A potentially interesting novel that is let down by the effort to produce a bestseller.
A few years ago, an Irish friend of mine remarked, ‘For a writer of literary novels, it is lucky to be born in South Asia as he has no dearth of subjects and issues (terrorism, religious riots, Maoist violence, etc.) if he decides to get into the business of serious writing.'
I can't agree more. Of course, a conflict zone is a treasure trove of creative ideas for authors of literary fiction. The exceptionally talented Pakistani authors like Mohsin Hamid and Mohammed Haneef have actually used the socio-political turmoil in their country to weave poignant stories and that too with great critical acclaim. When I got hold of this novel titled The Fatwa Girl by Akbar Agha, I expected that the author would offer some fresh insights into the Pakistani state of affairs. But, this book, to my disappointment, turned out to be an attempt to produce a bestselling potboiler like Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner.
The story begins as Omar, a Sunni boy, spots Amina, a Shia girl, in his Karachi neighbourhood trying to learn to ride a bicycle and is impressed with ‘her act of defiance in their conservative surroundings' and then he falls hopelessly in love with her. Amina reciprocates his feelings and they begin meeting often at their friends' places despite knowing that their alliance — given the Shia-Sunni hostility factor — is next to impossible. Amina is a girl of fiercely independent thoughts. She believes that whatever is happening in her country, in the name of Islam, is not only immoral but is also against the basic tenets of Islam itself. She tries, passionately though unsuccessfully, to get a fatwa issued against the suicide bombing and in the process earns the moniker ‘ Fatwa Girl'. She also believes that music is something which can work as an antidote to the growing extremism in the Pakistani society and motivates Omar to join a music band. But Amina is not strong enough to defy all the societal conventions and finally she marries a politically powerful man of her own sect. Omar persuades himself that he should be happy for his beloved. Initially, Amina is satisfied with her marriage but soon she discovers that her husband is not what he pretends to be, and subsequently her life becomes hellish.
The couple of opening chapters are really impressive; especially the author's idea to start the novel with the call of the morning prayer, and to include the backstory of Amina's family. They whet readers' appetite for the stories ahead but unfortunately the same tempo is not maintained throughout the book. There are a number of subplots which seem to be interpolated to enhance the commercial appeal of the novel. For example, there is a subplot about Gulbadan, a prostitute with a heart of gold, whom Omar meets accidently and develops some sort of friendship with her. He has a physical relationship with her and later, also helps Gulabadan escape from the tentacles of her master and pimp and takes her to her native place in the Taliban ruled valley of Swat.
Here the author has deliberately taken the story to Swat and has made Omar have an encounter with the Taliban as he is aware that anything related to Taliban sells well. Even the backstory of Omar's grandfather - he used to be a mujahid or freedom fighter in Afghanistan of the Soviet days - appears to be made up. Again, Afghanistan sells well in this post 9/11 era. In the story, the Ahmedi angle given to the Shia-Sunni conflict also doesn't sound plausible.
There is a kind of impatience in his writing as he tries to pack the book with as much historical and cultural details of Pakistan as possible to make it accessible to the foreign (read American and British) readers. Then, by making his characters, time and again, heap praises on the ‘shinning India', he attempts to appease Indian readers — the author knows India is the biggest market for his novel.
Despite lacking in the literary qualities, The Fatwa Girl is an entertaining novel and you can enjoy it as you enjoy typical Bollywood movies.