Fatima Bhutto’s debut novel is populated by unforgettable characters.
Strong women characters, poetic language that the Indian reader subconsciously, rather absurdly, believes would sound thrilling in Urdu (like a lyric from a classic Bollywood film miraculously found in translation), and a plot that careens towards a grand blood-spattered disaster: The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, Fatima Bhutto’s debut fiction work is like many other recent novels that have emerged from Pakistan.
Indeed, the reader is apt to wonder if, by some inexplicable fictional twist, she has wandered into a mashup of Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist set this time in Waziristan because Punjab has, well, been done to death.
“We tell a lot of stories in Pakistan but we don’t really talk about a certain group of people, we always talk about ‘people like us’,” Bhutto says at a meeting at her publisher’s office in Delhi. “Not much has been written about the way turbulence affects women and those who we’ve pushed to the periphery,” she says revealing that much of the book’s material emerged from her journalistic work.
“I wrote a column for a Pakistani newspaper for two years and I travelled a lot; I went to Quetta, to Afghan refugee camps in Peshawar, to Chitral, anywhere that I could reach. It’s all those journeys that made up the research for the book,” she says.
You are ambivalent about the meeting.
Fatima Bhutto’s new book is interesting; some of her characters like the grieving Mina who gate crashes funerals of the young dead are unforgettable and certain vignettes — of Ghazan Ali and Inayat and their children “fishing for brown trout in the icy streams of the northern valleys”, and Aman Erum’s long trek to the US embassy in Islamabad — stay with the reader, but the book isn’t engaging in the all-consuming way of the instant classic like, by all accounts, Bhutto’s earlier work of non fiction, Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir, was.
You feel a twinge of irritation then, a distaste at the realisation that you’ve chosen to meet Fatima Bhutto not because of her new book but because of who she is, her family’s spectacularly violent history (her grandfather, the prime minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged by General Zia-Ul-Haq, and her father Mir Murtaza was gunned down after he split with his sister Benazir Bhutto, who was herself assassinated in 2007), and because of the cult of celebrity that immediately sweeps articulate, good looking women writers into an asphyxiating embrace.
The aura of blood-tinged glamour and her beautiful bones might make Bhutto irresistible to socialites, the success of whose soirées depend on the cachet of the guest of honour, but serious Indian readers who suddenly find themselves shaking their heads towards the end of the book will feel the writer has been let down by her editors.
A central character, Samarra, is insufficiently fleshed out and a crucial plot twist is unconvincing. “It’s curious who people like or don’t like. The few who have read it in the UK have liked Samarra. Here, Mina is the favourite perhaps because her journey is more complete and we are also more exposed to her suffering in a different way than to Samarra’s,” says Bhutto, who, to her credit, has sensitively explored the Shia-Sunni conflict and the separatist ferment in the fringe areas of Pakistan. She has written convincingly too about people who are not from her own milieu and explored how women survive in turbulent times.
“Samarra’s anger is very different than Mina’s grief. Samarra’s silence and her withdrawal is different than Mina’s probing but both are rooted to where they are and who they are,” Bhutto says explaining away the illogical plot twist as an illustration of the extent to which individuals will go to survive in “an atmosphere that demands sacrifice”.
“We see it all the time in Pakistan; this notion of ‘Take my neighbour, don’t take me’. It’s not that people are cruel or nasty; it’s the need to be at a safe distance,” she says.
Only the privileged or collaborators can avoid being “sacrificed”. Not that the privileged are always protected in South Asia as Bhutto’s own family history attests. “Certainly, in Pakistan, the notion that families even can turn against each other is not unusual, sadly,” Bhutto says adding that shared cultural roots mean she rarely has to explain context to Indian readers.
You wonder then if your discomfort with the Orientalism of the title and dissatisfaction with the book’s denouement reveals a traitorous un-subcontinental streak. But Bhutto needn’t worry. The Shadow of the Crescent Moon will be immensely popular abroad and, in all likelihood, will be snapped up in India too. This reader, though, can’t get no satisfaction.