Pearls and Shards — A Novel
By Iftikhar A. Malik
Lightstone Publishers
ISBN: 978-969-716-269-7
375pp.

The author of Pearls and Shards, Iftikhar Malik, is an eminent academic. Now Professor Emeritus at Bath Spa University, he taught for 27 years at the university. Before that, he was at Oxford for five years, as the Quaid-i-Azam Fellow at St Anthony’s College. Professor Malik has published 14 books — mainly about history and politics in modern South Asia, Islam and Muslim communities in the West — 75 scholarly papers and more than 200 review articles.

Pearls and Shards is Professor Malik’s debut novel. It is unclear why the Professor has ventured into fiction, but the manner of his writing proclaims his research background.

The story of Pearls and Shards revolves around three characters. Saleem is from rural Pakistan. The first time he comes to Lahore is to enter the portals of Government College. Later, he attends the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, returns to Pakistan and teaches at his alma mater for some years before getting a fellowship at Oxford and finally settling at a university in Bath. He remains a bachelor, though he has romantic interludes with women at every university in his career path.

The second of the three characters in the novel is Nadine, from upstate New York. She is from an academic family and chooses Skidmore College for her undergraduate studies, attends a summer at Oxford and then goes for her Masters to the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. Here she meets and dates Saleem but chooses to marry within her own ethnicity, and settles in faraway Okinawa.

The debut novel from an eminent academic of history and politics revolves around three characters, but seems to be overburdened by the minutiae of college life and is not an easy read

The third person in the trio is Natasha, from a farming family of Michigan. For her, the world opens up only when she comes to the University of Michigan Ann Arbor and meets people from other parts of the US and even from diverse cultures. She too dates Saleem for a while and then marries an American.

The lives of these three protagonists, from childhood onward, are related in great detail. The emphasis of the story is on their university years. Occasionally, the narrative seems overburdened by the minutiae of college life.

Used to writing research papers, the author tends to leave nothing out. The menus and wine selections of meals, whether eaten at home or in restaurants, are elucidated. When talking of a conference attended by Saleem and Natasha, we are regaled with an hourly account of the three days that it lasts.

But Professor Malik is in his element when he describes campus life in the universities mentioned in the book. He knows the corridors of academia intimately, and writing about university life obviously pleases him. The bulk of the novel, therefore, becomes a paean to campus life and the storyline loses its importance.

Descriptions of the various places in and around the universities span innumerable pages. The depiction of Bath city is so long and so detailed that it could actually grace the pages of a tourist handbook or a city guide for Bath.

It is only in the last 75 or so pages that the story of the novel takes off. Then things happen really fast. In the case of Nadine, five pages suffice to see her married and divorced. Normally, in novels, lectures and dances that students attend regularly are considered too humdrum to be mentioned, but the break-up of a relationship or a marriage can take many chapters to evolve.

Professor Malik has obviously met many scholars and writers of note in his illustrious career. His decision to introduce some of them into the novel enlivens the story. The narrative brings to life for the reader poetess Parveen Shakir and Professor Ahmad Ali, author of Twilight in Delhi. The anecdote of how Professor Ahmed Ali became a Pakistani citizen is fascinating, as are the reasons given for the popularity of the poetry of Parveen Shakir. Richard Symonds, Iris Murdoch and Nirad Chaudhery appear in the novel too.

Nigerian Chinua Achebe is referred to many times, not only as a visiting dignitary but also as the author of Things Fall Apart. The title of his book, about the disintegration of African society under colonisation, is used to explain away the ending of romantic relationships. Interestingly, Dawn also makes an appearance in Pearls and Shards. It is referred to as “…the Karachi-based highbrow English newspaper.”

It is disappointing that, with all his knowledge and experience of the Western world, Professor Malik still falls into the trap of stereotypes. Of the two black men in Pearls and Shards, one is categorised as the sole drug addict in the book and the other is developed into a murderer. The worst kind of racial prejudice evinced by Natasha’s father, who is portrayed as a white supremacist, is proved to be true!

The style of writing of the novel Pearls and Shards is distinctively uncommon. Paragraphing appears to be arbitrary rather than based on the completion of the subject in hand. Definite and indefinite articles are missing regularly and then inserted where there is no need for them.

Sometimes, the construction of sentences is so convoluted that they can only be explained if it is assumed that they are translated directly from Urdu. Many words are used in peculiar ways unrelated to their import. Have synonyms been used without taking into account the different nuances of meanings? Dialogue, which is extremely sparse, is also stilted and unnatural.

The book is not an easy read. The contents are not of universal interest and the prose, suffering from stylistic peculiarities and a severe lack of editing, frustrates the reader. He/she is forced to start skimming, so as to gloss over the mistakes and uninteresting details.

The book is not ostensibly an autobiography, but there are many similarities in the lives of Saleem and the author. The inspiration and the events, the factors and the stimuli that mould Iftikhar Malik into Professor Emeritus Iftikhar Malik, the pride of Pakistan, can be discerned in his novel. It is, however, a privilege to see how an ordinary young man from the Potohar conquers the world with his intellect.

The reviewer is a freelance writer, author of the novel The Tea Trolley and translator of Toofan Se Pehley: Safar-i-Europe Ki Diary

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 9th, 2024

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