Author Archives: Sonal

bpb Review: Kofuku, Ansal Plaza

wafu-steak-carpaccio

Wafu Steak Carpaccio

Delhi’s Japanese dining scene may have a slight edge on Mumbai’s in terms of numbers, but with the novelty of Tsukiji-sourced seafood wearing thin in recent years, the arrival of Bandra’s Kofuku restaurant in the refurbished Ansal Plaza ought to rejuvenate this genre, with its casual approach to offerings that go beyond sushi and teppanyaki.

Maki In India

Despite the hype, little seems different about Ansal Plaza, which shows, if anything, signs of an ongoing hiatus from public life. After an invigorating romp through the shiny new Decathlon’s floodlit obstacle course of athletic aspirants, we are grateful to step into the the warm tatami-draped, umami-scented interiors of Kofuku and be ensconced in a traditional booth, rather than one of the many empty tables.

cherry-blossom-maki

Cherry Blossom Maki

It would be wise for first-timers to study the 30-page menu beforehand; it manages to encompass everything from age dashi tofu to zaru soba with remarkable simplicity, but there’s a lot to cover. Our homework gives us more time to ignore our lackluster mocktails—a Frooti-ish Kofuku Special and a cucumber and mint “I Love Kofuku”— and draw, instead, kanji-esque characters with soy sauce on our plates, while contemplating the restaurant’s montages of photographs of Japanese scenes juxtaposed with Japanese painting.

seaood-hotpot-detail

Seafood Nabe Mono

Pleasant, but not as pleasing as the first sight of wafu steak carpaccio, a pink buff beauty of a dish, each piece lightly tanned by grill fire around the edges, glistening in a shallow pool of rice vinegary dressing. The subtle meat doesn’t have a great deal of its own taste, but the texture is perfect. Cherry blossom maki is tasty and pretty, but as Delhi’s sushi snobs have by now learned, unless you’re on the beach, the fish will always be flash frozen and thawed. Still the salmon, avocado, and tuna roll, topped with flying fish roe, will certainly hold its own amongst its local competitors.

Too Darn Hot (Pot)

Kakuni Pork

Kakuni Pork

Our server balks at taking down our order for seafood nabe mono, a table-side hot pot dish usually shared by larger groups, but there are times when duty and greed compel us all. This is a really good choice in spite of its size: laden with shrimp, squid, crab and fish, as well as greens and mushrooms, the soup is delicious, full of crustacean sweetness. The two diners at our table polish it off. It is, however, overshadowed by the much-recommended kakuni pork, a Nagasaki style stew consisting of two blocks of perfectly cooked fatty belly in a simmered decoction of soy, sake, dashi and other magical ingredients, glittering with bubbles of fat.

After all this, it’s best not to ask ourselves how we also managed to pack in two gloriously presented mochi ice cream balls (a bit thick on the ice cream and thin on the mochi), and “dango”, small rice flour dumplings on

Dango

Dango

skewers, dripping a sweet-and-salty soy sauce and sprinkled with sesame, which comes with a mug of utterly necessary green tea.

Dango and good night: Bombay, your banzai buckeroo will do.

Getting there: Kofuku, BG-09, Ground Floor, Ansal Plaza, Khel Gaon Marg. A meal for two with no drinks costs Rs 4,000.

Mochi Ice Cream

Mochi Ice Cream

Accessibility: The restaurant is wheelchair-accessible.

bpb reviews anonymously and pays for its own meals.

Originally published in Brown Paper Bag Delhi, January 2, 2017.

Published: January 2, 2017

Drive-By Hooting: On Board Delhi Tourism’s Party Bus

2010 was a red letter year for Delhi transport. The airport’s T3 was inaugurated in time to welcome athletes arriving for the Commonwealth Games; the Delhi Metro opened two more lines. Cycle lanes sprang up along recently constructed BRT routes.

