Crying Is For Women: A Song of Trains, Farangis, & Freedoms
By Zafarul Azam
Self-published through Amazon
ISBN: 979-8986901398
410pp.

As one enters the twilight zone of one’s life, there is in some, an incontinent, atavistic, urge to go back and rediscover one’s ancestral roots. Zafarul Azam’s Crying Is For Women: A Song of Trains, Farangis, & Freedoms is a recent addition to such books about the rediscovery of one’s roots and, by virtue of it, signifies an urge to not only put one’s cultural heritage in its right perspective, but to also pay tribute to the font that nurtured it.

Zafarul Azam is not a professional writer or author of any standing. By profession he is an engineer and has been living far from the cultural cradle of his ancestors and elders, in the US.

But as a worthy scion of a noble family, he thought of bringing to light, in fictional format in the maiden book from his pen, that cultural and historical milieu which, besides nurturing him and his siblings, happened to be the nursery whose harvests have nourished generations of a once-flourishing Ganga-Jumuni culture.

Azam’s grandfather was a station master in the Indian Railways of British India. So it is no surprise that his fiction is set in the backdrop of trains, railways and railway stations.

A provocative family saga tries to connect the 1857 Indian ‘mutiny’ with rebellious ideas against Western imperialism

Railways were introduced in India by the British colonials, once they’d tightened their grip over the Subcontinent after successfully overcoming what they denigrated as an Indian mutiny. Railways, in fact, were the vehicle to knit India together and put the footprints of the British Raj firmly across India’s vast expanses.

Ergo no surprise, once again, that Azam’s novel has its provenance in the cataclysm of the 1857 ‘Mutiny’ and its aftermath. It was then that the fictional family’s progenitor, Taimur Babar alias Raja, a lowly worker under the British, laid down his own life in saving the lives of his alien masters.

Azam, no doubt, has a legitimate concern to cast his ancestors in grandeur. So, he should be forgiven for giving them the names of the Great Mughals. Raja is Taimur Babar — coupling in his name the two primordial Mughal emperors. His grandson, the main character of the novel, is Humayun Babar — a name straight from the almanac of Mughal ancestry in India.

Humayun Babar was infatuated with trains from his early childhood. No wonder he defied his father to work in the Indian Railways. He became a station master in his early youth, courtesy of a British officer whose grandparents’ lives had been saved by Taimur Babar.

Humayun distinguishes himself in the service of Pakistan, before even migrating to the new homeland for the Muslims of India. He manages to foil a Hindu conspiracy to derail a train of ammunition and weapons meant for Pakistan. With his deft handling of levers and signals, he succeeds in routing what was named as the ‘Black Train to Pakistan.’ But in the process of migration to the new homeland, he loses his life-partner to Sikh hooligans.

In Pakistan, he becomes an enterprising arms dealer, with the help of the son of that colonial officer who had given him the station master’s job in India. In Karachi, in 1953, he’s blessed with a granddaughter, Seema, who eventually becomes the principal catalyst of a fitting denouement of the 1857 war’s unfinished agenda: avenging the wounds inflicted on the weaker world by an aggressive and powerful Western hegemon.

Humayun distinguishes himself in the service of Pakistan, before even migrating to the new homeland for the Muslims of India. He manages to foil a Hindu conspiracy to derail a train of ammunition and weapons meant for Pakistan. With his deft handling of levers and signals, he succeeds in routing what was named as the ‘Black Train to Pakistan.’ But in the process of migration to the new homeland, he loses his life-partner to Sikh hooligans.

From Seema’s weaving into the matrix of the novel, its narrative becomes engrossing, if not riveting. Humayun’s business flourishes and he eventually moves it to Britain to cater to a global clientele. Seema enters the London School of Economics (LSE), eventually getting a PhD there and also befriending a shy Syrian student, Asma Khalid, whose name is used by her to fulfil her dream destiny.

In the lap of the luxurious life that her grandfather lavishes on her, Seema is somehow imbued with rebellious ideas against Western imperialism. Besides helping her ageing granddad in his twilight years in his business deals, Seema also meets with revolutionary icons such as Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Yasir Arafat et al. These encounters whet her appetite to pay back the imperialists in their own coin and settle old scores with them.

Humayun had suffered nightmares from his early childhood, which revolved around a travelling train, with him as a passenger, hurtling down toward a precipice. But he could never, in his wildest dreams, have imagined that his cool granddaughter would make it a reality, not on the rails, but in the air.

For some curious reason, the author paints Seema as the real architect of the disaster of 9/11. In his narrative, Osama bin Laden is reluctant to indulge in the kind of terror that spawned the aerial attack on the World Trade Centre (WTC) in New York on that fateful day of September 11, 2001. But Seema chalks out an elaborate scheme and eventually convinces Laden that her plan would work and inflict a wound that global imperialists would lick for generations.

She trains with Atta, the mastermind of the attack on the WTC, and other conspirators to become a pilot able to fly an aircraft. For this she uses the name of the Syrian girl she had befriended at LSE.

Seema craves to lead the party which hijacks the American Airlines plane destined from Boston for Los Angeles, but is persuaded by bin Laden to stay away. But so determined and committed is she to her diabolical plan that she doesn’t mind her own nonagenarian grandfather and aunt becoming collateral losses in the plane that slams into the North Tower of the WTC.

Seema herself flies out of New Jersey in a single-engine Piper, the debris of which is found in the sea near Martha’s Vineyard, a rich people’s playground off the coast of Massachusetts. Citing from the 9/11 Commission’s report, the pilot’s name in the plane’s flight log was Seema’s alias, Asma Khalid, a British national. Her body was never recovered. But the Commission absolved her of any part in the attack on the WTC.

One wonders why the author should be so keen to pine for a Pakistani — and that, too, a middle-aged woman — as the architect of a monumental terror attack against the nerve centre of the US? Living in the US, he ought to be conscious of the common perception about Pakistanis being not too trustworthy.

One also wonders whether the author has left room for a sequel to his novel — a la a box-office hit Hollywood suspense thriller — with its heroine only presumed dead but not definitely dead.

The book is rich in cultural references, with footnotes especially designed to be helpful to those not accustomed to our rituals and customs. But the book’s title, Crying Is For Women is not only misogynistic, it also doesn’t do justice to an intrepid Seema out to create history with her reckless ventures. It should much rather have been Crying Is Not For Men.

The reviewer is a former career diplomat, author,
poet, columnist and motivational speaker

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 15th, 2023

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