Author: Nishith Vasavada
From the beginning, one gets a sense of tumult and turmoil, and yet in the midst of these, Sakeena Husain, whose name means tranquility, lives life as a privileged and wealthy college student who has a crush on her brother Anwar’s best friend, Rohan Qureshi, and agonises over whether he cares for her or not.
The setting is liberal, fashionable Karachi but it is the early ‘80s, when General Zia-ul-Haq is in power. A strict interpretation of Islam is slowly coming into focus, changing the dynamics of life for the people, especially women, and changing, for the worse, the face of modern Pakistan.
The chapters are told from randomly alternating first person viewpoints of Sakeena, Rohan and Munir Qureshi, Rohan’s grandfather. The author has handled successfully the tricky job of writing from the point of view of the opposite gender, as he does with Sakeena.
The story is divided into three Books, each carrying the story inexorably forward. The first Book establishes the setting, as Sakeena and others of her acquaintance slowly become aware of how their country is changing. Several chapters told through the viewpoint of Munir flow seamlessly, almost like a memoir, and give us an insight into the past and his early days in Pakistan, the land the old man chose to make his own after the Partition of India, the land that decades later continues to call him Muhajir, or refugee.
Book 2 sees the youngsters enroll at Karachi University, where events, that will have a lasting impact on all their lives, begin to unfold. Anwar and Rohan befriend Nadeem who teaches them to shoot a TT-pistol, an escapade that turns horribly wrong and ends up in Rohan committing the worst mistake of his life. Meanwhile, Sakeena befriends Kaneez, a Pathan girl, at the University. Kaneez’s mother, Mor, a journalist, proves to be a significant influence in Sakeena’s life.
Mor opens up a whole new world for Sakeena, one of English literature and journalism. Of words and their impact on people and the world around them, and how they can be used as a potent tool to change the world.
To the dictum, Write what you know, Mor adds her own, Know what you write, an effective reminder not only to Sakeena, but also to me as I aspire to write my own book, that research is critical. It is a piece of advice that Vasavada has adopted unstintingly, as is visible in the manner in which he has brought Pakistan alive, despite never having lived there. In fact, the idea for the book arose out of his own mother’s longing for Karachi, the city that she and her family fled in the turmoil following Partition.
Under Mor’s guidance, Sakeena and Kaneez help with research for an article on violence on college campuses that the former is commissioned to write. The article hurts the sentiments of Islamic fundamentalists, who rough up and try to abduct Kaneez. Sakeena is away on a family holiday in London at that time.
Mor and Kaneez move to New Delhi, but Sakeena does not escape retribution either. On an outing, Sakeena’s dad’s car is ambushed; her father and Anwar are grievously injured, and she and Rohan kidnapped. There is no demand for ransom.
In Book 3, the action becomes more real and raw, as the narration shifts to present tense. Rohan and Sakeena seek ways to escape, but the noose seems to tighten around them. When ethnic riots break out, Sakeena’s attempts to speak out against tryranny and injustice through her writing, and Rohan’s own act of self-defending violence against a sympathizer of the ruling Islamic government manifest an irrevocable change in their lives.
Against this highly unstable and conflict ridden backdrop, the tumult of first love plays on.
The book is very beautifully written, but there are a few words, carelessly retained that make one wish for the services of a good editor.
The characterization is realistic and true to detail. Living on the subcontinent, it is not hard to bring to mind characters of that type.
The women here are strong, whether it be Sakeena, Kaneez, Mor or Nabeela, Munir’s wife. Vasavada has done complete justice to the female character. From Nabeela, who, as a young bride, opposes her husband's decision to move to Pakistan, to decades later, when she is returning from India, and can hold her own emotions better than Munir who finds the separation from India quite unbearable.
Another strong character is Taheera, Sakeena’s mother, who even in her restrained circumstances, knows how to get her way for herself and her daughter.
But it is Mor whose influence drives a greater part of the plot and helps the heroine to discover her calling. This woman has books overflowing out of every nook in her apartment, certainly my idea of perfect décor.
I must make a mention about the plot development. At the beginning of the book, both Sakeena and Rohan are carefree, wealthy teenagers. Naïve about life, Sakeena knows nothing about the other Karachi, one of deprivation, filth and misery that lies carefully hidden from her life of privilege. Through the course of the novel, they both discover the other side of Pakistan, and realize firsthand the turbulence that pervades the land that their ancestors have made their own. Their characters make radical choices that shape their own destinies and alter their circumstances forever.
The similarities, both good and bad that Pakistan shares with India, strike you immediately. They are evident in the wry observations when Sakeena says, “girls always get the blame no matter how badly boys behave.” As also when she says, “They (boys) don’t have to tell anyone where they’re going or when they will be back,” and worst of all, rape, “the worst revenge against a woman in Pakistan.”
There are of course the basic similarities of food and colour and the raucousness and chaos of life that strike the Westerner more often than they do us. It makes one wonder why we don’t get along when we have so much in common. But there is the other side to it.
Like India, Pakistan is mired in divisions of caste, creed and region, unable to embrace its own people, unable to live and let live. We are both deeply entrenched in the shackles of patriarchy.
We receive further evidence of how similar we are. The author describes the two nations as brothers who meant to live in separate home and visit often, but end up wanting to rip each other’s throats apart.
As an Indian born decades after India won her Independence, there is a strange love-hate relationship that I feel we, as Indians, have with Pakistan. The very concept of Pakistan both fascinates and frightens us.
Reading Sakoon, I felt a tinge of sadness for all those whose lives were uprooted in the wake of the Partition. It helped me understand the sense of betrayal they feel at how the idea that had once captured their imagination has let them down.
Vasavada offers a critique on the crumbling state of Pakistan, hemmed as it was in the ‘80s between the Soviet Union which occupies neighbouring Afghanistan, and its nemesis, India. The author discusses through the medium of conversation “the impact of political bombshells that had gone off in the past five years and how they had shaped the world.” Elsewhere, Munir thinks, “In trying to spark the genius of Pakistan, Zia had let loose the genie of religious fervor that would never go back in the bottle of its own will.”
In another place, the author says, “What is history but a random collision of events and personalities with one constantly battling to control the other.” And amid this fearsome machinery struggle the common people who get trampled upon. Sakoon is the story of those trampled people.
At school, we learn hardly anything about the history of the subcontinent and how it relates to the world, and even when we do, we reduce it to a banal memorization of facts and dates. Historical fiction is an effective tool for teaching history and making it come alive.
Sakoon is the kind of story that seems made for celluloid.
If that happens, I’d still say, read the book.