A fleet of big, blue high-capacity buses also joined their shiny new red and green cousins. Long after the cycle lanes gave way to motorbikes, and cars reclaimed the bus lanes, these “hop-on-hop-off” buses continue to ferry tourists to and from about 20 city landmarks every day. Inspired by similar efforts abroad, Delhi Tourism’s HOHOs provide an alternative to full-day taxis and charter buses, and feel like a more organic way of exploring the city even to long-time residents.

Sharing-averse Delhi, know that you can also rent the entire bus for a six-hour tour for yourself and 32 of your closest friends. This is largely targeted to and used for children’s birthday treats, but since our dignity knows no age bar, we tried it out by throwing a party for a group of adults.

The Feels Of The Bus

After a couple of painless emails with the helpful HOHO team, we worked out an itinerary that incorporated the Shankar International Dolls Museum, the Rail Museum, and the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, as well as “drive-by” sightseeing through central Delhi and Chanakyapuri.

Our HOHO rolled up earlier than the appointed time, lovingly festooned with balloons, streamers and a Disney-princess-adorned Happy Birthday sign on its bumper, causing a small commotion. Aunties leaned out of windows to inquire about rates, and cars slowed down to stare.

The feeling of being part of a circus caravan only increased as we squeezed through Bhogal—like a great blue whale in a narrow strait—and Robin, our guest relations representative, cued up the season’s party hits. Bus conductor?

Floating above the sparse Sunday traffic in central Delhi to the tune of “Kar Gayi Chull”, our self-consciousness settled into a kind of giddy hilarity, aided by Robin’s party-starting efforts. (We imagine the game involving bursting balloons with our bums would really spice up a corporate retreat.) His DJ skills weren’t shabby either: we pulled up to the Doll’s Museum dancing (in)appropriately to “Baby Doll”.

 Robin adeptly threw out only occasionally dubious tidbits of Delhi trivia as we rode. He quizzed us as we swooped up Raisina Hill (“Who built the Parliament?” Answer, “Local construction workers”); then through the broad avenues of Chanakyapuri (“Did you know visa stands for ‘visitor intending to stay abroad?”).

Robin’s puckish energy was infectious: as the HOHO wallowed in southbound evening traffic on Aurobindo Marg, indulgent smiles spread across the faces of the surrounding commuters. For a moment, the street became a bizarre Bollywood set, bathed in the pretty polluted glow of a Delhi sunset, rather than a gauntlet to be run.

Bus Ki Baat

Our verdict: whether you want to throw a card party on wheels, or keep that contingent of foreign wedding guests out of your hair for a few hours, we recommend going HOHO(ho). Time is your only real challenge: if you’re boarding this bus, tell your guests to arrive half an hour before departure, as extra time en route incurs extra costs. Alcohol could be another sticking point, since this bus is strictly on the wagon. It’s shocking how they’ll put anything in Coke bottles these days, though.

Getting there: Visit www.hohodelhi.com or call 99589-66566. Prices vary by time and distance, but a typical six-hour tour costs Rs 12,500, including personalised decorations and taxes. Guests provide their own food and drink and any entry fees.

Accessibility: The low-floor bus is disabled friendly.

Originally published in Brown Paper Bag Delhi, November 2, 2016.

Published: November 2, 2016

Neighbourhood Guide: Khanna Market

Neighbourhood Guide: Khanna Market ♦

Khanna Market

The cover of a trader’s association booklet about Khanna Market from the 1990s.

Each of the four big markets in the quadrangle of land bound by Lodhi Road, Nehru Stadium, Aurobindo Marg and the railway line has its own special charm, from the leafy literary appeal of Jorbagh; to the sleepy specialty stores and restaurants of Lodhi Colony Market; to Mehar Chand’s mix of haute and hoi polloi.

