Kamila Shamsie talks about her masterful new novel, which touches on, among other things, the experience of Indian soldiers who fought in WW1
It was quite by accident that you stumbled upon the WW1 memorial in Thrissur, Kerala. Irritated by the attendant ticking you off for trying to click the town museum’s star attraction, a mammoth skeleton, you wandered disconsolately into the grounds. “From this village 200 men went to the great war 1914-1919” announced the ivy-covered marble plaque there in a period font that recalls Wilfred Owen’s poetry and photographs of corpses in the trenches at Somme. What could those Malayali villagers have been thinking as they set off to fight in East Africa, Mesopotamia and France, you wonder. Were they motivated by loyalty to Empire? And did any of them ever make it back to the emerald fields of Kerala?
The ghosts of those distant men return as you read British-Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie’s superlative A God in Every Stone that includes in its sweep, the crumbling of the Ottoman empire, the non-violent movement of the Pashtuns in the North West Frontier Province, the devastation of the Great War and the significant Indian contribution to the Allied win now almost forgotten in the centenary year of WW1, and the tortured nature of relationships between the races during the Raj. Other strands that Shamsie weaves into the novel that takes Peshawar — that ancient gateway to India through which everyone from Alexander to Marco Polo passed — as its nub are to do with the adventures of the ancient Greek traveler Skylax, the first explorer of the Indus to whom both Plato and Herodotus refer, a massacre hushed up by the British, a love that’s never consummated, and the peculiar stuffiness of British colonials in India.
If your interest in the subcontinent’s role in the war was piqued by that memorial tablet in Thrissur, Shamsie’s was first awakened by Abdullah Hussein’s classic Urdu novel, Udas Naslain (The Weary Generation) that features an Indian soldier who fought in WW1 and by Mukulika Banerjee’s The Pathan Unarmed about the Khudai Khidmatgar movement led by Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, the “Frontier Gandhi”.
“I became really interested in the story of the non-violent Pashtun particularly because whenever anybody talks about Pathans, it’s about this militant people,” Shamsie says when you meet her at the Lalit Hotel in Delhi. “That struck me as a story that not enough people know. Even in Pakistan, it’s not as well known as it should be.” An awareness of the escalating violence in Peshawar in 2009, while she was launching her last book, Burnt Shadows, news reports about archaeologists discussing ways to protect the priceless artefacts in the Peshawar museum — “It has the world’s biggest collection of really exceptional Gandhara art” — in case of an attack by the Taliban, and her growing understanding of the city’s place in history coalesced into the idea for a book. “If you grew up in Karachi, Peshawar isn’t part of your imagination. Lahore is, Islamabad is, but somehow Peshawar isn’t,” Shamsie says indicating the region’s status as the country’s still-wild fringe. Her new project offered her the chance to channel her love of archaeology and ancient history into a novel that moves between different eras.
It’s structure, Shamsie reveals, gave her trouble and she grappled with the world views of the two brothers — Najeeb, who is immersed in the past through his fascination with archaeology and Qayyum Gul, a WW1 veteran, who slowly begins to comprehend the coexistence of the Empire’s need for Indian cannon fodder with its pathological sexual anxiety about those same soldiers — who are the central characters along with Vivian Rose Spencer, an English archaeologist and one of “the best of the colonials” nevertheless driven by a missionary zeal to ‘civilise’.
“The key to it was in figuring out these two brothers. There’s a scene where one of them says, “History is something to be made and not to be discovered” and the brothers — one of whom has something to discover and one of whom is something to be made — became the way to thinking about how to bring those stories together,” says Shamsie who obsessively read vintage Archaeological Survey of India Frontier Circle Reports and did “tons and tons and tons of research”.
A careful look at all the material she’s marshalled reveals the book’s many layers, much like the cross section of an archeological dig. Indeed, it’s quite like Shamsie’s own description of the Gor Khattri excavation in Peshawar that established it as the oldest city in South Asia, older even than Varanasi: “It’s amazing. You walk down this pit and at every layer you see objects that belong to a different strata of history and they’ll say, “That’s the Persian, that the Sassanids, there’s the Kushans.”
Shamsie has a gift for creating gleaming fiction from the dry historical facts scattered about archives, museums and libraries. Just the section on the Qissa Khwani Bazaar massacre (1930) in Peshawar involved going through extensive colonial records kept by the British, the Congress’ report on the incident that was “several hundred pages long” and thousands of original letters and documents. How much more challenging it must have been to sift through the mountain of material related to the Indian soldiers’ experience of WW1 with which the most arresting, most significant sections of the book deal.
It’s significant mainly because, while the British narrative usually mentions the Indian contribution as an apologetic afterthought, the countries that once comprised British India have almost entirely ignored it. “I can’t speak for India but in Pakistan we ignore practically every part of our history!” Shamsie says wryly. She has a theory, a plausible one, that this is so because fighting for Empire didn’t fit into the stronger narrative of the birth of the nation(s). “It doesn’t really have its place. So when you hear about WW1 it becomes about the concessions that the Brits made in exchange for support from Gandhi or the Muslim League,” she says adding that it was only after she began her research that she learnt nearly a million Indian soldiers had participated. “Something like 10 percent of the entire British armed personnel were Indians,” Shamsie says revealing that she was as perturbed at the sight of a memorial stone in Pakistan: “From this village 200 men went and 100 were killed” as you were by the one in Thrissur.
A God in Every Stone breathes life into history while also making the reader contemplate the issues that continue to plague us – racism, the thinking woman’s struggle to escape stultifying conformity in her quest for a meaningful life, and the Indian subcontinent’s awful propensity to forget its shared history. A rare novel that satisfies the demanding reader at both, the intellectual and emotional levels; that speaks as much to someone in Finsbury Park as it does to someone in Faridabad, Mulund or Marathalli, A God in Every Stone definitely confirms Kamila Shamsie’s place of honour in The Street of Storytellers.