Thinner than Skin By Uzma Aslam Khan, Fourth Estate, Rs 499
In Uzma Aslam Khan’s new novel, mountain peaks are windows in a door, vices hitch a ride in the bells of mountain goats, thoughts scatter like moonseed, horses are wings to the world, owls to the next, and glaciers mate, witnessed by silence. It is a beautiful novel where almost every word has a taste and a colour, which expand in circles in the reader’s mind. Modern lives are woven in with old legends, pagan rituals are carried over into days of Muslim belief, the city impinges on desolate, forgotten countries, the West makes inroads into the East and is faced with the impenetrable. The plot, if there is one at all, is in the floating images; therein lies the strength and the weakness of the novel.
There are two distinguishable strands running parallel here. One of them involves Maryam, a woman of the Gujjar tribe, who traverses the plains and the mountains of northern Pakistan, her nomadic blood resisting the idea of settling down and the State making sure that she can call no place her home. The other is about Nadir, a young Pakistani living in America, who has to go back to the land of his origin because his girlfriend, Farhana, of German-Pakistani parentage, “longed for a country”. The stories of Maryam and Nadir converge in a moment of disaster when Maryam’s daughter drowns.
Thereafter, there are only shards of life that are never pieced together again. Maryam’s ancient spirit — stretching beyond her own life into that of her ancestors, who have roughed it out like her in the wilderness — is able to cope with the tragedy better than Nadir. Lost in the mountains, separated forever from Farhana, Nadir has to become a naturalized nomad to learn the meaning of letting go. Meanwhile, on the olden Silk Route, which is the novel’s setting, life goes on: China continues to encroach upon Pakistani territory while Pakistanis, Uzbeks, Russians, Chinese and Afghans, each fighting for an imaginary homeland, forget their differences everyday in the interests of trade.
The predominant image in all this is that of the eye and its kin, the window or the camera. Nadir is a nature photographer who cannot succeed in America because “a Sheikh must be a war photographer of the Wild East! He must wow the world not with the assurance of grace. He must wow the world with the assurance of horror.” The East must fit itself into the way it is seen by the West so that Bushbabies can fight righteous wars that also serve to rob the former of its riches. Yet sympathetic interventions, like the one made by Farhana in the life of Maryam’s child, also turn out to be ruinous. Faced with inscrutable reality, Nadir hides behind his camera when he is not looking out into the ordered, manageable world of the West from the bay window of Farhana’s apartment. But sinister windows —like the mountains, Malika Parbat and Nanga Parbat, in the faraway Kaghan Valley — which open on the grey void, beckon him. Nadir must put away his camera in the Kaghan Valley to stare naked at “loneliness, the absolute absence of anywhere or anyone to turn to”.
The intensely poetic, even mythic, quality of Khan’s prose produces mixed results. It gives the story a resonance beyond itself but the story is often lost in the resonance. Perhaps this effect is deliberate: Khan may have been trying to make the novel’s structure follow the elusive Silk Route — still thriving at places, lost to the ravages of time at others. Even as the heap of broken images in Thinner than Skin live on, the story begins to fade from the reader’s consciousness as soon as the book is shut.