Review: Mehr; A Love Story by Siddhartha Gigoo
Siddhartha Gigoo’s new novel is about a messy love affair magnified by India and Pakistan’s legendary love-hate relationshipUpdated: Dec 15, 2018, 10:57 IST
“Thus I begin, not at the beginning, but at the end when I met her for the first time”.
The blurb on Siddhartha Gigoo’s novel Mehr: A Love Story brought to mind the unforgettable opening line from Graham Greene’s classic The End of the Affair - “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead”.
However, unlike Greene’s book, Mehr isn’t a tale of adultery though it is about an equally messy love affair. Actually, a messier personal-political affair magnified by India and Pakistan’s legendary love-hate relationship.
Mehr, a Shia woman from Pakistan, has fallen in love with Firdaus, a youngster from Kashmir. Their love is intense – as intense as it can get over email exchanges – both yearning to meet the other, both willing to take the risks to be with the other.
Mehr un Nisa is a much-older woman, who holds a British and a Pakistani passport, has lived in London and runs a foundation that invests in developmental projects across South Asia. She generously funds the studies of young Pakistanis and Indians, globetrots, and writes to Firdaus daily from wherever she is.
Born on the day Pakistan surrendered to India and East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971 – Mehr believes she causes “partitions”. India has dashed her attempts to visit Firdaus by denying her a visa, even though she put her best foot forward with the tried and tested – my-roots-are-there – argument. Her father was an illustrious general in the Pakistani army and this could have been one of the reasons for her requests being declined time and again. Yet, she holds fond and vivid memories of visiting the country as a child with her father and yearns to escape the madness pervading Pakistan to that safe haven across.
Mehr is an accomplished woman who flirts with death by trying to rid the women of Sindh of their “primitive and arcane beliefs and superstitions (that) spell disaster”, and later, by living in a predominantly Shia colony in Karachi – a prime target of anti-Shia groups.
She moves to Karachi in the hope of seeing Firdaus even as the anti-Shia killings peak in the port city that “cries and bleeds”. She worries about being killed and about a little girl called Zainab, she has adopted, and whom she wants Firdaus to take care of if the ongoing rage and violence against her minority community consumes her.
She writes to Firdaus telling him to stop being a mirage; plotting to meet him in London or Istanbul or Kyoto to start anew – even as she understands that in today’s world “riddled with hate and strife, who will cross the border for the sake of love”, or worse – who will even understand this kind of love.
Firdaus is a fabulous writer himself and writes about his travels to Mehr, some real, some imagined. Their affair catches the eye of Indian intelligence officials with one particular officer, for whom hacking passwords is a piece of cake, obsessively tracking Mehr as he believes she holds the key to Firdaus and a sinister plot.
Award-winning author cum filmmaker Gigoo’s book is not an easy read. It isn’t the usual cross border story about passionate love running high on patriotism with the dynamics of religion thrown in, the kind we have become conditioned to read or watch on television.
Gigoo’s characters are intelligently and beautifully crafted. They are lonely and alienated, dealing with love, loss (and death), and are marvelously grey.
Mehr is in search for not the meaning of life, but the meaning of dejection - “Damn the two countries! I don’t care whether I live or die. I don’t care what happens to me. I will come to you no matter what. I live for Pakistan. But I shall die for India. You know why.”
Firdaus wanted to be magician and make the moon and river disappear as a child. He loves Mehr deeply but fears rejection. He sees himself as a flawed ruby, who is not worthy of her, and wonders how he will ever appear in front of her?
The intelligence officer tracking the two lovers, is somewhat delusional, and seeks special permission from his senior to keep Miss Mishima, his cat, with him in the no-man’s land along the India-Pakistan border. More than Mehr’s, it is the portrayal of this character that brings to the fore Gigoo’s brilliance, and his ability to spin tales. This character is also, unfortunately, the reason why the book will be easily misunderstood, or not understood at all.
The twists of fate and plots, the trickiness and the mysteriousness of those who are appointed to guard our borders, the questions of identity and belonging – Gigoo addresses the entire spectrum of issues, and not just love, as the subtitle may have you believe.
Gigoo’s writing is beautiful. And he has poured his heart into this book: “The trouble with falling in love is that, unlike death, love kills you every moment, robbing you, at first, of reason, and then, slowly, consuming you bit by bit until you lose the sense of time, of the true nature of things, and of all other precious relationships.”
The love letters, especially, make for an engrossing read: “Your belated spring has stolen my summer of longing. When will this parting end? When will you keep your promise? When will you stop being a mirage.”
Gigoo’s earlier books are The Garden of Solitude and A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories. In 2015, he won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Asia) for his story The Umbrella Man.
Mehr - which means a full moon in Urdu - captures the complexities of human nature and makes for a perfect movie script. Given Gigoo’s filmmaking skills that isn’t quite asking for the moon.