is not difficult. He continues to stay in the same compound, in another house built right next to the original one. He has seen many firsts, starting with his home which was the first concrete house ever built in the city, and a lovingly tended eucalyptus tree — the first ever planted by his old friend — the king — in 1962.


Visitors get to see both the tree and the historic driveway frequented by his king and rulers of other states.

They went straight from camels to Cadillacs,” he observes. It is hard to reconcile present day UAE with the medieval living conditions that existed just four decades ago. In their haste to enter the 20th century, Al Ain — the second largest city of Abu Dhabi — got its first luxury hotel Hilton in 1971 but camels remained the primary mode of travel.

Khan helped complete the king’s original quest and conquer the desert. He is fiercely loyal to the man who put his country on a fast track and immensely proud of what they managed to accomplish together given the challenging environment and desolate terrain. They left lasting footprints in the sand. Now his (Khan’s) daughter cheerfully carries on her father’s mission.