Noor: Casting Light on History

Against the Current, No. 117, July/August 2005

Mahmud Rahman

by Sorayya Khan
Islamabad: Alhamra Publishing, 2003, Penguin India, 2004.

SORAYYA KHAN OPENS her novel Noor with two epigraphs. The first page has these words from Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali: “Your history gets in the way of my memory.”

On the next page, she recounts — in a few spare sentences — two events from history: the cyclone that hit East Pakistan in November 1970 and the civil war that broke out a few months later between East and West Pakistan, leading to the independence of Bangladesh. She notes that a million people died from the cyclone, and between 300,000 and three million died in the war.

The events are stated bare, without a trace of emotion or judgment. In the next 223 pages, the author will take you inside a respectable, bourgeois family in Islamabad, Pakistan, but by the time you are through, you will have been brought face to face with the horrors of the history from the epigraph.

One day about twelve years ago I sat down for lunch in the cafeteria of a Detroit hospital where I was then working. A tall man in a doctor’s coat whom I recognized as a fellow in the pediatrics department, a man who looked like he came from my part of the world, asked to join me.

The usual openers followed: what sort of work we did, how long, and where we were from. I told him I was from Bangladesh. He was from Pakistan. He went on to say, “Isn’t it such a tragedy that we are no longer part of the same country?” I asked why. He replied, “Because both our nations are believers in Islam.”

I disagreed, saying that I was grateful that we were not part of the same country. He challenged me, “Are you not for the solidarity of Islam?” I asked how there could be solidarity when Pakistan refused to take any responsibility for the crimes they had committed in 1971.

“What?” he wanted to know, “The stories of the so-called atrocities? All that is exaggerated.” I asked him how old he had been in 1971. “Six,” he said. I had been seventeen and I lived through those times. I told him that he was in no position to tell me what was real and what was exaggerated. He showed no curiosity, no openness, and we never spoke again.

Over these many years since the war, most — though not all — of my encounters with Pakistanis have been similarly disappointing. Any conversation about the breakup of Pakistan runs into a thick wall of denial. Some not born until after the breakup say it is old history, why dredge it up?

They may even admit that they do not know what happened. Neither do they show any desire to learn. History — like the victims of 1971 — should stay buried beneath the earth.

Pakistani history books merely repeat the stale lies that Pakistan divided because Hindus and India conspired to break it up. Needless to say, there have been no reparations, no trial faced by a single genocidaire, and no truth commissions to uncover what happened.

Breaking the Silence

Until that history is acknowledged, perhaps every Pakistani should be encouraged to read Sorayya Khan’s novel. A courageous work, its singular achievement is to strike a hammer blow at the wall of silence that surrounds what Pakistan did in 1971.

The novel has been published in Pakistan by Alhamra Publishing and in India by Penguin. Sadly it does not seem to have yet been picked up by a publisher in the United States or Britain. It deserves a wider readership.

The book opens to a domestic story. Sajeda wakes up early one morning and sees a vision of a strange girl with bright colors in her hair, a girl who cries out in longing for her mother. Sajeda is convinced this girl is the child she conceived earlier in the night.

As the narrative unfolds, we find that Sajeda was an orphan of the 1970 cyclone, a Bengali child picked up on the streets of Dhaka by Ali, a young Pakistani soldier. He returned before the war was over with Sajeda and presented her to his mother, known in the family as Nanijaan.

Ali asked the girl to call him her father, he gave up meat and God, and he took a scalding bath to cleanse himself of his sins. After that ritual, he closed shut the wartime side of his life.

Sajeda grew up as a Pakistani in this household, loved and doted upon by both Ali and Nanijaan. She married Hussein, but Ali, disinclined to give up his nearness to Sajeda, insisted that the son-in-law live in his household. The young couple had two sons, then after the pregnancy that began at the time of Sajeda’s vision, she births Noor.

The girl comes into the world afflicted, suffering from some disability, probably autism. Her features are flattened, she is prone to screaming fits, and she is slow to learn. Frustrated, Hussein soon shuts her out of his life. Noor continues to yearn for her father’s love, but mother and daughter have to fortify themselves against the unfeeling father.

The first half of the book focuses on the tensions among these three. But it turns out that Noor has a gift. She is drawn to crayon and color, and she learns to draw and paint. She is single minded in her pursuit, and Sajeda, Ali and Nanijaan all encourage the child. Only Hussein remains hostile.

Then it emerges that Noor’s gift is even more special. Her paintings begin to reveal Sajeda’s past, in clearly-drawn scenes. And in the second half of the book, Noor’s artwork forces open Ali’s story — what he saw and did during the war. Both Sajeda and Ali are forced to return to her origins, the horrific circumstances in which she was orphaned and the memories of the war that tied their two lives together.

Memory, Pain and War

A remarkable achievement of Sorayya Khan’s book is that in one respect, the novel is a domestic story of a family in Islamabad who have to find a way to love and raise a disabled child. It is this child whose existence drives Sajeda and Hussein apart, and who then faces the challenge of making the family whole again.

It is this child who returns both Sajeda and Ali back to memories of pain they would rather not remember, and tosses them into an uncertain space from which it is possible the divisions might reveal a chasm impossible to overcome.