But of all the neighbourhood shopping centres on that fringe of central Delhi where the colonial city ended and the refugee city began, the one I visit most often and find most endearing, is Khanna Market. Between the lofty imperial archways of Lodhi Colony and the scattered, built-over remnants of an older city—the Aliganj area, with its Shia graveyard of Karbala, and the Shah-e-Mardan dargah; and the 18th-century tomb of military commander Najaf Khan—Khanna Market provides a prismatic view of the moment when Delhi became the capital of newly independent India, born from the labour of Partition.  It is also immeasurably convenient for erranding.

The oldest and most famous inhabitant here is Chidambaram’s New Madras Hotel, an unassuming South Indian joint with roots in the area going back to 1930, well before the market existed. The original Chidambaram, from the town of the same name in Cuddalore, was the cook of a cabinet minister transferred to Delhi. Chidambaram wanted to join the military, but was drafted instead to run a mess for the officer’s quarters at Lodhi Colony, newly built by the British as they cemented Delhi’s position as capital.

C. Kumar, who now runs the restaurant with his brother, says their father “brought idli-vada to Delhi”, and used to feed “100 bachelors”. According to him, the elder Chidambaram believed that “selling food is a sin.”  Over half a century later, the prices and flavours still induce gluttony. Faced with this  sweet trespass—idli encrusted with gritty red masala; golden vada threaded with onion; creamy dahi-vada topped with crunchy boondis, chillies and beetroot; lacy rava dosa folded over shredded coconut confetti or slathered with garlic paste—the loyal regulars demand their sin again and again.

Manmohan Arora, of Arora Store

Manmohan Arora of Arora Store

Chidambaram was one of the first to set up shop in Khanna Market when the area was developed for Partition refugees in the early 1950s, under the auspices of market namesake Mehar Chand Khanna, the politican who eventually headed the Department of Rehabilitation. At Arora General Store, a kirana dukan enlivened by a colourful selection of embroidered borders, Manmohan Arora recalls coming here with his family from Gujranwala in 1947. “We did footpath business also,” he says, “until we got the shop in 1957.”

Arora’s store is tucked away in a neglected crook of shops next to a tiny park across Najaf Khan Road and beyond a cluster of tentwallas, in the so-called “New Khanna Market”. His mine of memories about the market’s heyday include a the festivities of the passing Phoolwalon Ki Sair, the four large gates of Karbala, and a parade for a young Dara Singh;. Back then, it was “four bananas, one anna,” he says.

There are still cheap, filling thrills to be had though, starting from Rs 5 for boiled anda at wholesaler Malhotra Egg Sales. The chhola-kulcha seller behind Trilok paan stand is the most popular of several; sample at your peril the tandoori momos at car-o-bar friendly Peshawari, or the snacks at Ram Singh Bhoj, Krishan Sweets or Bangla Sweet Corner. Burning a bigger hole in the pocket is airconditioned North Indian-Chinjabi restaurant Hot Chimney, which has deep ties to tourist taxi drivers, who take advantage of the market’s free parking and eat the same food at the cut-price Dawat next door. Meanwhile, market stalwart Golden Bakery has a droolworthy selection of cookies, cakes and snackfoods.

The Hakim may or may not be in.

The Hakim may or may not be in.

For home baking needs, there are two chakkis, and the woebegone but chatty owner of Chabbra Floor Mills (sic) was once kind enough to grind almond flour for me on request. (The smaller Bansi Mills is more efficient, but less accommodating.) The meat shops include a reliable Green Chick Chop, but  it’s really Khanna Market’s well-stocked and reasonable produce stores that tip the scales in its favour compared to other markets. My go-to is Puri Brothers, which carries everything from bamboo stalks to banana flowers, and whose owners  provides cooking suggestions for unfamiliar seasonal vegetables like fuzzy “barsati karela”. There are also two decent wine and beer counters.

