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Djinn without tonic: Ranjana Sengupta reviews A.A. Jafri’s ‘Of Smokeless Fire’

Djinns are made of smokeless fire. This explanation comes from Kaneez the midwife at the beginning of A.A. Jafri’s debut novel, Of Smokeless Fire. Kaneez is assisting at the birth of Mansour ul Haq, the much-awaited son of Noor ul Haq, a wealthy, secular liberal and his pious, orthodox and rigidly observant wife, Farhat. Farhat has miscarried 11 earlier pregnancies: Kaneez feels that this baby’s safe passage has some sinister portent. However, Mansour’s alleged djinn-ness doesn’t really impact the story till the very end. The narrative, set in Pakistan from the 1950s onward, follows two groups of characters representing two generations and reflecting evolving Pakistani realities.

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Journey through a timeline

The role of the first group seems to be to embody the Partition generation. It comprises Mansour’s father, Noor, a successful barrister, and his three great companions — an academic, a diplomat and a journalist — close friends since their student days in Aligarh. In 1947 they had migrated to the new nation of Pakistan, filled with idealism and hope for its democratic and prosperous future.

Later, they would get together regularly over whisky and large meals to discuss poetry, philosophy and — with increasing bitterness — Pakistan’s politics.

The reader is thus taken through a series of historical events centred on Pakistan — military coups, changes to the Constitution, wars with India, the secessionist movement in East Pakistan, the persecution of Ahmadis, Islamisation — which feels like a journey through a timeline. For some reason, Jafri does not ever refer to Pakistan’s leaders by their names: so Jinnah is always the Great Leader, Z.A. Bhutto is the People’s Leader, Yahya Khan is named Rangeelay Shah, and General Zia is known as General Behroopia. The book isn’t an allegory and so it remains a puzzle why Jafri uses this device.

If Noor and his friends are products of Partition, the group round his son, Mansour, represents Pakistan’s post-Partition generation. It consists of Mansour; Mehrun, the daughter of Kaneez the midwife; Joseph, the house-cleaner’s son; and Mansour’s cousin Khaleel, a small-time bully and thug. Things aren’t easy for Mansour. His parents fight bitterly and he is torn between his father’s near militant rationalism and his mother’s equally strong insistence on faith. Joseph, Mehrun and, to a lesser extent, Khaleel, struggle under poverty and oppressive parents. Meanwhile, Noor’s cohort starts falling apart: one friend is lynched for being Ahmadi, the journalist becomes a government apologist, the diplomat finds religion and transforms into a bigoted but very successful preacher.

Extended checklist

Djinn without tonic: Ranjana Sengupta reviews A.A. Jafri’s ‘Of Smokeless Fire’

The next generation, however, prospers. Mansour goes to the U.S. for a Ph.D in economics; Joseph also makes good rapidly, if rather unbelievably, in the U.S.; Mehrun achieves the high-flying life she had longed for. Even the unsavoury Khaleel becomes close to some fundamentalists and diversifies into petty blackmailing. In the end, the djinn element, irrelevant for most of the story, returns for a neatly contrived finish.

Like many debut novels, Of Smokeless Fire ranges over an extended checklist of many themes — Pakistani politics, the rise of orthodoxy, class relationships, caste oppression, superstition, to name a few — all jostling for attention.

The characters remain somewhat undeveloped, though long explanations regarding their motives and feelings punctuate the text at frequent intervals.

Crisis of soul

Noor is the most realised character and we are repeatedly told his central dilemma is that he hates what Pakistan has become — the corruption, religiosity, anti-liberalism — but can’t leave it. He feels like an exile in his own land. But if this is the theme — and it’s certainly an interesting one with resonance on our side of the border too — it’s not developed properly. Instead, frequent references to Noor’s alcohol intake are proffered to indicate his frustration and despair. Moreover, the two groups presumably represent different strands of Pakistani identity. If this is so, then the reasons behind their very different responses to present realities, which would have been though-provoking, are not touched upon.

The crisis of soul in Pakistan has been tackled extensively in existing Pakistani fiction — for instance, Mohsin Hamid portrayed the self -destructiveness of the Lahore elite in Moth Smoke; Kamila Shamsie the toxic nature of intra-family relationships in Salt and Saffron; while class relationships dominated Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. One of the interesting developments in the subcontinent’s contemporary English literary scene is that Pakistani fiction tends to upfront political themes while an emerging trend in India is to move away to other, less overtly political areas.

The reasons would be fascinating to explore, but it is sufficient here to say that there is a plethora of writing, some of it highly accomplished, illuminating Pakistani politics through fiction — a long list which includes books by Mohsin Hamid, Muhammad Hanif, Fatima Bhutto, Sabyn Javeri. Sarvat Hasin has even explored the djinn theme in You Can’t Go Home Again, as a metaphor for a certain kind of social and political malaise. A.A. Jafri’s Of Smokeless Fire is an earnest, well-intentioned addition to this portfolio.

Of Smokeless Fire; A.A. Jafri, Penguin Viking, ₹499

The writer is former Deputy Publisher at Penguin Random House India and author of Delhi Metropolitan: The Making of an Unlikely City.

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