Uzma Aslam Khan talks to Shalini Mukerji about her awe of the natural world, the balance she seeks as a writer and how she negotiates identity and belonging.
At the table next to him, he heard a European refer to the rice dish as pilaff, the Kashgari at his table refer to it as polu, and of course, were he in Pakistan, he would hear it called pilau. It was piled high with mutton and seasoned with herbs rather than spices and though he was now used to the difference, he ate with two tongues, one that did all the work while the other dreamed of flavours it did not touch. (Skin)
Uzma Aslam Khan’s recent novel, Thinner than Skin, about love and borderless states, crystallises moments on which the world might spin and maps belonging so astutely — “always on the move, always in the middle, between things, between being” — that it suspends you somewhere between floating and falling.
A vivid contouring of politics, geography, relationships and “fragments that never extended far enough into history books but lingered in the air”, of vastness and intimacy, Skin is a story of lovers, exiles, dreamers, wanderers, set flush with a backdrop that’s as mythic as it is spectacular: Pakistan’s Kaghan Valley, the Karakoram and Pamir Mountains, forests of deodar and pine watched by owls, rivers and lakes born of “mating of glaciers” and violence of wind-blown rumour. Destinies as sinuous, entwined and varied as the ancient trading routes along the Silk Road fill out Skin, perspectives shape-shift like snowmelt in mountainous passes where “China encroaches and Pakistanis, Uzbeks, Russians, Chinese, and Afghans all come together to trade”. Inhabiting this world, Skin dwells on dispossession, the rent in silken connections, the drift when love is “like a Pakistani glacier. It was difficult to say if it was growing or retreating”.
“I don’t think any of that was conscious,” reflects Uzma about her novel, “It began with an image, and a sound. I came across a photograph of Ansel Adams, and a line came to me: “It was the wrong moment to view Bridalveil Fall … and I found myself wishing, childishly, if only the drop weren’t so steep …” I had just gotten some bad news that day. So I did something with it, and the line has stayed in the book… When I got to the point in the book when the lovers first grow aware of creating their own doubles, their own phantom foes, I was just as surprised as they were. Prior to that point, I wasn’t knowingly drawing parallels between their personal tragedy and that of the valley’s. A large part of writing fiction is waiting for accidents to happen.”
And what she does, is pull all that’s accidental and incongruent in the world, precious and hateful, dark and tender, into imagistic and intricate symmetries, a mostly hopeful story wherein lives touch in surprising (and heartbreaking) ways. Landscape — “accident of geography” — thwarts or shapes people in her books as tangibly as politics impinges upon the everyday. The Story of Noble Rot (2001), unravelling in the languor of wine and carpet weaves, explores how precarious privilege is and how empty revenge. Trespassing (2003), held together in the imagery of silkworms, seashells and truck art, turns around overwhelming truths of the Gulf War and theft of turtle eggs, even as people transgress in little ways, sometimes by just hungering beyond what Karachi or America delimit. The Geometry of God (2008), set in Zia’s regime of re-visioning science and history books, debates the idea of Pakistan and Allah midst fossil excavations in the Salt Range; as the world is catalogued through binaries of aql (intellect) and zauk (taste), the ideal of “wife” gets correlated through Urdu-English in play (“she must be surily. Not gruff, melodious… She musn’t have man. Not a lover, arrogance”). Each story, like Skin, resting on how truth is shaped, or identity and rights legitimised, as viewpoints shift, converge and diverge.
I ask Uzma how she negotiates these fragmented worlds, contemplates identity and belonging, or even the gaze which sees only to fix an image. Says Uzma, who has battled publishers over book jackets that pushed a veiled idea of Pakistan, “I’ll try to answer by saying that my own identity is not static, nor have I ever been at peace with those who can definitively say what they are. Yes, I’m a Pakistani, but what being a Pakistani means to me is many things, some of which are likely being born as we speak. I played with this idea in my previous book, Geometry, with the very name of the grandfather figure, Zahoor, meaning, ‘becoming visible.’ Or ‘more than a beginning but not complete.’ In Skin, Maryam recalls her mother telling her that the best things in life are like the ginger plant, pungent, plentiful, and horizontal, with no clear beginning or end. So I suppose this is a theme I revisit in my books, as I try to write a Pakistan that runs counter to the one that has insisted on always seeing itself from the same motionless lens of Islam, Urdu, and Army.”
She adds, “Regarding the question of belonging, you’ve made me remember a sweet moment. Back in 2003, while in London for the launch of my novel, Trespassing, I was a participant in PEN’s International Writers’ Day events. The highlight was an interview with Carlos Fuentes, whose novel Aura I’d read many years back. Trespassing was my first book to be published in the west, and I was very aware of being new at presenting myself as a writer, and of being bad at it. I remember drifting into checkered thoughts of how lame I was compared with everyone else there, when Fuentes said something. He said that while writers are known to never feel completely at home anywhere, he felt completely at home everywhere. As the audience chuckled, I thought: aha. I am never completely at home anywhere. I must be a writer.”
