The current state of Pakistani-English fiction penned by expatriates is ambivalent at best. This involves, among other things, the anguish and fear of misrepresentation from a people who have a long history of being ‘claimed’ or ‘interpreted’ by their colonial masters who happened to speak the same language. Shahbano Bilgrami’s second novel, Those Children, however, does not fall under that umbrella as her goal is not to represent the Pakistani ideology, but to show how a child who was born abroad would adapt to a city such as Karachi. Nevertheless, in her attempt to build characters with well-rounded background stories, Bilgrami unravels many conflicts that plague our society today.
The Mahmud children — Ferzana, Fatima, Jamila and Raza — live in Chicago with no knowledge of their roots in Pakistan. When their mother dies of cancer they are forced to not only deal with the gaping hole left by her demise, but also their takeover by an extended family they’ve never known. To deal with these devastating changes, the children start playing a game in which they assume roles with unique superpowers and continue playing it after they move to Karachi, a place that looks like “a land of endless summer” compared to their comfortable life in Chicago. This move brings to light the reason behind their extended family’s absence from their lives. Moreover, playing their game brings clarity to a world that is otherwise chaotic to a child’s eye.
Those Children is written from the first-person point of view of Ferzana, but as the perspective shifts randomly between her as a child and her as an adult, the narrative flows in two opposite directions. As “chhoti” Ferzana she struggles to make sense of her surroundings and as an adult she looks back at those days. In her main character, Bilgrami combines conflicted adolescence with the adventurousness of an unbiased perspective.
A tale of loss, grief and eventual redemption told from the perspective of a dislocated child
Nevertheless, parts of the narrative seem forced because one can’t help but feel that there’s no way a 10-year-old child could think like that. The roles the siblings assume in their game can also seem dubious at times. For instance, it seems highly unlikely that a young girl who grew up in Chicago would choose to be called Lady M. Moreover, the roles don’t appear to have any direct link with the main story except for the fact that they work as a coping mechanism for the children.
Overall, however, Bilgrami succeeds in creating a very perceptive and realistic narrative, showing an insightful understanding of human nature. When the Mahmuds move to Karachi, their father does not try to help them settle into their new life. His failure to console his children is the result of his inability to fathom the loss of his wife and “chhoti” Ferzana realises that “apparently it was not uncommon for human beings to stop functioning.” She concludes that “[a]fter our mother’s death, we needed anchorage; after being displaced, exchanging the security of our red-bricked house with its garden of familiar sounds for C44, a structure of cement white with the blaze of the sun and cloudless sky, we were searching for something to hold on to, to explain to us who we were and why we were here.”
Bilgrami manages to lighten the cultural adaptation with amusing anecdotes and insights: we are told that “in every social exchange in Pakistan the human animal had a specific function: to eat ...” It is also quite amusing when Ferzana calls her cousin Aslam “baee” because she cannot say “bhai.”
Those Children, however, is not just a coming-of-age story; it is a contemplation on the cultural and ideological politics behind the impulse to adapt to a strange place. As Ferzana learns new rules of conduct and unravels convoluted family secrets, religion turns out to be a big component that may not always be noticeable, but is always there, lurking in the margins. When the siblings move to Karachi they cannot escape religion: it is everywhere, from the new dress code they have to follow to the rigorous debates that the adults frequently have over dinner. They soon find out that the Mahmud clan is divided into those who are strict adherents of traditionalist religion and those who have a modern and relaxed approach to both religion and life.
It is arguable that over and all, even apparently irrelevant events are somehow the reason or the result of our religious beliefs, or lack thereof. The children soon find out that religious differences were responsible for their grandparents’ absence from their early life. There is always the risk of overplaying or utterly disregarding such an equivocal theme, and so religion themes in fiction can sometimes be a slippery slope that derails many an experienced writer. Bilgrami, however, succeeds in invoking a delicate balance that makes her book a politically charged, yet highly engaging read.
In addition to religious and cultural differences, Those Children shows us how a child, who has never seen brazen class divisions, would react to the artificial boundaries we impose on ourselves. Political and ethnic divides are among the mutated, but very much palpable, social barriers that are an essential part of identity for those around Ferzana. Her grandmother is a stereotypical Mohajir who migrated from India to Pakistan after Partition, and who feels that ethnicity determines the worth of a human being. Thus, Ferzana’s friendship with the daughter of a servant is looked down upon by her grandparents, but this girl is the one true friend that she finds in Karachi.
Every day Ferzana faces new, harsh realities that help her mature better than her siblings, but it seems there is no end to the shocks life can throw at a 10-year-old child. When she finds out that her seemingly sweet and loving teacher is actually trying to have an illicit relationship with her older brother Raza, she soon has to face the fact that appearances and friendships can be deceptive.
Ranging across multiple themes and harnessing ideas from the dual perspectives of a child as well as an adult, Bigrami’s Those Children is an engaging read that has more to offer than meets the eye. With smooth prose, relatable characters and beautiful descriptions of people as well as places, it is emotionally moving and at the end it all comes “together like the pieces of an elaborate Sindhi rilly [sic], whose dizzying geometric sequences, when looked at as a whole, formed an intricate, multi-layered pattern that told the entire story of the past.”
The reviewer is an Ankara-based freelance writer and critic
By Shahbano Bilgrami
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 16th, 2017