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The Shadow of History

Imagination and reality mesh together in Fatima Bhutto’s first novel.

Written by Dilip Bobb |
November 2, 2013 5:52:52 am

Imagination and reality mesh together in Fatima Bhutto’s first novel.

Book: The Shadow of the Crescent Moon

Author: Fatima Bhutto

Publisher: Viking

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Pages: 232

Price: Rs 499

The Bhutto backstory,bloodied by tragedy,would rival any fictional narrative. Fatima Bhutto’s grandfather,Pakistani prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto,was executed by his army chief. Her father,Murtaza Bhutto,was shot dead by the police when her aunt Benazir was the prime minister. Murtaza’s brother Shahnawaz was mysteriously poisoned and Benazir herself was assassinated in 2007. Fatima has opted to remain out of politics,though her role as a social activist and commentator,and the resonance of the family name,does place her on its fringes. In that sense,she is a rebel,her intellectually-tinged activism giving her a unique platform. She has used it well,having published a collection of poetry,a memoir on her father’s death,Songs of Blood and Swords,and another book on the massive 2005 earthquake in POK,and now,her first novel,The Shadow of the Crescent Moon.

The crescent,the most visible symbol of Islam,is at the core of this ambitious work,and that is largely due to the setting; Mir Ali,the tribal town in militant-infested north Waziristan,on the Afghan border. It was here that a bloody military battle took place in 2007 between the Taliban and the Pakistan military,leaving 200 dead. Not much has changed since then and the author uses that backdrop to flesh out the clash of ideologies,of religion (Shia and Sunni),of the medieval versus the modern,military versus militant,and the struggle of women to emerge from the shadows. The entire book spans a period between breakfast and noon on one day. The focus is on three brothers,all very different from each other,and two women. Aman Erum,who has just returned home from America,Sikandar,a doctor,and Hyatt,a young idealist. The two women,Mina,married to Sikandar,and Samarra,once Aman’s love and now close to Hyatt,are really the scimitars in the storyline,both fiercely independent,hard-edged and troubled by the conflict around them.

To live and love in such turbulent and isolated surroundings makes it almost inevitable that there will be difficult,even terrible choices,that will be made. The three brothers meet for breakfast on a Friday,and set out on their separate ways. It is a day,or half-a-day,that will change all their lives in devastating circumstances. At a subliminal level,the author treads a familiar path; as a feminist and advocate for the rights of women in a feudal,Islamic culture. The book begins with the three brothers but it is the women who gradually take over. Their stories become the core around which the narrative unravels. Mina and Samarra are both unconventional,even revolutionary. Mina lost her young son to militancy and now attends funerals uninvited,in an attempt to offer solace to the martyrs of Mir Ali. Samarra,young,beautiful,principled but formidable in her lightness of being. Bhutto has obviously used the women own life,from Benazir to her stepmother who she lives with in Karachi,to enrich her story of what it is to be a woman and survive in a feudal,fractured society.

Fiction battles with reality as the author tries,with not much success,to bring the various strands together. There are flashbacks which interrupt the narrative and add a jarring note,and the plot gets disjointed as a result. Despite the literary flaws,this is a powerful novel because of the setting and the reality of life in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. The genre may be fiction,but Bhutto brings a gritty realism to what could easily be today’s headlines in strife-torn Pakistan.

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