"Female in manners but male in intellect" could well be what a well-heeled, educated Pakistani, of an earlier generation (Pakistan continues to be Edwardian in many respects), might say of the attractive young woman who glides past me in the aisle and announces her arrival with the sweep of her pallu, a claret red - also the colour of her lipstick - and sidles into the seat beside the Director of Literary Events at London's Southbank Centre for the Arts to read from her latest novel. Were one to dare say that of Kamila Shamsie, she would descend on you like a ton of bricks with a riposte prefaced by: "You do me a great disservice," a phrase she often employs to cross swords.
Nevertheless, It is how Shamsie insinuates the heroine of A God in Every Stone into her narrative. In retrospect, the attribute, Shamsie's early swipe at the patriarchal values of early twentieth-century Britain appears essential to the quest Vivian Rose Spencer embarks on from pre-war Britain (July, 1914) in love with a man from another culture, many years her senior, which takes her from Britain to the "City of Men, City of Flowers, Land Beyond the Mountains." Anatolia or ancient Caria (at one point the most westerly part of Darius' Persian Empire), home to Herodotus the Father of History is where it all starts. With a known history which goes as far back as five thousand years and the British Raj within it as backdrop, Viv soon finds herself in a place - Caspatyrus or Peshawar as we know it - which indulges her passion for archaeological discovery till the collision of love, politics and history derails her plans and sets her off on an altogether different course.
Lance-Naik Qayyum Gul of the 40th Pathans is the other main character who animates this tale through the warp and weft of which runs Empire. Along with his friend and subordinate Kalam, he fights for the British in the Great War. At Ypres, he is saved by his friend but loses an eye in combat. He is nursed back to health in Brighton and returns to Peshawar.
In transporting her main characters to each other's lands with despatch, Shamsie gives coloniser and colonised the necessary distance to re-adjust their pre-conceptions. The characters return but their trajectories converge. For Qayyum, the return is final; for Viv, Shamsie devises another excursion to Peshawar, after her return to England, where, propelled by historical events which assume an irrepressible momentum, Viv and Qayyum meet briefly once again.
On return, Qayyum, reassesses his allegiance and emerges "a warrior who had found his battle." Under the leadership of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan he joins the "Khudai khidmatgars" in peaceful resistance against the British. "If a man is to die defending a field, let the field be his field, the land his land, the people his people" is the poignant chant which recurs through the book with cumulative urgency. The ensuing fight for freedom leads to a brutal climax.
Shamsie has many novels to her credit but this time around, she has edited out the bagginess of earlier work (Kartography) and quickened the pace. Where A God in Every Stone shows patriarchy and the aberrant colonial attitudes of the times, it also highlights how the margins can be exclusive in Viv's dealings with the natives. In her friend, Mary, we are given a woman who champions the suffragettes at home but frowns at newspapers carrying stories of Gandhi and Civil Disobedience. Put another way, Shamsie attunes the reader to the pecking order that went: The Englishman, then the Englishwoman, the native and lastly the native woman. Colonial thinking is keenly observed: "We've kept India in a state of peace for so long they've forgotten to recognise it as the greatest of all gifts," and colonial desire laid bare: "How much narrower life would be without all of India poised at the heart of the word 'Ours'."
Back in the almost-full fifth-floor room at the Southbank, Shamsie reads carefully selected excerpts. The gargantuan London Eye and the honey-hued Houses of Parliament through the floor-to-ceiling glasspanes lend a surreality to the event. The Houses of Parliament already existed at the time of the Great War but the London Eye, more recent, appears to herald the arrival of the phenomenon in front of us: the young Pakistani writer writing in English - about Empire and its ravages - with aplomb and authority - to a captive audience. "There are passages of time a person enters into knowing unshakeably that they will always retain a rare lustre, one that will gleam more brightly as disappointments attach themselves to life," reads Shamsie and pauses expectantly. The audience applauds.
In the room, I spot the author Nadeem Aslam, Shamsie's friend whom she trusts to cast an eye over drafts. Parts of A God put one in mind of Aslam's recent The Blindman's Garden and show a lyricality which occasionally teeters on the verge of cloying hyperbole as when she writes of Qayyum: "One day bathing his face in the water, he felt himself rinsing Europe from his eyes." The narrative has a cinematic feel which, in ways, harks back to Ondaatje's The English Patient who Shamsie cites as an influence. It will be interesting to see if Hollywood comes calling and whether like the author of that other seminal God (TGOST) Shamsie demurs. Regardless, the novel is a shoo-in for lecturers considering fresh material for modules of postcolonial literature.
The reading over, I make my way to the desk outside where Shamsie sits ready to sign a pile of books for the attendees. A glass of chilled wine by her side, she wears a black sleeveless blouse under her sari. Little signs of defiance? I think of Vivian: "she was a spinster nearing forty ... but joining one's life to any of them (suitors) in perpetuity always seemed to entail more loss than gain," and of the parallels, making a quick exit.