The Wall Street Journal Asia
A PEEK INTO PAKISTAN
A new novel offers a worm’s-eye view of the kinds of lives that rarely make their way to the pages of a newspaper.
By SADANAND DHUME
On the face of it, few countries are in as dire need of a public image makeover as Pakistan. Its best-known exports are the Taliban and contraband nukes. Its airspace commands more attention from Predator drones than from commercial airlines. Its immediate future rests more in the hands of NATO than in those of the WTO. In recent years, the permanently enraged Pakistani mob—protesting Danish cartoons, rumors of Koran desecration, obscure references to Byzantine history by the Pope—has become almost emblematic of the ongoing culture war between radical Islam and the West.
Somewhat paradoxically, Pakistan also happens to be home to some of Asia’s most vibrant new writing in English. Indeed, the country now churns out brilliant novelists the way its cricket team could once be counted on to produce a stream of the world’s best fast bowlers. The most recent addition to an already glittering roster is 25-year-old Ali Sethi, a precocious Harvard graduate who resides in Lahore.
In “The Wish Maker,” his first novel, Mr. Sethi explores modern Pakistan through the lives of Zaki and Samar, near-siblings who come of age together in 1990s Lahore before circumstances launch their lives on sharply divergent paths. Zaki, the book’s narrator, is a sensitive fatherless boy raised in a home bursting with strong-willed women. Samar, though technically Zaki’s aunt once removed, is for all intents and purposes an older sister. Their lives become shorthand for the decisive role family and gender play in shaping the landscape of life’s possibilities for even relatively privileged Pakistanis.
The book’s sharpest insights are reserved for matters of the heart. Mr. Sethi is especially alive to the emotional contours of young love, its modes of courtship, its methods of subterfuge. Samar, hopelessly smitten, seeks to win the affections of her love interest by gifting him imported cologne (Blue Jeans by Versace) and an audiotape filled with love songs (Meat Loaf, Mariah Carey, Bally Sagoo). Ostensible trips to the beauty salon to have her upper lip threaded, and to private classes to sharpen her math skills, serve as cover for trysts forbidden by a deeply conservative society. As detail piles upon detail, the reader cannot help but feel a mounting sense of dread, heightened by Samar’s conscription of the hapless Zaki as a co-conspirator.
Less convincing is the book’s historical reach. Though most of the action takes place in the 1990s, the story spans 60 years of Pakistani history. At times this makes the book groan under the burden of trying to include too much—the poetry of the iconic communist Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s famous promise to give the poor “food, clothing and shelter,” the importance to Pakistan of the three A’s, Army, Allah and America.
As though to make up for this less than rigorous plotting, Mr. Sethi’s prose, always lucid, often soars to illuminate the quotidian. A pre-wedding party dissolves into a “democracy of dance.” A well-groomed hotel manager has the manner of someone “who seemed to reside permanently in morning.” In its heyday in the 1950s, the cosmopolitan port city of Karachi, its cabarets filled with dancers from the Levant and Eastern Europe, appears poised to have the “vision of its successes become its totality.” The city’s subsequent decline is captured by a picture of black, swampy water stinking of fish in the afternoon, and surrounded by “territorial seagulls that were always in a panic.”
Throughout the book, Mr. Sethi is at pains to debunk the idea, not entirely uncommon in America, that Pakistan belongs to the Middle East. Lahore may boast a stadium named for Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi; the math teacher at Zaki’s elite public school may venerate the Arab contribution to his subject; the ban on alcohol in public places may drive the trendy to sheesha bars; the evening news may be read in Arabic in addition to Urdu. But culturally, Zaki and Samar’s Pakistan continues to cleave to idol-worshipping India. At the Lahore store where the duo borrows pirated Bollywood videos, the selection ranges from “Abhimaan” near the entrance to “Zanjeer” on the opposite wall. Spying the Indian actor Amrish Puri in an Indiana Jones movie evokes an instant gasp of recognition.
Mr. Sethi’s narrative may be at times forced, but all in all this remains a novel worth reading, a worm’s eye view of the kinds of lives that rarely make their way to the pages of a newspaper or magazine.
Mr. Dhume is a Washington, D.C. based writer and the author of “My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist” (Skyhorse Publishing, 2009).