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A Love Letter to the Wilds

Madhumita Chakraborty

By Uzma Aslam Khan
Fourth Estate, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 345, Rs. 499.00

VOLUME XXXVII NUMBER 2-3 February/March 2013

Thinner than Skin, my first engagement with Uzma Aslam Khan’s work has been a beautiful experience. Truly, there is no other word to describe her writing, which is well-researched as well as derived from her personal experiences. The novel, now shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, takes us on a vivid, kaleidoscopic journey through the mountains of Pakistan. The naked and pristine beauty of nature, where absolutely exquisite descriptions are provided of glaciers mating, where life is simple, in spite of many hurdles, is juxtaposed with the harsh realities of urban life in San Francisco, in spite of its ‘cliffs and cypresses’, where Nadir the protagonist has to work at multiple jobs to make ends meet, where mugging and dacoity are common occurences. There are three stories interwoven into the narrative of the novel. At one level, there is the story of Nadir and Farhana, two intrinsically opposite souls, as they undertake a journey into the mountainous terrain of Pakistan—the Kaghan region—the northern territories, where Pakistanis, Uzbeks, Russians, Chinese and Afghans come together to trade. They are accompanied in this quest by Nadir’s childhood friend Irfan and Farhana’s friend Wes. Nadir and Irfan had visited the area once before, accompanied by Irfan’s wife, now dead. For Irfan therefore, the trip has a different resonance. While Nadir is on the trip to revisit the country of his childhood to take pictures and fulfil his dream of becoming a successful photographer, his girlfriend Farhana is on a quest of discovering her ‘homeland’, the country of her origin, born as she is of a Pakistani father and a German mother. As she ‘returns’, in the true diasporic sense, she is also on a journey in search of her own identity. In this respect at least, the character of Farhana may be said to have parallels to the author. The second narrative is of Maryam and her family, her mystery lover and her three children, providing a glimpse into the lives of the native indigeneous nomadic herding communities living amongst the mountains. While these two narratives, written respectively in the first person perspective (Nadir’s) and the third perspectives make up the bulk of the text, there is a disturbing third strand of terrorism. The bomber who is apparently hiding among the mountains is an intruder into this peaceful solitude of nature—and yet he becomes a ...

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