Published in Us Magazine, The News International
“But the shadow of that (crescent) moon never faded over Mir Ali. It hung over its sky night after night, condemning the town to life under its cold shadow…”
Arguably amongst the most notable books to have come out of Pakistan in recent times, Fatima Bhutto’s debut novel is a heart-wrenching, tumultuous account of lives that have been pushed to periphery in the country. Set in Mir Ali, a fictitious tribal town where ‘there’s no greater cause than justice’, and which has been ‘made and unmade by partitions’, the book is unusually (maybe at times irrationally) fierce with indignation – nurtured by various forces at hand, both intrinsic and extrinsic.
It’s a Friday morning – a drizzly Eid. Three brothers (Aman, Sikandar and Hayat) meet up at breakfast, assuring each other of going with the plan of praying in different mosques, since it’s too dangerous otherwise. There are two women, Samarra and Mina … both poles apart in their demeanour yet distinguishably steady in their different ways of standing up to adversity. Despite all these voices, the central character of the book remains the one that’s voiceless: the town itself. Meticulous details and solid insights into the past and present of the town make it the heart of the story.
The book deals with various issues, with various dimensions to ‘the war’ to put it one way: drone attacks, the Taliban, missing persons, the Army’s questionable role, the centre’s apathy, the horrendous waves of terrorism and the Shia-Sunni conflict. Yet all these troubles do little to add to the theme of the story besides weighing down the lives of those already wrecked. Despite being very political in tone, the novel’s not a commentary (though the narration is very biased at times). And as it is with fiction, no answers are given. Perhaps, there simply are not any answers to give. Still, one wishes Fatima had remained neutral in her narration. She acts to, but her position comes across way too vividly – and a lot of us will disagree with the way she’s penned down the reality. Her take on the situation is uni-dimensional. She could’ve avoided writing about things she isn’t an expert on. And you simply cannot get away without adequate homework when picking up issues that are as sensitive as these. For starters, ‘raat ki raani’ is not translated as jasmine in English. That should give you an idea about the (lack of) research the book comes with!
Fatima Bhutto’s expression, as usual, is mostly poetic. Beautiful rhetoric claims the place of explanations. The present phase of the book only follows through to the noon of the decisive Friday, but the book keeps on filling us in with past details through flash-backs. Ample use of Pashto words and translations of Rehman Baba’s poetry lend an authentic feel to the book. There’s a sense of realism to all the central characters of the book – marred by confusion at places. The characters’ internal conflict is perhaps one of the best, most relatable points of the book. It questions the sense of belonging: the sacrifices you have to make to affirm your roots in the times of trouble and the sacrifices you have to make to cut those roots and start anew. That said, the setting of the town and its history she describes are a bit out of the blue – distortion both in geography and history can be easily marked out. (It’s a FATA where girls go about jovially on bike-rides with unrelated men and can ‘choose’ to cover their heads. Wow!) And the book hates Army. Completely, powerfully! But that’s not the trouble. The trouble is that even the Taliban are given some benefit of the doubt, but any mention of the Army is replete with downright, incessant bashing. My only point here: way too biased.
So much is lost in tragedy – in the book, in reality. Since the issues dealt with in the book are so relevant, it’s hard to keep the line between fiction and non-fiction from fading at times. You know parts of it to be true, so maybe you’re somewhat prone to taking the part you’re just reading to be true too – except that mostly it isn’t. I don’t know if it works for or against the book, but it definitely gives a streak of importance to the book. And maybe the author gets an edge in the choice of her topic, too.
Some will find the time-lapsed narrative a bit confusing, some will complain it’s definitely too partial and half-baked, others might object to the lack of depth of the characters and so on, but ‘The Shadow of the Crescent Moon’ scores where it hurts the most: bringing to light the stories of those wounded. Perhaps, just as the same way we tend to get over the plethora of bad news around us, we might brush this narrative aside, too, as a continuum of the same news. But the town of Mir Ali, replete with its glorious history, beauty and tragedy is bound to stay with us for some time at least.
It is somewhat over-simplistic in its presentation of some facts. It is sometimes over-exaggerated in its portrayal of some forces. One expected a lot more from Fatima Bhutto, but as it was with her last book, ‘Songs of Blood and Sword’, this book also fails to be accurate on so many levels. Fiction gives you liberty – but not when you’re dealing with things that are the rage. But all in all, it is quite a strong book. And that pretty much is its strongest point too. As Bhutto said in one of her interviews that if there’s one thing she wishes her readers take with them from the book, it’s that violence never is the answer to anything. Too bad the novel, and our country, has too much of it.