Monday, October 7, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: A Restless Wind

First Published by Daily Times (Pakistan) / 07 Oct 2013

This is an Advanced Review

Zara Hamilton returns to Qila, her ancestral home, to a dying aunt, a troubling secret and a cradle full of memories. Her Pakistani origins, Indian roots and British background add spice to a casual road trip. Her quest will be inscribed against a stormy backdrop darkened by communal rites, tired superstitions and Hindu-Muslim divides. It casts the requisite pall on princely states, and their gracious guardians, and turns the few memorable chapters from her life into a lovely epic.

Shahrukh Husain lifts the barriers separating two worlds, unearthing crevices filled with centuries of emotional debris and calcified remains of old glories. Her new novel traces their luxurious outlines with grim determination as it staggers into a vault of memories and retrieves a closet full of worn-out skeletons in search of clarity.

Married to an Englishman, the protagonist’s dual identity and rich heritage come in handy as she makes the journey to a land far, far away. Trivikrampur becomes the perfect foil. It is where old flames are dusted off and stately homes reopened as the protagonist treads into the unknown. It is where readers can sift through the secrets and lies through a series of flashbacks, as a multi-ethnic cast of characters take the rein.

The writing becomes a bridge between a fairytale existence of maharajas and mystics set next to a comfortless terrain occupied by marauding bandits, maniacal activists and potential spies. Yes spies. Each layer adds a different dimension and tries to cut through the stiff formalities separating the Ramzi and Vamana dynasties. Occasionally, it runs into roadblocks when a simple family drama/bittersweet homecoming collides with sinister matters of national (in)security, sending its principle character hurtling through a spy thriller fantasy.

Ms Husain is a British writer of Pakistani origins whose work as a psychotherapist has put her in the path of asylum seekers. It allows her to devise an exploratory mission that strays beyond designated waters and taps into the desperation and heartache in and around the qila (fortress). There will be an array of side stories tugging at the plot; Zara’s abandonment issues and faith are paired with lingering post-Partition hostilities and the human condition.

The sojourn in the Qila will remain shrouded in mystery, a veil of mist that never lifts completely, leaving distorted shadows, providing a cosy home for dreams and nightmares. Readers can follow the trail of suspense leading to Zara’s old abode where remnants of a slightly gothic feel permeate the air, or they can opt for secondary plot-lines that passionately argue for lost souls cast out in the cold. The Oxford years, however, breeze by without disturbing the ornate setting or its wild untamable heart.

A Restless Wind can be viewed from multiple angles: as a salacious soap opera, a damning political indictment, a glorious tale of two dynasties or an awkward spy thriller that merrily paddle the shores of East & West and dock somewhere in the middle.

Their motherland’s luminescent core is dutifully mined for the exotic flavors; its deep-seated prejudices put on public display. A sprinkling of supernatural livens up forgotten legends and infuses the narrative with a dreamy quality. It dashes in and out of genres, tripping alarms, laying bare a gaping void within the homeland and paranoia-driven policies that mar regional peace. And in between the drama and fancy trimmings, migrant woes remain relevant.

That the character’s protective cocoon provided by her Western connections dissolves easily does not require suspension of disbelief. The transformation from a theatrical countryside flanked by mysticism and theology to a landscape bleached of colour is achieved by a few frighteningly simple strokes. The local Muslims are seen musing if they are still outsiders after a thousand years; the visitors debate their status in their adopted countries. Since Zara wears the cape of a crusader, which will ultimately set her on a collision course, is perhaps an unavoidable twist. That anyone can come out of such an ordeal without scars leaves the final act with some jagged edges.

A Restless Wind is an unconventional family portrait, evocative of Trivikrampur’s lost grandeur and primitive soul. Here the east lives up to its reputation, a place of wonder and magic, its savage streak visible beneath those garish hues. It may not always be a flattering depiction but it is a powerful one.


Link to Daily Times Site.

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