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Irshad Abdul Kadir’s The Deriabad Chronicles is set in a fictional princely state within a fictitious South Asian country (that appears to be Pakistan, though much of the novel’s geographic elements require — as Samuel Taylor Coleridge said — ‘a willing suspension of disbelief’). Kadir is a seasoned writer, having published a notable short story collection titled Clifton Bridge: Stories of Innocence and Experience from Pakistan a couple of years ago. A Cambridge-educated man with an elegant and old-school style of writing, his works are worth perusing and this novel is, fortunately, no exception to that rule.

When the story commences, the ruler of Deriabad has passed away and his son Sartaj succeeds to the throne. Although not precisely a jaded malcontent, Sartaj does suffer from an inferiority complex that has its roots in the contrast between him and his dashing and intelligent younger brother Meheryar. Wise beyond his years and pleasant-looking to boot, Meheryar is so charismatic that everyone —with the exception of Sartaj and his markedly obese wife Kulsoom — wishes that he could have become ruler instead. However, Meheryar takes up the reins of general government with good grace, and perhaps this is just as well since neither the new nawab nor his youngest brother, Behr-i-Karam, have the foggiest idea of how to run a challenging princely state that has a rich cultural history and a highly complex set of gubernatorial problems.

Meanwhile, the princes’ worthy sister, Princess Bisma, possesses not only a shrewd sense of politics, but also a genuine desire to help sort out the problems of Deriabad’s common people. She contests an election, even though the challenges this poses to both her person as well as her peace of mind are considerable. She wins a couple of constituencies and is beaten by a narrow margin in another by the novel’s most important commoner, a peasant named Ameer Bakhsh. Although some of the novel focuses on the intricate family politics of the Umrani ruling house of Deriabad, Kadir is equally skilled at depicting the characters and motivations of those less fortunate. Hence the novel, which is not long, comes across on occasion as almost Dickensian in its sweeping portrayal of social panorama.

A slim new novel comes across on occasion as almost Dickensian in its sweeping portrayal of social panorama

Kadir’s rapier wit should have been given freer rein — his depiction of the obese and materialistic Kulsoom is nothing short of priceless — but he does need to focus often on other important elements in the book. One of these is the mysterious loss of Deriabad’s royal standard (alam) which is eventually located amid much fanfare later in the book. One normally would not be able to appreciate why a torn piece of faded green fabric would acquire so much weighty mystical significance, but Kadir does an admirable job of bringing together the separate skeins of history, myth and culture in a quest that not only unearths the standard, but unites Muslim and Hindu influence in an awe-inspiring plot twist. The writer really is something of a magician, vis-à-vis the manipulation of words and ideas.

But all is not happy endings and cheers when it comes to the novelist’s endeavour, for something is clearly rotten in the state of Deriabad. The disparity between the poor and the rich, the tensions between Princess Bisma and the state and security agencies under the stewardship of the formidable General Altaf Sarfaraz, and the tragedies that plague some of the more helpless characters strike a grim, though by no means discordant, note in the text. Ameer Bakhsh and Bisma both have noble aims, but the powers-that-be find it hard to relinquish even a modicum of control when it comes to the implementation of the princess and the peasant’s goals. Since egos get inflated and tempers run high in Deriabad politics, it hardly comes as a surprise when a major assassination attempt is made on the life of a principal character. I will not toss in any spoilers; suffice to say that in spite of (or perhaps because of) the even, understated tone in which he describes things, Kadir maintains the integrity of his carefully crafted plot without permitting hyperbole and histrionics to mar it in any appreciable way.

But for those who imagine that skimming through a slim book would be a breeze, I should note that this is far from the case. Kadir’s writing is surprisingly dense, partly because the text is heavy on narrative and light on explication, and partly because almost every line contributes significantly to plot and character development. Even relatively minor characters, such as the identical twin princesses Sadia (Sadie) and Rabia (Rabby) play crucial roles in the novel. The royal opposition to Sadie’s marriage to an upper-crust Ismaili is pivotal in underscoring what a bigot Nawab Sartaj can be, especially when one contrasts him with the twins’ free-spirited French-born stepmother Ninette. Every major character in the book has a uniquely intriguing story and Ninette’s is no exception; although well off by French standards of her time, Ninette chose to move to Deriabad out of sheer love for its former ruler and dedicates herself to raising the twins in an admirably selfless manner.

Ninette adjusts superbly to the internecine politics of Deriabad; her only humiliation taking place in Paris when she goes there to shop for Sadie’s trousseau. A high-profile car crash involving her and the twins makes for lurid headline news. Though none of them suffer physical damage, the media is gleefully willing to inflict plenty of emotional damage on their privacy. Even when dealing with such trauma, Kadir inserts a brilliant moment of comic relief: “Rabby spoke about the casino and the accident in Paris. She mentioned how traumatised they were — ‘like being criminals without having committed a crime.’ She mentioned some of the games they played with the paparazzi. On one occasion, Sadie and she took advantage of their identical appearances to dress alike on a visit to a well-known store. The paparazzi followed her until she disappeared in a changing room. At a prearranged signal, Sadie appeared at the opposite end of the store, causing confusion amongst the reporters.”

Genuinely beautiful prose interspersed with humour, astute characterisation and careful plot development make this novel well worth reading especially since, to continue the Coleridgian quote with which I commenced this review, many parts of the novel ‘constitute a moment of poetic truth.’ We should be grateful that novelists such as Kadir, who care far more for literature and a serious display of literary talent than for the political sensationalism that underlies much of South Asian fiction, continue to give us many memorable moments of the type of fiction that really matters. Fiction that is both entertaining, and yet strives to get to the heart of the human condition.

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

The Deriabad Chronicles
By Irshad Abdul Kadir
Partridge, Singapore
ISBN: 978-1543744057
172pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 29th, 2018