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FICTION: OUT OF PLACE

April 21, 2019

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The book’s introduction to the author, Salma Siddiqui, describes The Migrants as her first novel. A few pages earlier, in her own introduction to the book, the writer attempts to clarify that this is not an autobiography. “Those are written by the rich and famous; I am neither. This is the story of a migrant family, who left their motherland, sacrificing all that was dear to them, in search of a better future ... [These] stories and memories are part of my heritage, intrinsic to who [what] I am today.”

Now the question: if it is not an autobiography, why does Siddiqui — writing in the first person — name the narrator Salma and her husband Asif, and why do their kids bear the same names as the writer’s own children? As if that’s not enough, the institution that she worked for after completing her education and the subject that she teaches are the same for the fictional Salma.

The Migrants is a mixed bag, highly interesting in parts, but quite dragging in many chapters, particularly in the second half. One fails to understand why Siddiqui includes full-page poems in her text as well as excerpts from the speeches of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. The 550-plus pages could have been fruitfully presented in less than half the size of the volume had the author not made the narration a vehicle for personal outpourings.

A debut novel is only partially interesting and suffers from too many diversions that have nothing to do with the plot

The novel begins on a dramatic note when a very young Salma — her age not even in double figures — gallivanting in the afternoon with her cousin Farooq while the ladies of the joint family are having their siesta, finds a dead infant lying on a grave. Farooq, the wiser of the two, convinces her not to pick up what she is thinking of adopting as a doll. Back home, Salma, who is called Salmi by one and all, cannot resist the temptation of narrating the incident to Farooq’s sister Rosy, who just cannot keep a secret, only to be harshly reprimanded by her mother’s elder sister.

Like the author, the central character is born in Rawalpindi in an Urdu-speaking family which has migrated from India. Characterisation in the earlier part of the book is by and large interesting; a good example is that of Wazir Khala, the eldest sister of Salmi’s mother, who has “a caustic tongue and a curious aristocratic manner about her — something she hadn’t lost from pre-Partition days ... she retained her lofty airs and continued to muse over her high connections and lost affluence, yearning for the comfortable existence she had taken for granted as her birthright.” Wazir Khala dominates her husband Salahuddin who “wasted” his time painting artistic canvases; she feels he could have made much money by doing portraits of rich and influential people.

Then there is Salmi’s maternal grandmother, Ammaji to all and sundry, who pops a paan into her toothless mouth every few minutes. Years later, she shocks medical students in the United Kingdom when they examine her deeply stained red mouth.

Not to forget is Khalaji, an old Pathan lady who teaches recitation of the Holy Quran to girls. So purdah-observant is she that if she hears the sound of an aircraft, she rushes from her courtyard into an indoor room for she believes that “men in the aeroplanes peer down through binoculars.”

But Salmi is unduly biased in favour of her father, Dr Azhar, who is shown to have all the qualities in the world: a competent military man, an accomplished homeopathic doctor and a quotable poet who renders his poems in a mellifluous style, in addition to being an affectionate father, devoted husband and reliable friend. That’s being too good to be true.

Dr Azhar decides to move to London for material gains, much against the wishes of his wife and her family. In the beginning he finds it difficult to survive there and is unable to financially support his wife and children back home in Rawalpindi, which is also the time when Salmi’s mother moves from her house to her parents’ house with her six children.

When he is eventually able to send air tickets for his wife and kids, they leave with mixed feelings. Strangely, right as one would expect to read about their landing in London or their early life, the novelist takes readers to her father’s escape from the Japanese invasion of Burma during the Second World War. We are told that he escaped by “walking for 1,200 miles,” eventually seeking refuge in a camp on Indian soil. The whole chapter has no relevance to the main plot.

The story of the family’s settling down in the UK and adjusting to a different culture is relevant and generally well written. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the narration of Salmi and her elder sister’s visit to Pakistan on a shopping expedition for the latter’s marriage. The getting up of fellow passengers from their seats just after the wheels of the plane touch the runway comes as a shock to them. The haggling with taxi drivers — those were the days when Metro cabs had not been introduced in the country — by her uncle who has come to receive them seems strange. The narrowing of the lanes — where the two girls grew up — by encroachers is not a pleasant sight, but there is nostalgia galore. Salmi is particularly thrilled to find the marks of her footsteps on what was, years ago, the freshly cemented doorstep of her ancestral home.

The atmosphere is refreshingly different from the dark clouds which hang low overhead in the UK. The sun shines brightly, except during the monsoons, in Pakistan. The girls enjoy the sun even when it grows hot in the afternoons.

But then Siddiqui introduces episodes which impede the movement of the story. A whole chapter is devoted to a matronly lady who seeks a glorified cook and maid for a bahu. Her discourse is boring. Another episode which has no connection to the plot is related to Salmi’s grandmother, earlier presented as a quiet old lady. Ammaji explodes when she discovers that the dinner to mark the golden jubilee of her marriage to Abbaji is hosted in a restaurant owned by a Sikh. She bears a grudge against the entire community for the killing of her daughter during the riots in Punjab in 1947. The restaurant owner turns the dining tables on Ammaji when he reveals that he happens to be the sole survivor of his family that was massacred in what became Pakistani Punjab.

There are also some minor flaws, such as calling the evening before Eidul Azha “chaand raat” when in actuality the moon is sighted 10 days before the festival. But a major blunder occurs when Siddiqui narrates anti-Muslim riots in Lucknow and holds Sikhs responsible for the killing of a baby. The fact remains that there have never been communal riots in Lucknow and also that there were hardly any Sikhs in the city at that time. Siddiqui ought to rewrite a shorter version of the book, preferably in Urdu, which will get her a much bigger readership.

The reviewer is a senior journalist and author of four books, including Tales of Two Cities

The Migrants
By Salma Siddiqui
Platinum Press, India
ISBN: 978-9352010387
582pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 21st, 2019