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Why Sheheryar Sheikh chose to title his debut novel with a weighty quote from T.S. Eliot (who, in spite of the hype that surrounds his Four Quartets, is — in my opinion — one of the canon’s more mediocre poets) is a mystery to me since the book is primarily a modern Pakistani Romeo and Juliet. Sheikh’s The Still Point of the Turning World is set in present-day Lahore, more specifically at a fictional education institution bearing the acronym Luss (Lahore University of Social Sciences). A bona fide Lahorite himself, Sheikh knows his turf remarkably well, and regardless of whether one is familiar with this enchanting city or not, his descriptions of Lahore will appeal to readers for both authenticity and detail. The genuine horror with which one of the characters notes the manner in which the Ring Road bridge mars the panoramic view of the Old City will make many readers chuckle and sob simultaneously. Not since Bapsi Sidhwa has any Pakistani writer done literary justice to Lahore and for this reason, if no other, Sheikh’s book is a particularly welcome endeavour.

The novel’s main characters, Sara and Omar, meet as freshmen and their romance progresses through university only to be tragically terminated because of a violent accident during their senior year. This is not a spoiler since the text begins with a formal speech by the university’s vice chancellor that revolves around verbal tributes being paid to the two students who are assumed to have died as a result of an on-campus explosion. Sara and Omar’s story is interspersed with speeches by Nadia (a friend of Sara’s), QT (a friend of Omar’s) and Professor Muneeb (who knew and taught them both). Even more interesting than those viewpoints are two semi-digressive but engrossing sections on Lahore and Pakistan respectively. The bulk of the novel centres on the protagonists’ feelings for each other and can be read as a coming of age, college story. However, it remains above all a love story, and had Sara been named Marvi (after the great subcontinental folk heroine with whom King Omar fell in love) the plot would not have suffered one whit, and may even have been subtly enhanced.

It is tempting to view Luss as a thinly-disguised version of Lums but to do so would be a mistake, since part of Sheikh’s undeniable talent lies in the sheer originality with which he portrays a Westernised, elite liberal arts institution in one of Pakistan’s major cities. Schooled as an Aitchisonian, Omar feels somewhat of an upper-class misfit at university until he discovers his two loves at Luss — Sara and running. He takes up running in order to overcome what appears to be a serious clinical panic attack, and then finds that he has become almost pleasantly addicted to the sport over time. His passion for Sara takes a similarly obsessive turn, but though it is natural — given Omar’s age — that much of it is hormonally driven, the novel cleverly depicts how his intellectual side compulsively leads him towards a woman who is far less shallow and obtuse than most female Luss students.

Romeo and Juliet set in Lahore with an eye for detail marks a remarkable debut

Sara comes from an affluent family living in Model Town (in Jackie Kennedy-style, she used to ride her horse around a park close to her house during childhood), and the death of her mother from cancer causes her to mature more rapidly than she might have wished. Although the spectre of terrorism casts a shadow over her life as well as Omar’s, Sheikh never allows geopolitical concerns to overwhelm the narrative and in this lies the greatest favour he could have done for his audience. Lahore and Pakistan, and indeed Luss itself, provide a well described backdrop for the story of the hero and heroine; Sara and Omar do not act as cogs in the wheel of an authorial political agendum. The characters and their relationship dominate the book, and while they are very much a product of their time and place, their inner musings and machinations receive as much attention as their external circumstances. One of the more moving scenes describes how Sara spends time in the library, sifting through randomly shelved authors ranging from Toni Morrison to Leo Tolstoy, until she finds David Mitchell’s unique and challenging Cloud Atlas, a book highly recommended to her by her boyfriend. Mitchell (author of the equally unique Slade House) represents an acquired taste and Sara’s action of earnestly perusing the book stems purely from love since she is no intellectual match for the erudite Omar.

Good writers are generally deep readers and Sheikh’s writing demonstrates a command over English, not to mention a fundamental ease with it that implies a personal lifetime devoted to reading. His descriptions of salacious on-campus activities, national concerns, historic landmarks, cultural nuances, academic pretensions, and personal angst all bespeak a sharply observant eye and an inherent gift for satire. When some disruptive students cause a stir on campus during an academic talk on drones, no one reacts until one of the thugs pulls up an armrest and wields it threateningly. Sheikh writes acerbically: “That did it. Now everybody decided to become a hero. Not because the threat of a weapon had woken up their heroic natures, but because of the 50,000 rupee fine that accompanied any damage to Luss property, which the students were eager to impose on the outsider who had dared to show such violence to the furniture.”

I believe that Sara was the one person made for Omar. I know, I know, they were still growing up, they were just college kids. But given all that, and given that I didn’t know Sara very well, I still believe she was perfect for Omar. However, I don’t think he was right for her. [...] He was absolutely smitten with Sara but he never talked about her. He talked of romance in the abstract, as if trying to intellectually understand the feelings that he had, rather than to just feel them. He wanted to know himself and to be his best self. He didn’t let himself just exist.The most passionate and charged up I ever saw him was on many occasions right after he had finished a long run and come off the track. But the happiest I ever saw him, the most relaxed, was when I saw him walking with Sara or sitting with her on the campus lawns. — Excerpt from the book

All this begs the question what makes Sheikh’s book so special if at heart it is just a love story set in a country that crops up in Western media often for less than commendable reasons. The fact of the matter is that Sheikh manages to go a step beyond all other major Pakistani writers to date. His prose is clearer than H.M. Naqvi’s; his depiction of violence more understated (and thus, perhaps, more frightening) than Nadeem Aslam’s; his satire more tongue-in-cheek, and hence more pronounced, than Omar Shahid Hamid’s; his character development more sophisticated than Bina Shah’s; and his historical backdrops more entertaining than Kamila Shamsie’s. These factors, when taken in aggregate, confer a distinction on his debut novel which easily holds its own alongside the more mature works of a number of the abovementioned authors. Sheikh may have entered the game late, but he certainly knows how to play it.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

The Still Point of the Turning World
By Sheheryar B. Sheikh
HarperCollins, India
ISBN: 978-9352643813
320pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 4th, 2017