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Love in the time of war

BOOK BAZAAR

Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie launched her sixth novel, A God in Every Stone, in Calcutta on March 15 at British Council on Camac Street.

Set largely in Peshawar, the story is about a British woman in search of her missing lover and the pull of a 2,000-year-old relic. It is also about a Pathan soldier who fought in the First World War and lost an eye defending the Empire. The story opens almost exactly a hundred years back, just as the Great War is breaking out, and takes us through the lives of Vivian Rose Spencer, Lance-Naik Qayyum Gul and his brother Najeeb, touching upon the lost archaeological site of Shahji-ki-Dheri, the Pathan uprising of 1930, and ending on August 14, 1947, the day Pakistan was born. Published by Bloomsbury India [Rs 400], A God in Every Stone is written with a delicate eye for detail, a novel where much happens but what stays with the reader is the author’s effortless prose.

Kamila, who grew up in Karachi, studied in the US and now lives in London, sat in conversation with writer and The Telegraph columnist Ruchir Joshi at the launch. As the two friends chatted, one learnt that while her earlier novels resulted from an image in her head that “wouldn’t quite go away”, this one came about from her ignorance about Peshawar.

Around 2009, Kamila was travelling around Pakistan promoting her novel Burnt Shadows. “This was around the time the Taliban had taken control of the Swat Valley and they were very near Peshawar. Every day there were bombs going off in Peshawar. So I would sit and talk about this novel set in Nagasaki and someone would come and talk about being bombed in Pakistan and I realised that Peshawar was a city that wasn’t in my imagination. Nagasaki of 1945 was much more strongly in my imagination, because I had written a novel about it… and it seemed sort of immoral, really, that there’s a place in the country you’ve grown up in but you don’t know anything about it. Because people in Karachi, if they are not from Peshawar, talk of this city almost as if it was not in Pakistan — like some sort of crazy border town.”

But to write about Peshawar, Kamila didn’t visit the city immediately and take up residence, like Vivian does, when she comes looking for a circlet that belonged to Scylax, an explorer sent to these shores by Persian emperor Darius around 515 BC. Kamila turned to history books and old photographs. “For the past is a foreign country” and she didn’t want the present to cloud her imagination.

The shape of the novel, a writer’s craft, advice for aspiring authors (“keep working that writing muscle”) and how there isn’t any greater artifice than “the ending of novel” were discussed and debated but when it’s a writer from Pakistan, how could real life and realpolitik not come calling? When asked how she felt about always being called upon to comment upon current developments in Pakistan even though she was a novelist, Kamila spoke about how she found herself “in the wrong religion at the right time”.

“I started writing for The Guardian in October 2011, when I was in the wrong religion at the right time. Because at that time what was happening was that people who knew nothing about Pakistan, had never set foot in it, were making all kinds of pronouncements. I thought I am not an expert… but I can be corrective. I did that for a couple of years but now when people come to me to write about it, I say go and ask Mohammed Hanif, he’s a novelist and a journalist. But there are moments when you feel you want to add your voice to something… when Malala [Yousafzai] was shot, when Salman Taseer was killed.”

Portrait of an actress

Suchitra Sen

Suchitra Sen was a living mystery. In death she is a gold mine for publishers. The latest tribute by Sutradhar to her is titled Mahanayika and it is a compendium of an interesting variety of information, interviews and trivia that have appeared on Bengal’s Greta Garbo in newspapers and magazines ever since she made it big and became a household name among Bengalis from the 1950s. All these tidbits have been compiled by Sushantakumar Chattopadhyay. The book offers a wealth of images — stills from films, photographs taken at home and on several occasions, posters of her films, cinema booklets, lobby cards, portraits on the covers of popular Bengali film magazines once devoured by thousands of homemakers, and the actress in advertisements that appeared in the print media. All from the 1950s. There is a rare shot of “Madam” being interviewed on BBC in 1959.

There are reproductions of record covers of the musical scores of Suchitra Sen films, including that of the two songs she had recorded for Megaphone Record in 1959, and of the tickets of her films shown in cinemas like Ujjala, Bharati, Indira and Priya. All this memorabilia is greatly valued by collectors who occasionally hold exhibitions of these.

Among the interviews is the well-known one of Sen’s refusal to work with Satyajit Ray. Another reveals that she wanted to appear in jatras, which, she rightly felt, was an extremely powerful medium at which Uttam Kumar had once taken a stab. Quite something from someone known for her reclusive nature.

Many personalities of those and our times had written about the actress. Among the noted ones are Kanan Debi, Sandhya Mukherjee, who was her “singing voice” in films, Gulzar, Madhuri Dixit and Ritwik Ghatak, who never had a chance to work with her but remembered her as the only person from the film industry who would visit him when he was in hospital and even brought food for him.

For diehard fans there are lists of the films Suchitra Sen had appeared in since 1953, the names of her screen roles, and the songs she had lip-synced to and their lyrics. Fans may not like the pencil sketch of Suchitra Sen on the cover but that is how the artist had seen her in his dreams.