Oct 19, 2009

The Wish Maker - By Ali Sethi

I have a penchant for picking up famous titles. Of course, when I actually pick them up, I vaguely remember that the books are famous for some reason. The only reason is perhaps that publishing houses are rather active nowadays in splashing the name and author of a new book before it’s out in the market. So that’s how I ended up picking up this book. I was also in for a pleasant surprise when I discovered that the author was a Pakistani and not an Indian Muslim as I had assumed. I have always been eager to try and discover cultural nuances and similarities among our geographical neighbours and I feel that books are one small way towards achieving this goal.
Ali Sethi is a young writer albeit an experienced one. Of course in my opinion, some writers have inborn talent and the remaining few manage to reach desired levels after years of cultivation of the habit. It’s difficult to compartmentalize Sethi in such specific divisions but he has the sparks of talent.
The protagonist Zaki Shirazi is perhaps the only male character in spotlight and in the entire duration of story telling, he even appears dwarfed by the female characters around him; his mother Zakia, Daadi (paternal grandmother), cousin Samar Api and servant Naseem.

People usually have this wrong notion that working women are the only ones who exert their personality and housewives are an example of docility. None of Zaki’s women, who are housewives (except for his mother) really rebel against tradition but they are firm in asserting their own rights wherever required. Whether it is Daadi refusing to stay with her wily mother-in-law, Samar exerting herself in her relationship or the servant Naseem who manages to buy a wagon for her son or wangle a trip to Mecca, these women refuses to be bullied by life. However, Zaki’s mother is the real heroine. And as according to the author’s extracted quotation of the Prophet, Paradise lies at the feet of the mother.

Taking difficult decisions on her own, bringing up Zaki as a single parent, and running a progressive women’s magazine, she might also be expected to impart a similar liveliness to her son as well. And this is probably where Sethi disappoints. Zaki doesn’t seem to have a definite personality as expected from a protagonist. Instead he absorbs life’s nuances as they come upon him, unlike his female relatives who fight their way out. This might also be an extension of Sethi’s view of preferred male behaviour where according to Zaki’s Urdu poetry spouting teacher, the men should know their place and observe modesty just as the women should. And this tone runs throughout the entire story.

Another peculiarity of The Wish Maker is that Sethi mentions a lot of big events – the India-Pakistan partition, different elections and regimes in Pakistan but he just touches upon them. One can know little of the impact of these life-changing events on the story’s characters because even they comment very little on them. The best part of the book is the way different time-periods are interspersed and almost glide towards completing the whole story ; and of course the climactic last line ” ..your Amitabh has arrived”.
Overall it is a nice read but somehow I still feel I didn’t learn much about the Pakistani culture, or is it my biased mindset which expects a whale of differences between the two countries that probably are still as similar as they were before the night of 15 August 1947.
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