All of us are masters of the unsaid words. Ali Sethi though is the master of the written word. There are only a certain number of words in the English dictionary, but the way Sethi weaves them into the tapestry of his work could make infinity a possibility.
He has guile. He has grace. He has charm. He has candour. And his first book, The Wish Maker: A Novel contains the promise of a rich cloudburst in the foreseeable future. Unlike many of his illustrious contemporaries, his characters are principally based in Pakistan; they open their windows to the world but are not swept aside by any global gusts. And Sethi is at ease with his exposure of a land in rebirth, of a civilisation waging a battle for survival, and individuals struggling to stay afloat.
In a rare similarity with other Pakistani writers making it big on the global stage, Sethi’s novel starts with an American returned desi; in this case Zaki Shirazi who returns to Lahore for the wedding of his cousin and childhood companion Samar Api who, he tells us, has apparently found her Amitabh. But it is in the intervening period, from the time the young man lands in Lahore for the wedding that the drama unfolds. Not in a devil-may-care fashion but quietly, imperceptibly, almost like a river in a plain.
At the core, the author reminds us to take note of the winds of change in Pakistan during a boom time, the time when the country had a new dictator, Musharraf, just as there was Zia when Zaki was born and almost everybody around is beginning to bask in the fruits of development. Yet, Zaki feels alienated: he is like an outsider in his own land. But is it his nation, his family that has changed? Or has his time outside changed him? Never mind. Zaki cannot quite identify with the wedding preparations in the house he grew up in; now also the house where three generations share their dreams and foibles. It is a house where women rule: his journalist mom, using all her skills to get things done on time for the wedding, his Dadi, then Suri and Hukmi, all working in their own ways for Samar’s wedding.
It is a wedding that will take a while because, along the way, the little man has go to back to his own fatherless childhood, visit the lives of his cousins, one of whom has been to the U.S. and has the unmistakable ‘American’ stamp, the other, more desi, worn down with responsibilities. Then there is Naseem and her penchant for watching TV with its myriad channels now, and listening to radio jockeys speaking like the Americans. All this in stark contrast to the times when Zaki and Samar attended political protests with Zaki’s mother. That was the age of idealism, now the ideals had been changed. Sethi does not say as much, merely hints at it. Half spoken words, some allusion from where to draw your conclusion.
Nation in rebirth
The author gives an insider-outsider version of a nation in rebirth with his smooth narrative. The Wish Maker is throbbing with vitality, pulsating with energy. Its greatest asset comes in a transcendent perspective about a nation struggling to safeguard its identity. And not too far behind is the author’s great eye for detail, it is an eye that would have done an astronomer proud. He makes usual seems unusual.
Sethi’s story moves, no, grows slowly, leisurely. But he draws you in; his characters are never bare skeleton, always full of flesh and blood. His expression is unusual yet accurate. He has been hailed by fellow Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid for making “a confident and personal debut” with “a fresh voice from a new generation of Pakistani novelists”. It is a compliment earned through words that engage even as they express. Truly a remarkable debut. The Wish Maker might merely be a harbinger.
The Wish Maker; Ali Sethi, Hamish Hamilton, Rs.499.