The Cellular Jail at Andaman Islands. Only three of the original seven wings remain and the building is now a national memorial | Creative Commons
The Cellular Jail at Andaman Islands. Only three of the original seven wings remain and the building is now a national memorial | Creative Commons

Seasoned writer Uzma Aslam Khan sets her new historical novel, The Miraculous True Story of Nomi Ali, in the picturesque Andaman Islands, circa 1936-42. But aside from depictions of the exotic venue itself, there is nothing aesthetically lovely about the fundamental content of the book. Its grim and gritty topic dwells on the hardships faced by prisoners — especially Indian women convicted of terrorism — who were shipped off to this prison colony by the British during the waning days of the Raj. Khan should be given full credit for bringing to the forefront of postcolonial literature a hitherto unexplored, though fascinating, aspect of subcontinental history — in her acknowledgements, she notes how this period has been written out of Indian, British and Japanese history alike. Her main aim is to write it back into our collective cultural consciousness and in this she succeeds.

The titular protagonist Nomi is the daughter of a convicted Indian felon Haider Ali, whose only crime was mistakenly prescribing a very strong emetic for a couple of individuals while working at his family’s dispensary. Though the subsequent loss of life was tragic, the crime was clearly manslaughter, not murder, yet Haider was forced to move with his pregnant wife to the harsh life of the Andaman Islands. Severely crippled because of years of penal service, Haider becomes unfit for employment and so his wife is forced to earn for the entire family, which includes Nomi and her adored older brother Zee.

While setting off a relatively harmless airgun in 1942, Zee ends up in a terrifying and fraught position because the invading Japanese view the gesture as a threat. I do not wish to divulge key details of Khan’s carefully constructed plot, because doing so will undoubtedly spoil the novel for many, so I will not delineate what happens to the young male teenager. Suffice to say that his fate traumatises his sister to the point where she develops temporary dissociative disorder. Indeed, Nomi witnesses more than her fair share of cruelty, poverty and deprivation over the course of the novel which, though elegantly written, is anything but soft.

Uzma Aslam Khan’s latest novel can be a difficult read at times, but she deserves credit for her vast research and for vividly bringing a forgotten period of history into our collective cultural consciousness

Aberdeen, Nomi’s hometown in the Islands, houses a horrific starfish-shaped prison, each of the seven arms of which comprises 99 filthy and dank cells. Incarcerated in one of these is a female terrorist hailing from Lahore whose story intertwines sporadically with that of Nomi. She is never named in the book and is simply referred to as Prisoner 218D.

During 1936-37, the prison was under British rule and Khan does not mince words when it comes to detailing the atrocious cruelties practiced by the British on their subjects. Particularly loathsome are a brutal Irish jailer named Cillian and his superior Mr Howard, whose acts are so barbaric that three quarters of the prisoners decide to go on a mass hunger strike in protest. 218D is one of them and Howard quite literally has his hands full as he tries to force-feed her by holding her jaws open with an iron contraption. Sickening though such scenes might be, Khan is to be commended for her unflinching portrayal of the unspeakable horrors that humanity is capable of inflicting on those who are much weaker and oppressed. Viceroy Mountbatten makes a cameo appearance late in the book, but Khan’s novel implicitly underscores that he is simply the justifiably maligned figurehead of a ruling system that has gradually grown entirely rotten to the core.

Diverse characters prop up the plot and themes of the novel. These include Aye, an enterprising islander slightly older than Nomi and her brother who later develops a romantic interest in the protagonist. Another intriguing character is a man of Japanese origin, who leads the life of a spy and eludes discovery by committing suicide through swallowing a tiny venomous frog. Especially intriguing is Shakuntala, the Indian wife of a former deputy commissioner of the island named Thomas, with whom she has a pale-skinned daughter named White Paula. Intelligent and sympathetic, Shakuntala finds herself divided between loyalty to family and loyalty to her people. Part of the beauty of Khan’s writing stems from the fact that she does not need to actively portray racism, she makes virtually all her characters live it.

Prisoner 218D manages to escape and finds shelter on an island close to Aberdeen, which is peopled primarily by aborigines — the original inhabitants of the Andaman Islands. There is a deep pathos to her story, as evinced by some heartrending letters written to her by her sisters and aunt, that exhibit both their love for her as well as their frustration that she allowed herself to be led towards the path of pre-Partition revolution by a woman named Kaajal whom 218D met when quite young. 218D possesses a strong and heroic spirit and, along with Nomi herself, is one of the more memorable characters of the book. Her tumultuous life and equally violent death both seem oddly apt when gauged against the backdrop of this tense and violent period of history.

Perhaps the only major flaw of the novel is that it tries too hard to be historical, to the point where, at times, it actually begins to read more like history and anthropology than fiction. But even this criticism is a backhanded compliment concerning the immense research that Khan appears to have put into her text. Structurally, the book would have benefited from better organisation; it is divided into four sections, but the multi-layered content merits being further divided into more palatable segments. Sometimes the plot becomes unnecessarily convoluted as the characters’ lives impact each other, and even an avid and close reader will find certain aspects of the book hard to follow.

Yet, paradoxically, some scenes will take an especially vivid and long-term hold over the reader’s imagination, such as one where Nomi almost drowns, or where a certain important character loses a limb, or one in which a character’s body is viciously broken before he is executed. Khan writes with quietly restrained but powerful passion and, therefore, it is a shame that the structure of the novel makes her writing slip, on occasion, from tension-ridden to tedious. Nevertheless, her painstaking attention to detail and the resultant creation of mood and atmosphere will be appreciated by many who wish to witness the past — albeit fictional — of a little-known but important area off the coast of India.

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

The Miraculous True Story
of Nomi Ali
By Uzma Aslam Khan
Context, India
ISBN: 978-9388689465

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 12th, 2019