The Marble Castle

Published in Books & Authors (Daily Dawn) on May 13, 2007
Original Link
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

And the World Changed

And the World Changed – Contemporary Stories by Pakistani Women

Book Review published in SouthAsia (June 2007)

And the world has changed! Not only in Sabyn Javeri-Jillani’s post-partition Karachi or in Humera Afridi’s post 9/11 New York City, but also for creative writing by Pakistani women.

There is no vast Pakistani English literature by women, to comment on. Republished in Pakistan in 2006, after its launch by Women Unlimited (New Delhi) in 2005, this anthology exhibits the kind of work that Pakistani women are doing in South Asian literature.

Nonconformity and an unconventional style seem to be the current trend. Though there is still a long way to go in terms of meeting the literary standards of world classics, the stories of this collection do represent myriad perspectives on a number of issues, especially those concerning women.

There is no single theme that the book follows. You cannot label it as ‘feminist’ prose, despite the fact that all texts are by women.

Twenty-four women, belonging to different literary backgrounds, have contributed. These include known names such as Fahmida Riaz (a political and human rights activist), Bapsi Sidhwa (whose novels revolve around the Zoroastrian community in Pakistan) and Kamila Shamsie (of Salt and Saffron fame). Some of the stories are excerpts from novels.

One is bound to notice a few similarities between the authors. All of them have lived in Pakistan as well as in the west, or still do. They write about the Pakistani people and multiculturalism is sometimes an underlying theme:

“Santa Maria, the Black Madonna, Holy Mother of Christ, Jesus, Jesus, Ya Ali! Ya Ali! Ya Hussain, Ya Hussain…” (Bloody Monday by Fawzia Afzal Khan.

Stories focus on problems as serious as rape of the mentally challenged (The Daughters of Aai by Fahmida Riaz), forced marriages (The Optimist by Bina Shah) or on lighter subjects such as the initial experiences of city life ( Look, But With Love by Uzma Aslam Khan) and The Arsonist (an excerpt from Bapsi Sidhwa’s The Crow Eaters). They provide us with a taste of present-day reality and capture the ethos of our society – such as Shahrukh Husain’s Rubies for a Dog, which comments on gender discrimination:

“Isn’t it ironic that I have to dress like a man in order to discover my potential?”

Meeting your future in-laws in a pair of jeans can be calamitous even if you are living in the west, “under the sway of western fashion and, by extension, its moral values” (A Pair of Jeans by Qaisra Shahraz).

Even young and amateur writers show sensitivity towards some social issues (that are often ignored) and provide us with some very original stories, such as Clay Fissures by Nayyara Rahman:

“It was 1953 and patriotism was still a young, strong spirit in Pakistan. People were proud of being Pakistanis. They were proud of being Muslim. They were proud of their own brown skin, which reflected wheat – the lifeblood of Pakistan. And here was I: Pradeep Sehgal, the adopted albino son of a Hindu merchant and a Eurasian seamstress.”

Muneeza Shamsie (the editor and short story writer), has previously edited A Dragonfly in the Sun: An Anthology of Pakistani Writing in English and Leaving Home: A Collection of English Prose by Pakistani Writers. She also contributes to local newspapers and magazines. In this book, she has provided us with a brief but absorbing introduction on the history of creative writing by Pakistani women (or the lack of it). She has eulogized the efforts of those women who have contributed to this form of writing (despite the lack of monetary benefits and inspiring examples), acquainted us with each contributor and has also thrown light on the impact that political upheaval in the country has had on this medium of expression.

It is interesting to note the kind of diversity that exists in our writing as well as our society. We see a close affinity with contemporary writing by Indian women (Shobha De` etc.).

These writers also lead us to new avenues (sometimes ‘experimental’)and provide ideas that can form the basis of future work in fiction. Social critique still largely seems to be the ultimate aim of writing, as mentioned in the introduction: ‘the prescriptive dictum that their work must have an extra-literary purpose, namely to “serve society”.’

– By Ayesha Hoda