A story of love and identity, Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner than Skin is set among the magnificent landscape of glaciers, mountains, rivers and valleys in northern Pakistan and the indigenous Gujjar people, handsome, hospitable and in control of their destinies until the scourge of terrorism begins to destroy their lives. The novel delve s into the emotions of grief and love as the author attempts to show how lives are unravelled without warning and individuals shaped by their environment. There are three parallel perspectives in this novel, as Khan navigates through the mountainous terrain (geographically and sensually) with the expertise of a seasoned adventurer — she is known not to stay away from fearlessly probing into relationships and what silently lingers within the private realm.
Nadir, a young Pakistani landscape photographer living in America and struggling to find success, is told to go home and bring back shots of his country at its worse — “We might be interested in you but not in your landscapes,” he is told — but he isn’t keen until his half-Pakistani girlfriend, Farhana, is adamant that he take her back to the places in Pakistan that he loves. He doesn’t want to take her because he could “only take joy in showing her mine if she acknowledged it as new to her” and “not if she claimed it has her own”, which becomes the crux of their romantic disagreement. It is in her quest for some kind of belonging, “the promise of a deep, stubborn rootedness”, that 30-year-old Farhana (the daughter of a Pakistani musician and a Bavarian mother) tries desperately to fathom her past and deconstruct her person, with unexpected results.
Khan is an intelligent novelist: she follows Nadir and Farhana’s relationship as both succumb to the freedom of pleasure without understanding the other’s need for personal development and exploration. Why does Nadir resist taking Farhana to Pakistan? “How many months was she prepared to linger over Pakistan? How many years? Would she have the patience to wait and yield till the geography really did begin to construct the person, the way the breakers beneath us constructed the shore? Did she want to yield? Of course not. It was a country practically under siege.” Somewhere along the way, Nadir portends the outcome: “I feared her love for me was like a Pakistani glacier. It was difficult to say if it was growing or retreating.” But strangely he doesn’t react to the turn of events. Khan allows space to his thoughts and we become privy to his inner turmoil.
Women in Khan’s novels — Mehwish in The Geometry of God and Dia in Trespassing — are fiercely intelligent, sensuous, courageous and not to be trampled upon. In Thinner than Skin, Maryam, a middle-aged woman with three children is married to a handicapped husband and is loved and protected in spirit by an old lover, a trader called Ghafoor, who would talk to her about his travels through Central Asia and Afghanistan, where borders no longer remained clear: “the traveller, the trader, the garlic breather and honey carrier, would tell her what it was like over there.” And where he “found that the Turkic nomads shared an uncanny likeness to his own community: love of horses, hospitality to guests, and most of all, a worshipful knowledge of the primacy of movement.” The stories of his travels and the valley of his youth become some of the most riveting passages.They take the reader through ancient trade routes where jade and silk are still traded but also remind us that much has forcibly changed in areas when men like Ghafoor are recruited to help certain militant and separatist causes. Maryam’s third-person narrative portrays nomads as outsiders targeted mercilessly by government officials, but it is one which doesn’t develop beyond a point and is kept away from the thriller-like climax. This is disappointing because she is an intense person with a voice, as is Ghafoor, whose fate is also left to the imagination.
There are also descriptions of shamanistic rituals that are attributed to Gujjar tribes but sadly much is ruined by the influx of religiously conservative ideas. These communities suffer both at the hands of the military, who target young men on the pretext that they are militant sympathisers, and areexploited by militants who hide among them, demanding support and taking their young sons to join their fight. Theirs, a story told in third person, is heavy with sadness.
Love is central to Khan’s characters, whether it’s a charming Pakistani-American woman’s self-destructive love for two Pakistani men or Maryam’s for her daughter, Kiran, whom she would tell that her skin was thinner than a goat’s.” Hence the novel’s title.
Written in fine, eclectic prose, exploring identity and insecurity, the narrative searches for illicit happiness that is taken away for reasons that are never clearly defined or understood. Khan can be openly candid about the act of loving as a transitory pleasure but refuse her reader reasons for why relationships break down or people drift away without explanation or remorse. Plenty of fiction is about love, about lust, about wanting control over another, but in her brilliant story of “Ice, Mating” (first published as an extract in Granta 112: Pakistan, 2010) you will find her interest. ‘“What is the most beautiful thing you ever witnessed?’ she’d ask, as we lay together … I said it was the mating of glaciers.” It is this legend of the mating of glaciers that Nadir relates to Farhana before they travel to Pakistan, a legend that explains how “the female ice was picked from a village where women were especially beautiful and, because this wasn’t enough, talented.” And the men picked from another village, “one where men were strong, and, because this wasn’t enough, successful”.
She treks with her readers through the mountains and talks of how many had gazed at the reflection of the Malika Parbat from the banks of Lake Saiful Maluk, created by the mountain’s snowmelt, and that “if you let your imagination soar, far in the distance to the north-west of the Queen appeared a tiny fragment of what might have been the most photographed and feared peak in the Himalayan chain: the Nanga Parbat. Naked Mountain.”
Thinner than Skin isn’t only about the characters that are given space to voice their stories, but about the space between love, regret and redemption and the need for clarity at a time when the old ways of life for wandering, herding communities are disappearing. Khan gets most of this right, using all that is available to her as a storyteller (without being guilty of politicising her fiction) and works her narrative towards a jaw-dropping climax. But there’s an unsettling and incomplete feelingwhen she writes about Farhana’s links to her past and present and her sudden need after a tale-twisting drowning accident to detach from her link to Pakistan — Nadir. Perhaps this is a deliberate omission, one can’t be sure.
Thinner than Skin
By Uzma Aslam Khan
HarperCollins, New Delhi
346pp. Indian Rs499