Other market gems include the famous Devan’s South Indian Coffee and Tea in New Khanna Market, which has perfumed the environs with the aroma of roasting coffee since 1962. Bhatia Musicals, run by the knowledgeable Sandeep Bhatia, is packed to the roof with lustworthy imported guitars, classical instruments, and technical equipment (don’t miss the giant vinyl record on the ceiling). A bit further off the beaten track is a mysterious staircase leading to the Bareilly Surma Centre, an eye clinic run by Hakim M. Riasat Qadri, who shuttles between Bareilly and Delhi ministering to clients of every faith. The market’s three opticians  and half-a-dozen chemist shops supplement these services. (The hakim’s surma is purely medicinal.)

Khanna Market’s cloth shops sell everything from blankets to bolts of fabric, snugly fitted next to tailors with decades of experience in the crisp lines of sarkari office-wear. Keep an eye out for phulkari dupattas, fifty-rupee blouses, and sharp, pinstripe suits, as well as a dozen tailors, some little more than sewing-machines-in-the-wall, others part of full service shops that also sell fabric. There’s even a cute little dry-cleaning service, Roxy, that advertises four-hour service.

 

Behind Khanna Market, a vision of Delhi in BK Dutt Colony.

Behind Khanna Market, a vision of Delhi in BK Dutt Colony.

There are cosmetic shops, a mehendi-walla, at least two places to get your hair cut, a photo studio, shoe shops and appliance dealers. One of several textbook and stationary shops, Adarsh Pustak Bhandar displays both Raj Comics and Akbar-Birbal stories. Sahib Bhai Patang Wala’s shiny hole-in-the-wall is currently stuffed with Holi supplies.

Despite this abundance, Khanna Market is relatively peaceful, perhaps because it’s still the sum of its parts, not a destination. The shopkeepers wouldn’t mind a bit more business though. Kamal Kishore of Kamal Cloth House, which he opened on Republic Day, 1966, told me that his stock of Vardhaman yarn brings in knitters from far and wide in certain months, but the rest of the year is lean. A stone’s throw from the Swacch Bharat-supported Lodhi Colony street art initiative, the little park outside his store, which the shopkeepers once “maintained beautifully with trees and flowers” is now a tentwalla dumping ground.

Sitting in his loft office above a trinket-stuffed Archies, Ravinder Grover, president of the Khanna Market Trader’s Association, told me about low-key “revamp” plans. A few shops have constructed second storeys, and others have the NDMC’s approval to do so. It’s unlikely though that Khanna Market will see anything like what one shopkeeper called “the hijacking by Khan Market people” of Mehar Chand, which is largely unauthorised. According to Grover, Khanna Market has long survived by catering to the needs of civil servants for things of use. Grover said his father, Chamanlal, fed breakfast to “500 to 600 regular customers” at his restaurant in Lodhi Colony Market. Grover’s ran from 1945 to 1974, he said, with milestones like Delhi’s first jukebox and an early “expresso” machine.

Enjoying life at Chidambaram's New Madras Hotel.

At Chidambaram’s New Madras Hotel.

Chidambaram’s New Madras Hotel 7 Khanna Market, 2461-7702. Meal for two Rs 500.

DCCWS and DSIDC Wine & Beer Shops 80 and 31 Khanna Market.

Devan’s South Indian Coffee & Tea 131 Khanna Market, 2469-4467.

Golden Bakery 101 Khanna Market, 2469-4314.

Kamal Cloth House 125 Khanna Market, 2469-1872.

Jagdish Studio 91 Khanna Market, 2464-7700.

Malhotra Egg Sales 31A Khanna Market, 98919-72531.

Puri Brothers 10 Khanna Market, 2464-0549.

Roxy, 45 Khanna Market, 98190-40769

Originally published in Brown Paper Bag Delhi, March 23, 2016.

 

Published: March 24, 2016

Mini Music Videos

Phoneography.

