Ravaged Land

Reading Nadeem Aslam’s last novel, Maps for Lost Lovers (2004), was an exhilarating experience—bewitching visual imagery and two unusual, endearing characters drove its narrative. Aslam, a Pakistani novelist based in the UK, spent 11 years writing it, and that showed.

The Wasted Vigil: By Nadeem Aslam, Penguin India, 400 pages, Rs599

But because of his story’s astonishing breadth—covering about a quarter of a century in Afghanistan—and its characters, it’s a spin worth taking.

The cast: Marcus Caldwell, an English widower; Zameen, his daughter; Lara, a Russian woman (in search of her missing brother); David Town and James Palantine, two Americans; Casa, a radical young man intent on his own path of jihad; and Dunia, an Afghan teacher. They congregate in unusual circumstances in Marcus’ house, an old perfume factory in the shadow of the haunting Tora Bora mountains.

What ensues is a series of events where love is gained and lost, and mysteries unfolded. The book is an unflinching portrait of Afghanistan’s beautiful, bruised lanscape, its people and its soul.

Shop girls

After many titles related to the South Asian immigrant experience in the US and UK in the last two years—most having dealt with arranged marriage, identity pangs, search for ancestral roots or bastardization of tradition—I was wary of picking up a book that had the word “curry" in the title itself.

But Saumya Balsari’s The Cambridge Curry Club has packed in many surprises. Because it was a stage screenplay, the book has a unique structure—it takes place during the course of a day in IndiaNeed, a second-hand charity shop owned by an English woman in Cambridge, and ends in a somewhat incredulous climax.

Four women work here—three of them (Heera, Swarnakumari and Durga) are Indian immigrants and the fourth is Irish. All of them are as different from each other as they are similar, and the same old diaspora themes crop up here and there, but Balsari does infuse a wry humour into her characters that sets them apart. She makes the small facts about her characters revelatory.

The Cambridge Curry Club is a slice-of-life novel; Balsari is not interested in existential questions and immigrant angst. Remember 2005’s forgettable telefilm Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee? Meera Syal and Ayesha Dharker played roles of women at the cusp of happiness and desperation, all the while coping with their British-Indianness. The Cambridge CurryClub reminded me of the film, but certainly Balsari’s book is breezier, and genuinely funny in parts.

sanjukta.s@livemint.com

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