A writer, in how she inhabits the world, intuitive in her rendering of fugitive states: “… into a doorway and up a staircase and behind a madressah where her father was preaching… she pulled him into a room high above the minarets that seemed to point to the fighter jets, cursing them to hell” (Skin).
Articulating what you might not have had words for: “Love makes me lazy, as if I have a full stomach. Our foreplay — bo’s-o-kanar, as Omar lovingly calls it, shedding his manly Punjabi pride to ladylike Urdu — is lavish and fat” (Geometry).
Spinning magical connects: “… each caterpillar nosed the air like a wand and passed out silk… They worked ceaselessly for three days and nights, with material entirely of their own, and with nothing to orchestrate them besides their own internal clock. When Dia watched one spin, she came closer to understanding the will of God than at any other time” (Trespassing).
A writer, because of how she has you inhabit the world — the ones she casts in her books and how they might have you step lightly once you emerge from them with indelible impressions of this world: “An arch is an open melody. The world is your Ka’ba’ (Geometry); “I really looked at cactus. I really looked at triumph. Blossoming in shocking gimcrack hues of scarlet and gold” (Skin).
Averring, “I suppose I think of it (the language) as a visitor, and rather than making sense of the visit, I try to make the most of it. Asking where it came from seems to scare it away,” Uzma prefers tracing the noor of her narratives. “I think I do have a naturalist’s love for our world. As a child, too, I was always drawn to books about animals and plants and each time I return to Karachi I pull these books off the shelf and enjoy them as if for the first time. When I’m away from Pakistan, more than anything else, it’s the physical earth I miss — the flowers and the smells, the rain and the light. And when I’m in Pakistan, this is what moves and grounds me most. When it comes to the environment, Pakistan is shockingly unwilling to treasure all it has. And yet there are millions of people who do treasure it. And I sing their lament. Or try to.”
This finds most exquisite expression in the elemental world of Skin that’s tinged with a bit of Dostoevsky; guilt, longing, loss and beauty so fused with pure alpine air that “breathing was like sucking a hookah filled with flakes of glass”. She takes in my wonder, “What shaped it? Perhaps my mother, who has always cultivated her small garden with a bond that is spiritual, historical. Or my paternal grandmother’s open-to-the-sky courtyard in an old, crumbling house in Lahore that was filled with bats and ghosts. Or it’s even older than that. My father’s nana was a well-known hakim of a small Punjabi town, and a year before my father’s death, he shared with me stories of his grandparents, how his nani would operate a chakki to grind wheat, while his nana prepared all the medicines for his clinic by mixing desi herbs that my father and his brothers would help him collect. You know, even before he shared the memories with me, I had an image of those herbs and flowers, their colours and their scents, and the simple wonder with which my father must have watched his grandfather extract their juices. I think a lot about inherited memory. My awe of the natural world did not begin with me. It’s in my genes.”
A consuming read, Skin is mesmeric if you yield to the geography that animates it, revealing characters from whom you go away, closer. Uzma analyses, “There’s a timeless quality to Maryam’s sections, for me at least, since she inhabits an older world than Nadir does, one of folklore and magic, of forests and seasons, one that has given her a sense of herself that is smaller than Nadir’s sense of himself, I think, and one that would feel too constricted in first person. This is the first book where I’ve used both first-person and third-person narratives, and when I made the leap, it just felt right. These two characters with whom we spend the most time were not challenging to shape, but nor were they easy to inhabit. Nadir because his actions have such awful consequences, and Maryam because of her pain.”
Perhaps the charge in Skin draws from how it tests, more than others, the capacity of the heart to forbear, hope, forgive; and it falters: “Forgiveness is thinner than skin”. And it underlines how fundamental and vulnerable it all is: “…she would ask Maryam if her skin was as thin as a goat’s. And Maryam would tell her the truth. It was thinner. Which meant, of course, that if a goat could be shred that easily, so could a woman”.
Uzma speaks of the balance she seeks as a writer, “Perhaps there is anger, yes. Certainly there is grief. It must be somewhere between that absence of the assurance of grace and the presence of a truth that’s less hideous, as it doesn’t seem that I search for a reckoning. If peace and liberty were always mine, I wouldn’t cherish them as fiercely and as tenderly as I do.”
“The arc of those necks arrested me. Three crescents on a rock, perfectly aligned. Together, they exposed to the world the most vulnerable part of themselves… surely it was to serve as a gentle reminder of a need for mercy.” (Skin)