 

A video posted by toutress (@toutress) on

A video posted by toutress (@toutress) on

A video posted by toutress (@toutress) on

A video posted by toutress (@toutress) on

Posted from Instagram

Published: March 2, 2016

The Angst of Being a Modern Indian

The Cosmopolitans ♦
Anjum Hasan
Penguin India, 309 pages, Rs 499.

anjum-book“Being a modern Indian is hard work,” a former king tells Qayanaat, the protagonist of Anjum Hasan’s The Cosmopolitans. If this is true for the King, the dispossessed monarch of fictional, small-town Simhal, it’s certainly so for Qayanaat, a 53-year-old single woman who lives in Bengaluru, subsisting on the diminishing material wealth of one man, her deceased father, while trying to manage her excess of emotions for another, the artist Baban.

Had Hasan chosen Baban—a character who recalls certain real Indian artists, such as Subodh Gupta—as her protagonist,The Cosmopolitans would likely have been India’s first Künstlerroman set in the contemporary art world. And Baban, triumphantly returning from New York to launch his large-scale conceptual work, ‘Nostalgia’, in Bengaluru, would have been a rich character for Hasan to use to pick apart the tensions she explores: between modernity and tradition, aesthetics and ethics, art and profit.

Instead, although The Cosmopolitans opens with the inauguration of ‘Nostalgia’, Hasan sets about painting a portrait of Qayanaat, a character on the periphery of the art world, but at the center of this ambitious, yet intimate, novel of ideas. Qayanaat neither makes art, nor collects it, and her place in the wider world is unclear as well. She is hopeless with money; her quietly bohemian lifestyle, surrounded by her garden and a few works of art, is only enabled by the house that her father left her. By conventional benchmarks, she is something of a failure. This makes her an appealing and important character in a country obsessed with success.

The first half of the book describes Qayanaat’s life in Bengaluru, as a drifter on a sleepy art scene populated by a cast of familiar figures. There are the Bengalis, both elderly intellectuals and young, eager creators; Baban, the maverick hotshot with his NRI arm-candy; the aficionados and the aunties, the patrons of various means. Hasan deftly sketches her characters and has fun fleshing out the stereotypes. Baban, for instance, “reared on curd rice and Charminar, now sought after by the world’s leading galleries and collectors”, or Sara, Qayanaat’s “vivacious, art-loving friend, her jingle-jangle jewellery and swishy skirts”.

There’s no snappy sentence to describe Qayanaat’s slippery existence in this milieu. While Baban calls her QT, her ex-boyfriend Sathi’s mispronunciation of her name (which comes from the Urdu and Arabic kainaat, or universe) is one reason she gives for breaking up with him. Later, the King calls her Mandakini. For her part, Qayanaat is too busy attempting to live as a modern Indian to try and analyse such an existence, least of all through an aesthetic lens:

When among her artist friends, she always withdrew from conscience-stricken conversations about Who Was to Blame and What Should be Done. Hell, she would think. What happened to experience? It seemed to have been replaced by hot air. If we can’t be out there, eating grass and fighting the Indian state with rickety rifles, we could at least shut up and look to our own lives. Karma, she would think. Wasn’t it supposed to be the guiding force once, the idea that every action, however minor, has consequences? So she would go back home and water the flowers and then sit in silence, looking at the garden of trees her father had planted. Almond, frangipani, pink tabebuia.

Eventually, Qayanaat’s passive retreat turns into an impetuous offensive against the seriousness and conceit of the art world. The impulse that drives her must be familiar to many of us who, standing in a gallery sipping wine, have felt the urge to to do something drastic, something that would puncture the solemnity and the casual conviviality of the occasion, to rub out the hallowed glow emanating from the artist or artworks, so robbed of their own power to rupture the mundane.

Book One culminates in just such a moment of rebellion, which ends in a disaster that Hasan treats as almost more comedic than tragic. In order to finance an escape from the repercussions of her actions, and her guilt, Qayanaat sells an old painting she owns by ‘Nur Jahan’, a sort of artist-in-purdah whose nude paintings have gained notoriety and appreciated in value due to the political controversy surrounding them.

