Two relationships—a romance that should not have turned into a marriage but does, and another that can only be accepted if sanctified by law but is not—lie at the heart of Pakistani writer Azhar Abidi’s new novel Twilight.
Abidi’s book is set, like Mohammed Hanif’s recent The Case of Exploding Mangoes, in the mid-1980s, the Zia ul Haq years. But while Hanif’s book is a satire on the pompousness and venality of the political class, Abidi’s work is a sombre exploration of the individual’s relationship to family, history and society, and is rooted in the point of view of an ageing matriarch, Bilqis Ara Begum.
Bilqis’ home is her kingdom, and she sees it as a bulwark against the declining standards of the age. In an impressive early paragraph, Abidi moves smoothly from her looks—her fair, slightly freckled skin, her hands with their small wrists and long fingers, her upright carriage—to what this picture is representative of, which is the confidence and good breeding of an aristocratic order that is “not so much acquired as inherited”. Bilqis is one of those, as she says herself, “who think of our past when we imagine our future”.
Twilight: Penguin/Viking, 216 pages, Rs399.
The crisis in Bilqis’ life is that her only child Samad, who was sent abroad to study, has married an Australian girl, Kate, and decided to settle down in Melbourne. Bilqis is depressed by her son’s decision, but she is too broad-minded to oppose it; Samad is consumed by guilt at having disappointed his mother, and yet wishes to defend himself from her resentment. Abidi’s novel begins with the scene of the newly-weds back in Karachi, and leads us through a set of conversations that bring out the undercurrents of tension in Bilqis’ home.
A notion native to feudal life is that one’s servants are also like one’s children, and in this sense Bilqis has a second and seemingly more reliable child: Mumtaz, the capable daughter of her servant of many decades, Hameeda. Bilqis regrets the time, surely not far off, when the girl will be married and leave home for good. Abidi, having showed us one set of coordinates—class, race, religion—mixing uneasily in the relationship between Samar and Kate, now leads his story away towards another pair. While Bilqis is away in Australia, Mumtaz falls in love with a security guard, Omar, who reveals that he is actually a Kashmiri freedom fighter. Mumtaz fatally compromises herself, but when the truth comes out, it is Bilqis who moves swiftly to limit the damage. Meanwhile, Omar departs for the slopes of Kashmir, where he meets the martyr’s end for which he thirsts.
Abidi’s first novel, Passarola Rising, was an exuberant, world-roving tale of two brothers and a flying carpet in 18th century Europe, so the material and style of Twilight will surprise most readers. This in itself is not something to be criticized: We need more writers who set themselves new challenges. Rather, what is difficult about Twilight is that it takes up a kind of story that has already been worked at extensively in both Urdu and English, and does not noticeably expand or renovate the tradition.
But at least one knows that Abidi will try something different again next time.
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