Author: Uzma Aslam Khan
We’ve all read The Kite Runner, even those of us who haven’t. And suddenly, we all knew everything that was enough to finally place Afghanistan on our mental maps. The book and America have helped place the country in a space where stereotypes are broken and made. Make no mistake, I love The Kite Runner. I also admire the Afghani women, their landscape (thanks to William Dalrymple), and their unforgettable history. But until the book came out, there was no way the outside world could have put its finger on Afghanistan and found that it touched people. People like you and me, and sometimes much more breathtakingly beautiful than we could have imagined. It was a story that changed the narrative.
For me, Trespassing has done that for Pakistan. A country I had little flattering things to say about, and one that I found extremely difficult to empathize with. Yes, I admit openly to finding it hard to reconcile with our neighbor; in many ways it is customary. But that has thawed with the reading of this book, and I am glad it has done so. Of course, it should have been thawed by Coke Studio, too, but I’m a bit of a book worm. Trespassing has opened up a side of the country that I touched and found, guess what, humans. Like you and me, going about their lives wondering when it will make meaning.
Set against the backdrop of a silk farm and a house in which a death has occurred, it weaves the stories of many, many people together. Right from the owners of the silk farm to the workers, and the help of the houses in which deaths occur to their inhabitants. It is also quite elaborately about silk worms and the process of making silk. And about sea shells and the process of identifying and collecting them. And then, the two people who harbor these uncommon interests meet, in secrecy.
Daanish, the America-return son of a doctor meets Dia at the Quran Khwani of his father’s death. Meanwhile, Dia has been grappling with the mysterious disappearance and death of her own father and a best friend who wants to leave everything aside to get married. Daanish is unable to come to terms with the doctored opportunities that his chosen profession – journalism – might provide him, and his father’s warning rings in his ear when his American professors discourage him from writing about the Gulf War. Dia has failed her economics exam and has to retake it at the University in Pakistan, which she attends in between visits to her mother’s silk farm escorted by armed guards.
The book also discusses the lives of secondary characters and their aches and aids to the protagonists. The role of both the mothers in the lives of their children as well as their relationships with their respective husbands. The integral and yet, intrusive part that house help play in the Pakistani families. The growing crimes and organized freedom-seeking groups in Pakistan. The scarcity of resources in Karachi and atrocities of weather on its people. The beaches, buses, humidity, and the valleys of Pakistan. Also, since this book was written almost a decade ago, it skims the participation of the media and America in the growing unrest in the Middle East. And yes, the part love plays in all our lives, and the things we do for love.
This is a layered book, and very finely done so. In some places, the writing is brilliant with shifting perspective, phrases, and the imagery. In others, it’s tedious at times what with the elaborate sub-plot of Salaamat, the house help. One may wonder how many people can relate to characters that observe silk worms with obsession, collect shells of rare kinds, and paint buses and fantasize about them, too. However, it doesn’t come across as if the objective of the novel is for us to relate to young love or hard labor, but to portray the human complexities with a universality. And it does achieve that.
The story could very well be set anywhere. But the precision with how it fits in Pakistan somehow solidifies its being. With secrets buried meticulously, and of them being found by others, this book opens up the everyday folk of Pakistan to censure and celebration. The weaved narrative works as both, a cliffhanger as well as a bother, specifically when the rest of the story is right there and you can’t wait to finish it. It’s also not difficult to pick favorite characters and mumble a curse or two for those who trouble your favourites.
All in all, it’s quite refreshing a read that adds perspective and intrigue. Khan’s storytelling helps the cause largely. I have quite enjoyed her writing. While the end is largely predictable, and also quite unremarkable at how it comes about, the rest of the storytelling makes it worth it. Trespassing is a book I picked up by pure chance and based entirely on its cover. It has been quite an enchanting discovery.