Published in Books & Authors (Daily Dawn) on May 13, 2007
The Marble Castle By Sitara Ali
Ferozsons Pvt Ltd
60, Shahrah-i-Quaid-i-Azam, Lahore.
Tel: 042 630 1196-8
ISBN 969 0 02012 9422pp.
THIS first novel by Sitara Ali is set in the 1940s right before the partition of the Indian subcontinent. It narrates the drastic changes in the socio-political setup as witnessed by six families belonging to different cities/religions, in those times. The book predictably ends with the partition but the highlight is the reader’s sojourn to the pre-Partition era, a glimpse of the way things were then.
Though the tale revolves around three cities — Karachi, Bombay and Delhi — Sitara concentrates more on one particular neighbourhood in Karachi. The childhood love story of a Muslim girl Shenaz and a Hindu boy Ramesh is the focal point of The Marble Castle.
Amongst the neighbourhood families of these characters, Sitara shows harmony, trust and feelings of tolerance, portraying that only politics and circumstances separated these people who, otherwise, did not make religion an issue of identity or a basis for power struggle. She has tried to be politically neutral while writing about Hindu or Muslim opinion/nationalism, Gandhi or Jinnah. She is not judgmental and leaves it to her readers to draw their own conclusions, except on the point that the British colonial rule was unjust.
What is, however, lacking in the book is spirit and a unique perspective (that is, the author’s viewpoint). Often it seems as if one is reading excerpts from a history course book, with some very general statements and a conventional outlook. Moreover, one also feels that the author is telling the story like an outsider rather than being fully informed, affected by or involved in the plot.
However, the scenes depicted in the daily lives of the Muslim families reflect their way of life in a realistic manner. Historical details have not been restricted to the South Asian region but important events of World War II have also been included rather aptly. Although the book requires proofreading at certain points, Sitara has a good command over the English language and has paid close attention to descriptive detail.
“The tinges of amethyst and scarlet had fanned out over the turquoise sky and vivid layers of crimson were banded round the horizon where the sun was about to set. The birds and other little creatures had already resumed their instinctive patterns of survival whilst the flower beds and trees, having absorbed enough nourishment, were looking invigorated. Shenaz too was in her element and when she stepped out in the open, the pictorial view added zest to her romantic enchantment,” she writes.
Unlike other books based on Partition, Sitara avoids melodrama and too much emphasis on the tragedy or more appropriately, tragedies underlying the ruthless divide. However, at certain instances the reactions of the characters seem to need more maturity.
The need for end notes and a glossary of terms is felt all along the perusal of this book. Some Urdu proverbs, abusive words, etc have been directly translated (wife’s brother?) and for a foreign reader, it will be problematic to understand the context in which they have been used. — Ayesha Hoda