Reviews of the latest books from and on Southasia

The Wish Maker
by Ali Sethi
Hamish Hamilton, 2009

This is a sophisticated print version of the ubiquitous generational television family drama all too common across Southasia. Told from the eyes of phoren-returned Zaki Shirazi, whose trip home to Karachi is the trigger for the story, the thinly veiled autobiographical narrative fails to grip. The standard-issue dominant grandmother, widowed journalist mother and umpteen cousins, uncles, aunts and family retainers make up the cast of this long and rambling debut novel. The broad canvas of the 1980s childhood of Zaki and his aunt Samar Api – more like a sister – does provide some captivating vignettes of Pakistan's turbulent political scene, with Zaki's mother Zakia's rebellious involvement in street protests juxtaposed with Benazir Bhutto's flamboyance. However, despite some engaging snippets such as Samar's Bollywood obsession, or her crusade to lose weight via Jane Fonda DVDs, Sethi, like Zaki, cannot seem to shake off his outsider location, despite repeated entreaties to the reader to behold and exult in his belonging. The result is a Pakistan put on display, with the trivial dissected to transform the mundane into exotica, and a stilted effort to portray the ordinariness and universality of love and longing. If this is what the back cover announces as the "new global novel", give us the local. (Laxmi Murthy)

The Al Qaeda Connection: The Taliban and terror in Pakistan's tribal areas
by Imtiaz Gul
Viking, 2009

Whatever the diagnosis – too much top-level access, an overemphasis on desk-based analysis, or simply aiming at a different audience than this reviewer – the ailments in this new work remain the same. While literally encyclopaedic with regards to the complicated militant structures in the 'Af-Pak' frontier – here's a chapter offering vignettes on the various tribal agencies in Pakistan; here's one giving brief bios of the major militant leaders – there is little that goes beyond this approach, too little to cogently tie together the various, seemingly disparate strands. Sadly, for a major new effort from a senior journalist with a trunkful of relevant reportage spanning decades, most lacking in the narrative is any great feeling for what is actually taking place on the ground. Giving readers such a rooted understanding is crucial in the aftermath of the recent death of Baitullah Mehsud. For instance, an early chapter titled "Why Pakistan's Tribal Areas Fell to Al Qaeda" seems to promise exactly the answers, or at least exactly the analysis, that many readers would be seeking from such a work. Yet once a too-cursory history lesson finishes up, readers are stuck with such over-generalised blandishments as, "The presence of the Al Qaeda hierarchy … provided the requisite inspiration to the ultra-conservative and religious tribesmen of Waziristan to join the ranks of Pakistani Taliban." While Gul is quick to note when he spoke with, say, the new governor, the president or the head of the Pakistan Army, the proof of his actual interaction with those "ultra-conservative tribesmen" is oddly lacking throughout. A top-down look at this endlessly complex situation is not only unsatisfactory, but unhelpful. (Carey L Biron)

The Nepalese Peace Process
by Birendra Prasad Mishra
Fine Print, 2009

Lauded as the peace process in Nepal has been, there is a dearth of literature in English analysing the intricacies surrounding the progress from an armed insurgency to peace (if one can describe the current situation as such). More strikingly, much of the existing work along these lines has been produced by non-Nepalis. Mishra's text, covering the period from November 2005 to January 2009, is a notable effort to fill this gap. The book succinctly summarises the events of these four years, paying attention to the dynamics between the personalities that shaped the process, and as such is ideal for those wanting to familiarise themselves with the conflict. All the same, it is disappointing that Mishra, a longtime player in and observer of Nepali politics, does not expand in any significant way readers' understanding of the issues. As the coordinator of the now-defunct National Peace Monitoring Committee for the Ceasefire Code of Conduct, Mishra is the most appropriate person to talk about the subject. And he maintains, in the preface, that he will pay "special attention" to the lack of adequate monitoring – something he, and others, deems to be one of the more important flaws of the entire exercise. In the text itself, however, the topic is treated in a surprisingly cursory manner. Perhaps Mishra simply stretched himself too thin, by undertaking to explore too much in under 80 pages? (Surabhi Pudasaini)

Do You Suppose It's the East Wind?
edited/translated by Muhammad Umar Memon
Penguin, 2009

From the Urdu comes this consuming collection of short stories, a relatively new form for the language. Following from a tradition of expressive intensity through poetry, these stories take advantage of the medium to add depth and fluency to complex internal emotions. Digging deep into the personal experience, many stories evolve over a slow process of realisation, seemingly giving each expression the breadth of a novel. Like the story of Ghulam Ali, in the pre-eminent Urdu short-fiction writer Saadat Hasan Manto's "For Freedom's Sake", who after a lifetime of living by a rigid set of ideals embraces his natural world, with all of its freedoms. Those who have a tendency towards epicurean indulgence will find companion in these stories as well, from the penetrating cadence spilling out of the strings of a sarod to the simpler pleasures of revisiting childhood memories. In "Gulab Khas", by Abul Fazl Siddiqi, the millions of unknown varieties and flavours of mango are described in intricate detail, before the historic five-yearly mango show takes its run in Avadh and Rohilkhand. This selection not only takes you on a vertical ride into the crevasses of feeling; it also stays true to the diversity of a language community larger than the speakers of Arabic, Persian and Turkish combined. (Smriti Mallapaty)

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