Sorayya Khan’s descriptive prose is vivid and beautiful. A few months back the world witnessed, in the Indian Ocean tsunami, the awesome destructive power of a wall of water upon human bodies and settlements. The 1970 cyclone in East Bengal came with a tidal wave that in many ways was even more fearsome — the storm went on all night and wave upon wave of water lashed pitiful human bodies in its path.

With her command of words, Sorayya Khan evokes the terror of a child lost amidst the ferocious wrath of that cyclone. In scenes that make you shudder in horror, she captures the plight of a soldier caught in a war that no longer makes sense to him.

And since in the narrative present this novel is a domestic story, she writes with powerful detail and captures the emotions of a family where a child is born, a first birthday is celebrated, and a girl faces her first period; a family where love comes, goes and returns; a family in which the power of love is challenged by memory of pain and present-day tensions surrounding a colorful, strange and wonderful child.

The author studiously avoids the politics of what led to the war. I did not have a problem with this. The narrative stays close to the characters of this book and none of them have either interest or much of a clue about the politics of the war.

Since Ali was in the war, it is through his perspective that we see it. In a single exchange between Ali and Noor, Sorayya Khan displays more than sufficient understanding about the war:

”But what did you do in the war?” Noor persisted, playing with the cracked plastic of her bucket. “Fight people.” “Why?” Ali couldn’t remember. He wasn’t certain that, in the beginning, he’d needed or even had a reason to go to war. He’d rushed into it, an adventure of a lifetime. Now, he wasn’t certain any of the things he’d been told (except the facts about the Indians) had ever rung true to him. That Bengalis, dark and stupid, not really Muslims, didn’t deserve their own country, their own leaders.

What he did remember had an order to it, like fact books on formations. After he landed in East Pakistan, at the Dhaka airport, it took one day before he asked himself, this is my own country?, another day to know he wasn’t fighting the war for his country, another day to realize he wasn’t fighting it for Nanijaan, or, for that matter, any family. On the fourth day he felt like a mercenary.

Sorayya Khan underscores how the Pakistani military dealt with Bengalis in colonial and racist terms. Even though I was familiar with the way they looked at us, I still found it uncomfortable to hear it revealed so starkly in the voices of the soldiers.

To her credit, Sorayya Khan does not evade what was done. As Ali remembers, “Killing wasn’t nearly the worst of it.” Indeed it wasn’t. Pakistan’s war spilled over into those acts well known from the toolbox of genocide: rape, torture, mutilation. Ali’s memories bring the reader face to face with the cruelty of that war.

Higher Power?

As much as I found to admire in this novel, one thing left me dissatisfied: the perfection of Noor’s agency that drives the narrative forward. There it seems to tip over from a sort of magical realism into the arena of religion.

Noor’s visions occur with the order of a guided hand, either a supreme being or the author of a work of fiction: first they bring back Sajeda’s cyclone and then they move on to Ali’s war. Meanwhile the scenes she depicts in her drawings are film-like, nearly perfect matches to Sajeda’s and Ali’s memories.

It is too precise, too ordered, and Noor’s visions become a transparent literary device. It becomes Revelation with a capital R. Indeed, one of Noor’s earliest creations is even recognized by Nanijaan as “a beautiful, calligraphic version of one word: God.”

In my opinion, Sorayya Khan would have done better to have introduced some messiness, avoiding such perfect order and representation. Then we could have had room to imagine that perhaps Noor’s mind somehow had a portal into Sajeda and Ali’s subconscious, but it wasn’t like she had in her head a higher power directing images or a library of perfect photographs.

A related criticism is one that I will have to make without disclosing a vital piece of the fictional puzzle of the novel. In actual history, the cyclone and the war were connected. The Pakistani government was negligent in its response to the calamity and this became one more grievance that drove the Bengali yearning for freedom.

While Sorayya Khan does not touch this aspect of politics, through Sajeda’s orphaning and being rescued by Ali, she reveals a connection between the two tragedies. But near the end of the book, she reaches far to make this connection too literal. Even in a book of otherworldly happenings, this strains believability.

Confronting Official History

I have to confess that my tastes in reading do not usually tend towards this sort of mixture of realism and otherworldliness. I prefer my realism to be real, my speculative fiction to transport me into other worlds. It is the supernatural fiction that wants to tell realistic stories, to bring out historical truths with semi-religious overtones, that I do not usually care for.

But perhaps in the case of a Pakistani writer telling a story of what was done in their name, it makes a kind of sense. Where official history is awful realist fiction, perhaps it is only a character like Noor — a messenger of the supreme being that Pakistanis believe in — that can break open the silence and shatter the stubborn wall of official fiction.

It will be interesting to see how Pakistani readers respond to such a book. To write this review, I read the book twice. The first time I had my antenna turned on to high sensitivity. I will admit that I was prepared to find the author lying, blurring, being less than honest.

I had read some of the military men’s memoirs that have come out from Pakistan after 1971, and even those who admit “mistakes” find ways to evade responsibility to dig down into the truth. But surprisingly I found myself crying during my first reading and whatever else I might have thought about the book, I could not fault its honesty about the war. And I cried a second time, powerfully moved by the family drama itself.

A fairer review still required me to read the book a second time. I am glad I did.

ATC 117, July-August 2005