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enter image description hereIf the writing is honest it cannot be separated from the man who wrote it. —Tennessee Williams

Ali Sethi has shot to fame but in a modest way. His talent and public appearances are subdued and undramatic, a possible result of having ones parents being masters of juggling the spotlight. Having recently spoken at the Lahore Literature Festival at length over Manto and being generally very impressive as a reviver of classic Urdu poetry in the form of songs or ghazals, he has made a solid name for himself but in my humble opinion his fathers shadow is still much too large and most still react with ‘oh, so that’s who he is’ when they learn he is Najam Sethi’s son.

I’ve read this book around five times from cover to cover. Aside from the first time, the next four were all by accident, simply because I felt I hadn’t finished reading it all five times. Nothing of any consequence takes place in the narrative; nothing exemplary or enlightening takes place in our protagonists’ life. It seems more like a testament to the elitist lifestyle; just exist, the rest is inconsequential. Nothing in the plot engages you or makes you sit up straight and take notice, as unfortunately there is nothing to take notice of. A child, Zaki, narrates the story of his own life as well as the lives of those that surround him. He shows the adolescent anxieties of his cousin, Samar Api, as she dreams of her 'Amitabh', falls in love with a boy from a higher social class than her own who then betrays her for her best friend. Broken hearted she goes about her life on auto-pilot till she is whisked away to be thrown in some room to await what shall be destiny.

The author, Ali Sethi
The author, Ali Sethi
Admittedly the storyline has tried to stick to the standards of a traditional tragedy; an orphan finds himself in some level of adversity which he overcomes through a mediocre revelation. Let me elaborate. An air force pilot dies in an accident leaving behind his mother, wife and new born son to fend for themselves in this cruel world. We are given windows into the pasts and presents of most characters, for some tedious reason or another. The reader sees the mother of the orphan narrator emerge from a confused and angry young woman into a focused, angry, middle aged activist and magazine editor. His grandmothers’ past paints her to be a survivor who in her neglect barters her sisters’ future with a feudal family. We are bestowed with the trials and tribulations faced by his maid and her family. Yet the question that the author should have asked and the reader should always ask is, to what end? Why are we presented with a myriad of biographies that do not even link together in a single plot? Perhaps due to its semi-autobiographical nature the narrative is so confused, as life does not often resolve itself with a neat ending.

On the flip side, almost as if it to make a statement, the tone is very female oriented. The protagonist is simply a spectator in a world where he is raised and supported by women. Yet, disappointingly, it is again, a novel that is written for a Western audience. The thoughts are censored and subdued; there is no proof of the abuse that women have to deal with in every sphere, no obstacles that they face as professionals, as wives, as daughters. It’s a rose tinted narrative, with little to no grounds in reality, with its only saving grace being an aesthetically sound prose, which sadly, leads the reader nowhere profound.

Overall it is typical in the sense of South East Asian nostalgia, as our prose and poetry is often arching its neck backward to catch the fleeting past with its peripherals. A commendable quality in the novel was the way in which a child’s point of view is presented to the reader, as it takes one back to the insecurity that comes with the smallness of age and stature. For a debut novel, it is not too indecent an effort. However, English literature from Pakistan will always have a lot at stake as the audience and the expectation to deliver the culture, times and region one has set out to represent, responsibly and honestly, is twofold.