Few nations have as an anarchic a reputation as Pakistan. Because of its present political instability, its possession of nuclear weapons, and its proximity to the war in Afghanistan, it is hardly at the top of the list of tourist destinations. Even President Obama, who apparently believes in fostering peace whenever possible, previously spoke of bombing Pakistan should the need arise.
Amidst talk of the Taliban and regret at what might have been if Benazir Bhutto had lived, it’s easy to forget that there is another Pakistan, a country of warmth and beauty. It’s fortunate that we have this slender, touching novel from Pakistani author Aamer Hussein as a reminder.
I should point out that I am operating from a bias in composing this review. Mr. Hussein is my mentor, and thus I am approaching this novel from the perspective of an admiring student. It would not be unfair to say much of my evolution as a writer has occurred due to his wisdom, generosity and kindness. However, just because I am biased, doesn’t necessarily mean I am wrong.
“Another Gulmohar Tree” is divided into two discrete parts: the first is a series of parables, or rather, several parables chopped up into snippets whose segments are blended together. The effect is at first somewhat jarring, and furthermore one might think that these tales are rooted in Pakistan’s traditional folklore. They are, but they are also part of the wider story: this relationship only becomes clear in the second part. It is to Aamer’s credit that these fables fit and resonate well.
This second portion is a far more conventional tale, and this is where, to use the American term, the author “throws the hammer down”. Aamer is well known as a short story writer, and he brings an economical style which extends from this experience to the composition. If writing can be considered analogous to painting, and if on one end of the scale we have Tolstoy, whose works are akin to a gigantic oil painting by Titian, and on the other we have Dan Brown, whose screeds are rather like a print of a decrepit Elvis on velvet, Aamer’s work is distinctly Impressionist. He uses words like brush strokes; like a Monet or Van Gogh composition, these assemble a picture that is partially put together by the artist, but leaves enough for the eye of the beholder to assemble any remaining pieces on his or her own.
The second part begins in London, and we are introduced to the main protagonists, Usman and his future wife Lydia. They meet in 1949 at a setting which is familiar to many British academics: Senate House, the University of London, which is a rather severe, imposing structure. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine the grey London weather, the archaic clothing of the protagonists, the chill of the room where the meeting took place. Usman is there as a representative of his native land at a conference. At that time Pakistan was barely an infant nation; in response to a provocation from an Indian representative, Usman finds himself mounting a passionate defence of his country.
Lydia is an English woman who is partially of Georgian extraction. Her attraction to Usman, on the basis of his fiery speechifying, is understated and tenderly handled. Usman’s reluctance to reciprocate, given his desire to return to Pakistan is also managed with skill. While romantic love is not overt in this piece, it is evident: the two are in each other’s orbit, but the bodies do not meet, to Lydia’s frustration. Aamer also makes it clear that post-war London is not a particularly pleasant place to be: Lydia’s disdain for the scents of “unwashed hair” and “egg and bacon breakfast breath” on the London Underground is subtle, and yet stomach churning. The reader thus is unsurprised when Lydia follows Usman to Karachi. In contrast to London’s greys, Karachi reads like an explosion of colour and sunshine.
What follows is an account of how this unlikely couple settle down together, and how Lydia comes to terms with her new home. Usman quickly marries her; she changes her name to Rokeya, and converts to Islam. Soon, she abandons the vestiges of her former life by shedding English clothing for Pakistani garb. Yet at the same time, she continues to pursue her interests in painting and writing. Her husband also continues his work as a writer.
If this sounds like a domestic scene, by and large it is, but not unrealistically so. However, what makes this perhaps so timely is that the picture of a marriage with its ups and downs that this account provides is so out of whack with the generic Western portrayal of Pakistan. Lydia / Rokeya acknowledges this at the beginning: she is shown to have believed that Pakistani society was divided exclusively between the very rich and very poor. What gets obscured by such beliefs is the sheer amount of “normal” life that went on in Pakistan in the past, and continues to this day. However, it was probably wise of Aamer to pick the past as his setting, as it appears he doesn’t want politics to intrude too far into the life of the couple. Sadly, it appears that politics in Pakistan now is an obsession which has been foisted on a largely unwilling populace.
Intrusion in the novel, however, does happen, but again, in a gentle style: we are informed, for example, that because of Usman’s connections, it was far easier for the couple to get their home built than it would be for most people. That said, what matters most is that a life’s story is presented as a rich tapestry, whose bright threads are home, children, love and endurance. It is when the colours and patterns of this tapestry become clear that we understand the rationale for the parables in the first part of the book: they are in fact stories that Usman has put together utilising tales belonging to Pakistani tradition.
I read the novel once on a trip up to London, and found myself reading it again on my way back. Each time I read it, I found more to reflect upon. This book should get a wide readership, if not only on its own merits, but also for the salutary effect that it will have on anyone who reads about Pakistan in a newspaper or magazine afterwards. Beyond the turmoil, anarchy and pain that may occur there, at least there is the contrasting image of the Gulmohar tree in full bloom with its scarlet blossoms reaching towards golden sunlight, a loving couple that planted it, and their children playing beneath.