The most startling feature of Ali Sethi’s debut novel The Wish Maker is that although it is around 400 pages long, its protagonist (who is also for the most part its narrator) is a cipher, registering on our consciousness as not very much more than a pair of eyes. When we meet Zaki Shirazi for the first time, he has just returned to his family home in Lahore (and, inevitably, to a wedding) after two years as a student in the US. What should be the beginning of the book’s action is actually pretty much the end, and Zaki spends his time observing the new Pakistan (“We passed a hoarding on the bridge. It was advertising a new deal for mobile phones...”; “At night I went with Isa and Moosa to see the new places of leisure”) and lapsing into loops of ever-retreating flashbacks.
The Wish Maker swiftly reveals itself, for those who have any experience of the genre, as that old South Asian chestnut, the three-generation novel: one tier retailing memories of Partition, the second covering the era of the wars with India and the Bangladeshi independence struggle, and the third, the Pakistan of the present day, both modern and medieval when seen through the narrator’s wide-eyed gaze (“She said that such things were common in the villages, where customs were old and went largely untouched by the new ways that developed continually in the cities”). There is plenty of faux-journalistic observation, a score of aunts, cousins and servants, and a number of songs and a wedding, none of which can conceal the instrinsic hollowness of the mind and voice that speaks.
Underbelly: Sethi’s characters have a fascination for Bollywood heroes and heroines. Arif Ali / AFP
Sometimes such stories can be redeemed by depth of characterization or distinction of language, but strangely enough for someone writing his first book, Sethi shows no desire to challenge any of the rules of an old, old game. Although Zaki has been brought up in Pakistan, and has been away for just two years, his eye is always noticing things such as “old men sitting under trees on the footpath with colourful powders and bottles”, even as his memory is recalling such momentous occurrences as “After the maths period there was the physics period, and after that chemistry, for which we had to go to the chemistry lab in a line led by the teacher...”
Further, Sethi is the sort of writer who tries to cover all bases simultaneously, aware of the need to record—indeed to celebrate—the specifics of culture, language and place, while also trying not to turn off a global audience whose apprehension of these things is dim (one of the blurbs on the back cover of his book acclaims it as “a brilliant example of the new global novel”). He is the kind of writer who, when writing about a visit to a neighbourhood, will say that it was “a mohalla, a neighbourhood”. Sometimes he can write an interesting English: A sentence about how the sun is “like a difficult god, present in the things it made visible” was one of the few bits of the book I enjoyed. But Sethi’s language is also specked with local colour in the most cliched way, with a carefully italicized “hai” here and a “taubah” there, and (since no narrative is authentic without a sampling of local swear words) one calculated mention each of the words “bhenchod” and “maaderchod”.
The same imperative guides his attitude towards cultural detail, towards what he thinks should be explained and what only named. Zaki’s cousin, Samar Api, idolizes Amitabh Bachchan, who “was said to be the most famous actor in the world”. A police officer sits under “a framed portrait of the Quaid-e-Azam, the founder of the nation” (if an Indian novelist wrote such a line about a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, we would think he or she was being ironic). I have no idea what Sethi’s politics are, but I was surprised to see Benazir Bhutto’s personal and political life described in great detail while, when he approaches the political scene of the late 1990s, Sethi devotes a few pages to Nawaz Sharif without ever naming him, only saying that “(Daadi) was pleased when her man won the election”. These are the riddles and puzzles, more than the mysteries of character or situation, that the reader of The Wish Maker ends up pondering.
Although vibrant and complex fiction in English about Pakistan is being written currently by—to name only a few—Aamer Hussein, Nadeem Aslam, Mohammed Hanif, Azhar Abidi, and Daniyal Mueenuddin—Sethi’s tutelary deity is clearly the Afghan émigré Khaled Hosseini, who has supplied an enthusiastic blurb for the front cover.
The Wish Maker: Hamish Hamilton, 406 pages, Rs499.
Sethi’s very title seems to reach out towards the large global audience which delighted in Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. He replicates many of Hosseini’s faults, though to my ear his prose has a slightly richer sound than Hosseini’s blundering and bathetic narrations. If this utterly banal and almost willfully unsubtle work is really an example of “the new global novel”, then let us turn to our so-called local writers instead.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.
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