Every novelist has his or her models, and three hundred years into the life of the art form, it would be hard to write a novel that did not belong to this or that novelistic tradition. But even by this standard, Shahbano Bilgrami’s Without Dreams stands out for the debt it owes in content, style and form to a single novel: Khaled Hosseini’s schmaltzy best-seller of 2003, The Kite Runner.
Bilgrami’s book, longlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize 2007, features, as does Hosseini’s, a household with an authoritarian patriarch, two boys (one master, one servant) who share an uneasy bond, several good shakes of trauma and violence, a terrible secret, and a mawkish and overheated style falling over itself in its attempt to ring alarm bells in the ears of the reader.
Without Dreams: HarperCollins India, 244 pages,Rs275.
The two protagonists of Bilgrami’s story are Haroon Rizwan, the privileged scion of a wealthy businessman, and the orphaned servant boy Abdul, who was picked off the streets as an urchin and taken into the household. In his dreams, Abdul dimly recalls some great conflagration in his early childhood, senses “a history rooted in a far-off place peopled by dead men”. He watches silently from the sidelines as Haroon goes to school, is doted on by his parents, hangs out with friends. In contrast, Abdul works all day and is bullied by all the older manservants; he is the “last, lowest and most despised” in the Rizwan household. If he feels warmth for any figure—a confused, perplexed warmth—it is for Haroon’s beautiful mother Tahira.
Meanwhile, Haroon’s own existence is darkened by his father’s abusive behaviour towards his mother, which he obsessively recapitulates in his own mind just as Abdul tries to comb his memory for traces of his own story. Bilgrami’s exhausting descriptions of heat, dust, longing, and suffering, grinding metaphors, and ham-handed dialogue paradoxically create a mood in which the reader is just as desperate for release as the characters who pass before his eyes.
Indeed, an examination of Bilgrami’s dialogue might serve to illustrate the many faults of this book. I was perplexed to find early on exchanges between servants which run like this: “Haan, haan, he’s dreaming of some bitch. Saala, harami!” and “Get off, uff, get off you filthy bastard!” Bilgrami’s assumption that the speech of lower-class men is always lewd and full of cuss words is dubious enough, but what gives her dialogue an air of unintentional comedy is the way it shuttles anachronistically between two languages. Meanwhile, Haroon’s father is shown using the F-word, which has presumably not yet percolated down to the working classes, because their lexicon of swear words in translation reaches its limit with the bitches and bastards which speckle their uffs and their haans. Bilgrami is here completely dragged into the quagmire which lies in wait for all Indian and Pakistani novelists writing in English, and which demands from them a more original approach to writing dialogue than this one. Characters who are already stereotypes become even more cartoonish when they open their mouths.
The relentless sense of alarm in Bilgrami’s narration, which is always running ahead of itself, whether in chapter openings (“The city was merciless that winter of 1983/84, the year that life changed for the Rizwans and for their servant boy, Abdul”) or endings (“Little did Abdul know…that by the sweltering October of 1983, he was well on his way to becoming an urban legend”), furnishes yet more examples of her unsophisticated approach to storytelling. But if you loved your Hosseini, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t see what you think of Without Dreams.
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