Kamila Shamsie paints a compelling portrait of Peshawar of the 1900s in her recent novel, A God In Every Stone
Kamila Shamsie is among the brightest stars in the firmament of Pakistani writing in English. Author of five novels, including In The City By The Sea, Broken Verses and Burnt Shadows, Kamila has placed many of her novels in Karachi, depicting various facets of the city; Her latest novel is A God In Every Stone.
Pakistani writing in English has generated much interest of late, which, Kamila says, has been a recent phenomenon. “When I first published my novel in 1998, it was actually when things were starting. Nadeem Aslam published his first novel in 1992. Mohsin Hamid’s first book came out in 2008. Uzma Aslam Khan’s first book came out in 2001. There was already a feeling that something is beginning. I want to see more women. The writers you hear most about are writers who are men, and they are fantastic, but we need more women writers.”
A God In Every Stone is set in Peshawar between 1914, the beginning of World War I, till 1930. It follows the lives of Vivian Rose Spencer, a British archaeologist, who comes to Peshawar in search of an archaeological artefact; Qayyum Gul, who has just returned from War and his scholarly younger brother, Najeeb. A story about love, betrayal and injustice, A God in Every Stone also brings to focus lesser-known historical events, including the 1930 Qissa Khwani Bazaar massacre and the Khudai Khidmatgar, a non-violent movement, led by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known as frontier Gandhi.
The elegant Kamila, who was in town recently at the British Council for the launch of A God in Every Stone, says the idea of writing the novel came to her when she was in Karachi in 2009, to promote her novel Burnt Shadows. “At that point things were very bad at Peshawar. There were bombs going off everyday. And I would go to all these talk shows to discuss my book, and the person right after would talk about all these bombs. At a certain point I realised I had a clearer image of Japan than I had of Peshawar as Burnt Shadows is set partly in Japan. It seemed wrong. I had an interest in Peshawar. I knew it had this ancient history. I thought let me do some research and see if I find a story. I started looking at ancient history and discovered this traveller called Scylax. Very early on, there was an image of a grave which might not have a body.
The novel really started with the idea of these archaeologists in the late period of the Raj looking for a piece of history.” Though Kamila doesn’t consider the novel a history book, research was important for her. “I try as hard to get the facts right, particularly around the 1930s Massacre. It was a horrible and important event, but now even in Pakistan, we don’t know about it much. In Peshawar they remember, but in the rest of the country we don’t. One of the things I want the novel to do is to remind people of this.”
Woven within the narrative is an important history of the Pathans that few know of. “The Khudai Khidmatgar was not some tiny blip in history. Ghaffar Khan remains the most popular political leader. But we just talk about the Pathans as though they are fundamentalists and extremists. If they were like that, then in Peshawar they would have welcomed the Taliban with open arms, whereas they’ve resisted and they’re getting bombed everyday. It’s a real travesty what is being said about the Pathans. The worse part is that it starts in Pakistan than the rest of the world.”
Vivian is interesting for the way she’s been portrayed by Kamila. She lives on her own terms and defies the conventions imposed on women at the time.
“That period was such a period of change for English women. Around the 1930s and 1950s, English women understood constraints on other women much more. Viv sees a woman in a burqa and all the women in the street are looking out of these latticed windows with grills and it reminds her, which is true, that at the time in Parliament in the UK, the women’s section had a grill up so that the men wouldn’t get distracted by the sight of the women. In 1915, there was kind of purdah in Parliament,” she says, laughing.
There’s a lovely rhythm in Kamila’s insightful writing. “Whatever I write, I read out loud because the sound of it matters and the music of language matters a lot. The first and foremost influential writing teacher was a Kashmiri poet called Agha Shahid Ali. He would pay so much attention to the sound of things that very early on, being in his company, I understood the sound of language, the balance of a sentence, these aren’t just things for the poets; they’re things for novelists as well. It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.”
A God in every stone is a Bloomsbury publication.