Lahore Calling

3 minute read
Tim Kindseth

These are prolific, topical times for Pakistani fiction. Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, published in early 2007, was the first of the recent bloom. Hamid’s unnerving novella, about a Princeton grad who grows a beard, quits his fancy New York consulting job and returns home to Lahore after 9/11, was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Mohammed Hanif’s 2008 novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes, based on the 1988 plane crash that killed General Zia ul-Haq, was a finalist for the Guardian first-book award. And Daniyal Mueenuddin’s superb In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, a sage, Chekhovian collection of tales set in rural Punjab, has been wowing critics since publication in February. Ali Sethi’s hefty novel The Wish Maker, set mostly in Lahore during the 1990s and early 2000s, is also certain to keep the critics talking.

Sethi’s engrossing if uneven debut is written in astoundingly assured prose that belies the author’s youth (he is 25), particularly in his throbbing takes of contemporary Lahore, where he grew up and returned to after his undergrad years at Harvard. He describes everything from the “mewl of bargainers” at a fabric shop to card games played by bored guards at gated homes like the one in which middle-class narrator Zaki Shirazi lives. Also in the house are three related women whose lives mirror the tottering arc of recent Pakistani history — from partition to the bruised Bhutto years, caught between purdah and leggy Jane Fonda workout tapes, Suzuki Swifts and donkey carts. They are Zaki’s grasping grandmother Daadi; his widowed mom Zakia, editor of a progressive women’s magazine that criticizes the government and runs interviews with acid-attack victims; and Zaki’s teenage cousin Samar Api, who is on a lame quest to find an Amitabh Bachchan to sweep her off her feet.

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The novel (national epic, family saga and testy teen drama knotted into one) meanders — including an abrupt jaunt to Granada, where Zakia and Zaki vacation just so, it seems, Sethi can make a point about the high potential of Islamic culture. And it’s burdened by clichés: the love of all things Bollywood; mingy mothers-in-law; the kid who escapes to an American university. Still, Sethi’s sharp eye, worthy of being an entomologist’s, makes the book a steadily absorbing read, all 400-plus pages of it. Recollecting his first day at a private boy’s academy, Zaki remembers of a classroom: “A dead wasp lay on its back in a corner of the windowsill with its legs curled up. It had wandered in past the mesh and never found its way out.” It’s a muted metaphor not just for Zaki but for Pakistan as a whole. It’s this kind of nuanced detail in The Wish Maker, moreover, that leaves you wishing for much more from Sethi, whose buzzing talent is unmistakable.

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