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THE GLASS EYE

A God in Every Stone By Kamila Shamsie, Bloomsbury, Rs 499

The hundredth anniversary of the Great War is a good time to open up old wounds, perhaps as much to see how well they have healed as to relive the thrill of forgotten pain. Kamila Shamsie’s novel spans the years between 1914 and 1930, when the world gropes its way out of the killing fields of Ypres only to head towards Auschwitz. However, for the characters living in the novel’s time, peace — born out of the burning desire for life that seeks to nullify death — is still a possibility, especially in yet-unbroken India, where M.K. Gandhi and his follower, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, experiment with non-violence as a weapon. Burdened with the hindsight of history, the reader may feel pity for the war-weary characters’ sense of triumph at the end because it will, of course, be short-lived. But Shamsie puts them in a frieze so that their moment of beauty stays on as the moment of unchanging truth.

A God in Every Stone — with its shifting points of view that do justice to both the colonizers and the colonized, its characters trapped in war while the voices of ancient stone gods prophesy peace, its landscapes changing from the sun-baked excavation sites of Labraunda in Turkey, blood-drenched Ypres, moist London to Peshawar of the crackling light — makes just the right kind of noises so that the neat effect is of plum pleasure. Shamsie’s lovely prose blunts edges so that one can well curl up with this book and sleep on it, after having cried for and with the maimed characters.

The pity of war is concretized in Qayyum Gul, who changes from a proud Pathan of the 40th regiment, a loyal soldier of the raj to a Khudai Khidmatgar, a ‘Servant of God’, as Frontier Gandhi leads his Civil Disobedience movement in Peshawar. What precipitates the transformation is Ypres, which leaves Qayyum with one dead eye. As in Greek tragedies, the instant of blinding is also the instant of revelation: Qayyum loses the light in one eye to wake up to the crushing truth about the futility of all battles that the war office cleverly conceals. Running parallel with the growing shaft of light in his mind is the unanalysed darkness in the head of the young Englishwoman, the amateur archaeologist, Vivian Rose Spencer.

Viv is like Forster’s Adela Quested in her fumbling compassion, her unintentional condescension, her bafflement at the hard face of the Indian reality, and her determination to tackle it headlong nonetheless. And, Viv is also on a quest — to discover the grail, which in this case is a silver circlet once gifted to the Greek explorer, Scylax, who, much like Qayyum, had ultimately turned against his foreign emperor, Darius, to fight for his own countrymen. On first seeing Qayyum on a train to Peshawar, as he returns with the damaged eye from the frontier and she goes to the headquarters of the frontier provinces on the circlet’s trail, Viv’s “heart had been struck with a cold joy: this was the Monophthalmus, the single-eyed man of India of whom Scylax had written”. The meeting of the two in the train makes for the archetypal East-West encounter, with each character tentative, well-meaning but utterly uncomprehending of the other’s intentions, except in that vague, irrational ‘only connect’ way. “What did you think you were doing it for? was what she really wanted to ask the man who had lost his eye at Ypres. Was it loyalty to the Empire or something more mundane — travel in a second-class compartment, pension, the promise of progressing through the ranks. She leaned forward towards the open door, watching the man, trying to imagine what she might say to him. The only sentence which came to mind was, Have you tried a glass eye?”

However, neither Viv nor Qayyum is able to restore the light which the war had dimmed. That task is left for Qayyum’s brother, Najeeb, who empathetically absorbs the obscene truth about killing that his elder sibling brings back with him to Peshawar, participates in Viv’s enthusiasm for history sans borders, and being as much in love with Dickens as with the stories of Peshawar’s past, can immediately recognize the look on the ancient stone statues’ faces in the Peshawar museum as that of “the impossibility of comfort when loss pierces the heart”.

The blindness of grief is a theme that Shamsie polishes and re-polishes till it becomes smooth and round, like a hard-boiled sweet. Qayyum is wracked with anguish for his fellow men who drop like flies before his eyes in Ypres; Viv lies still, open-eyed in “pitch darkness” as the lethal truth sinks in that her object of love, the Turkish scholar, Tahsin Bey, “was dead because of her”; the woman of Peshawar with fire in her green-eyes (reminding one of the iconic National Geographic image of the Afghan girl) mourns inconsolably for her sister killed in the gratuitous skirmish between the British and the non-violent Khudai Khidmatgars.

All this while, the gods lovingly unearthed by Viv and Tahsin Bey during digs in the Ottoman Empire or those gracing the rooms of the Peshawar museum, look on with lofty indifference. Yet theirs is also the piercing gaze of compassion gained from suffering, the abhaya mudra — “a gesture of protection and fearlessness” — which they teach Viv. Like the Chorus in the Greek war drama, Agamemnon, their stone lips form the silent prayer: “Cry sorrow, sorrow — yet let good prevail!”