A Restless Wind By Shahrukh Husain, Picador, Rs 499
Zara Hamilton, a young Muslim lady, is a lawyer in London working for immigrants and asylum seekers. Her husband, Peter, is a psychotherapist. Their relationship kicked off well initially. But somewhere down the line their ways diverge, and they start chasing different dreams. The intensity of their passion diminishes as their love is reduced to a cloying ritual of sex. They feel their marriage is headed for a dead end.
Peter once gave Zara a sense of belonging which she now fears is slipping away. Zara was abandoned by her mother, Nyla, in her childhood, and was brought up by her aunt, Hana, in Qila, a city of fortresses, in Trivikrampur in Gujarat. When Hana, the great matriarch of the Ramzi clan, realizes that her days are numbered, she sends an urgent missive to Zara, asking her to return quickly to Qila. She wants to share with her some secrets locked inside the imposing walls of the fortresses. For Zara, it is a long-awaited homecoming, and a chance to relive the memories that have made her.
Zara returns to Qila, which is now embroiled in communal politics, with the frenzied Hindutva brigade braying for Muslim blood. Hana passes away before she manages to pass on her secrets to Zara. Zara resolves to unearth the secrets herself. Saif, Hana’s son, takes to Zara affectionately, but his wife, Pebbles, turns hostile and disapproves of Zara’s long stay at Qila.
Zara had a pre-marital affair with Jayendra Singh Vamana, the maharaja of Trivikrampur. Both the names of the city and the clan owe their origins to the myth of Lord Vishnu and his Vamana incarnation. In Trivikrampur, Zara is welcomed by the maharaja, whose “Oxford voice” invades her with “a blast of memories”. Jayendra’s mother, Sita Devi, used to be Hana’s confidante, and the alliance between the Ramzis and the Vamanas harks back to a medieval past and to the legend of the Green Clad Man. Zara’s dormant love for Jayendra is rekindled, but she recoils because Sita Devi insinuates that Jay and Zara may be of common parentage. Zara finds too many strands of identity fluttering about and frittering away, now promising to fall in place and then, suddenly falling apart. She fretfully realizes W. B. Yeats’s words, “That knowledge increases unreality, that/ Mirror on mirror mirrored is all the show”. Zara’s ‘mirrors’ are splintered; even if she joins the shards, the images may not combine to take a complete shape.
Zara flees from the embrace of Jay, and that of the bewitching yet sinister city of fortresses, and sets off for Ahmedabad. But, this time her destiny plays the last dirty trick on her — she is captured by a gang of right-wing extremists who take her for a Pakistani spy, and ensconces her in a cell for 43 days. No wonder, in the dark, damp, desolate cell with her routine shares of dehumanizing brutalities and starvation, death becomes her daily visitor. She is eventually rescued, and she returns to Qila only to face more stunning revelations about her parentage, and a tragedy lurking in the wings for the Ramzi clan.
Shahrukh Husain ensures that the reader’s attention will not flag. There are incidents galore in this novel, also suspense and drama, and many motifs merge together. The author has never allowed the focus to dissipate. The protagonist’s quest for truth is sustained throughout the narrative. Husain displays skill, but the ‘plot’ is not all that immaculately structured.
One intriguing trait of Husain’s narration is its delicately filigreed details. Her descriptions are graphic, colourful and semiotically nuanced. The semiotized narrative brings home to the reader the contrasted cultural set-ups, or, in phenomenological terms, the conflicting ‘lifeworlds’ that the different characters in the novel inhabit.