The Monsoon War
By Bina Shah
Delphinium, US
ISBN: 978-1953002235
321pp.

Seasoned Pakistani author Bina Shah, who is known for her elegant and eminently readable prose, performed a great service to the genre of dystopian fiction by means of Before She Sleeps, the prequel to her newest novel The Monsoon War.

Both texts are set in a world where a devastating nuclear war has taken place between Pakistan and India. Following this, the population of this segment of the globe realises, much to its dismay, that birth-rates have begun to result in an overwhelmingly small number of females being born.

As if this weren’t bad enough, a sinister virus also compromises the health of the child-bearing population and the resultant rarity of female children causes the government to take paranoid and draconian measures in order to ensure that girl-children continue to be produced. As these females grow older, they are often forced by the patriarchal powers-that-be to take multiple husbands and have intense, almost obscene, pressure placed upon them to reproduce.

The Monsoon War commences in Dhofar, a tribal region of a larger, unnamed country. A woman named Alia — who has borne several children from multiple husbands — encounters a number of gritty, determined females who have survived a car crash. They enlighten her to the fact that they are part of a resistance group called Hamiyat — ‘hamiyat’ means ‘honour’ in Urdu — that wants to acquire greater rights for the oppressed women of the region.

A sequel to her previous dystopian novel with a strong feminist agenda, Bina Shah’s latest underlines her command over her literary canvas, whereby her story progresses both logically as well as thrillingly

In turn, Alia enlightens them by confessing that many of the couples in Dhofar have declared — and are raising — their female children as boys so that the government does not force the children into reproductive slavery. The resistance of the women-oriented Hamiyat faction forms the backdrop of the story, which moves towards full-scale battle at the end of the novel.

Shah writes ably and confidently and is just as good at describing combat as she is skilled at underscoring oppression. It would be doing the intricate and exciting plot of her novel a complete disservice to give away major specifics in this review, so I will just point out some major salient features below in order to provide certain key elements of this remarkable tale.

There are a number of memorable female characters in the book, although one of the male ones — Zayn Battuta — is also intriguing in his own way. At a meeting where Ranaa Abdallah, deputy minister of the neighbouring power of Eastern Semitia, is present, Battuta outlines the fact that a set of complex algorithms have been fed into a computer that has advanced to such a point that it can be considered to be in possession of a soul, and that this “being” has advocated that the oppressed women of South West Asia be liberated from their oppression and distress in the interests of justice.

Katy Azadeh is a highly trained and intelligent soldier in the Hamiyat. She is informed that she is to carry out an assassination attempt in order to further the agenda delineated by the aforementioned super-computer. Reluctant though Katy is to take orders from something non-human, Ranaa Abdallah convinces her that this is not only the best but, in a sense, the only option that Katy must follow.

Although The Monsoon War is primarily a novel with a strong feminist agenda, Bina Shah does an equally good job of depicting race relations too | Shutterstock
Although The Monsoon War is primarily a novel with a strong feminist agenda, Bina Shah does an equally good job of depicting race relations too | Shutterstock

In addition to Ranaa Abdallah, the reader also encounters the shrewd and feisty Commander Fatima Kara, another powerful figure who plays a pivotal role in helping Hamiyat’s women achieve liberation not simply for themselves in particular, but also for women in general.

The interplay between these characters is gripping and Shah simultaneously manages to create multiple, intricate power plays by means of which a number of betrayals are brought to light. Interestingly enough, the betrayals are not gender-specific, possibly because they relate to power, which is the domain of both males and females in this novel. Katy is deeply disturbed by how someone she trusted is found to have betrayed her in the past, and Ranaa cannot escape the treachery of the patriarchy, in spite of all her personal skills and what she believes to be her influence.

There is a great deal of love to be found in the story as well. Maternal love, deep feelings of sisterhood, occasionally romance and perhaps, above all, the almost fanatical love that underlies a driving political cause. In spite of the threats posed during battle by evil drones called Zaalims — the word ‘zaalim’ means ‘cruel’ in Urdu — the heroic Hamiyat does eventually manage to attain a measure of triumph, albeit a triumph that necessarily involves much sorrow and sacrifice.

Although The Monsoon War is primarily a novel with a strong feminist agenda, Shah does an equally good job of depicting race relations by means of a black woman named Lateefa and sketches this character as adeptly as she does the people otherwise so diverse on the social spectrum, such as Ranaa and Alia.

What is especially commendable about the book is that Shah manages to handle her literary canvas in a manner whereby the story progresses both logically as well as thrillingly. It is a measure of how able and experienced a writer Shah is that all aspects of the book, ranging from motherhood, exploitation, violence and Machiavellianism, to themes such as liberation and heroism, receive equal care and consideration.

The result is a text that is both engrossing as well as memorable. I genuinely cannot find any major faults with the book on either structural or thematic levels and believe that any reader who commits to reading The Monsoon War carefully will not be disappointed. Although both this text as well as Before She Sleeps work perfectly adequately as standalone books, I am convinced that readers who are familiar with the latter will be impressed and delighted with the sequel.

Writing successful dystopian novels is a whole lot more difficult than one can imagine. Such texts require a painstakingly careful construction of complex worlds, not to mention of the characters that dwell within such worlds.

I realise that many people have drawn parallels between Shah’s books and notable classics such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale but, while such moves are both valid and flattering, one should not forget that, although Shah’s dystopian novels pay sincere homage to the work of Atwood, they are unique in being majorly ground-breaking from the perspective of Pakistani Anglophone literature.

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

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 16th, 2023

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