Book Two shifts aesthetic gears significantly, from visual to performance art, from avante-garde to tradition. “I’ll go into India,” Qayanaat decides, to learn about the dance-theatre of the town of Simhal. But between meeting the King, with his odd mix of conservative and worldly views; Vipul Singh, a local tout and wannabe tough; and Malti, a widowed tribal woman; Qayanaat finds “India” perhaps a bit more than she bargained for.

The cheek that makes the first half of The Cosmopolitans so enjoyable to a reader familiar with the metropolitan art world retreats slightly in the book’s second half. As Qayanaat finds herself out of her element, she is less capable of passing judgment upon a world in which she is truly an outsider, as are we. If this transition makes Hasan’s book a little less fun, it also make it a more robust portrait of the angst of being a modern Indian. There is slight frustration in watching Qayanaat bridge her experiences in the countryside with her life in the city by way of maternal instinct, but – typically of Hasan’s art – it is only because it imitates life all too well.

Originally published in The Wire.

 

Published: December 28, 2015

Crash of Civilisations

City of Spies ♦

By Sorayya Khan
Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2015, 239 pp., Rs 295 (PB)
ISBN 978-93-83064-78-6

city of spies

Pakistan was scorchingly hot during the summer of 1977, the narrator of City of Spies recalls: “the newspapers were filled with worry that rain might never come”. And the persistent Cold War chill in relations between the United States of America and the Soviet Union only meant that the politics of the subcontinent were simmering too. A day after the American Embassy in Islamabad celebrated its country’s independence, things finally boiled over. As some of the worst floods in its history hit Karachi, the papers reported that General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq had imprisoned Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, accused of election rigging and murdering political opponents, and declared martial law. The General’s photograph was splashed across the front pages, with his eyes “cast down, as if he were posing reluctantly, like a Pakistani bride”.

In the decades since then, historians have researched, in depth, the transformation of Pakistan under the eleven years of Zia’s rule, as well as substantiated many of the open secrets about the international influences that allowed his regime to flourish. Several novelists have also attempted to unearth the gritty truth of life from beneath the heavy monolith of dictatorship, to describe how things changed, incrementally but irrevocably, as the State and military became further entangled with religious extremist groups and foreign superpowers. In his satirical novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008), Mohammad Hanif channeled the comedic voice of a fictional junior air force officer to retell the story of Zia’s death – and suspected assassination – in a 1988 plane crash. In her very different debut, In the City by the Sea (1998), the London-based author Kamila Shamsie described the cost of Zia’s ruthlessness on the life of a child growing up in Karachi.

Sorayya Khan’s third novel combines elements of both these seminal books: her first-person narrator is an 11-year-old girl, Aliya Shah (rather unfortunately characterised as “a different Malala” by Amitava Kumar in a cover blurb). Aliya is the “half-and-half ” youngest child of a Dutch mother and Pakistani father, who believes that “being white is… being whole. And knowing it”. She is also keen enough to understand that her mother has become “brown” by “being married to my father… though, of course, you couldn’t tell by looking”.

In an essay on “The March of the Novel Through History” (Kenyon College, 1998), Amitav Ghosh, whose novel The Shadow Lines (1988) resonates in the pages City of Spies, wrote that to describe one’s environment, “one must somehow distance oneself from it… one must assume a certain posture, a form of address. In other words, to locate oneself through prose, one must begin with an act of dislocation”.

Like Ghosh’s landmark novel, City of Spies is a story of dislocation with diasporic dimensions, freighted with questions of national belonging. But unlike The Shadow Lines, or Kamila Shamsie’s sweepingly international Burnt Shadows (2009), Khan’s book is rooted in a particular place and time. Her characters do not range too far and wide, even if the causes and consequences of the things that happen to them in the 30 months following Zia’s coup spiral out from Islamabad, the titular city of spies, to places like Teheran and Cazenovia, New York.

Aliya is certainly a character at odds with her environment, but her moment of dislocation occurs as prologue, before the story begins. The Shah family is uprooted from Europe when Aliya’s father, bound by a patriotic sense of duty, leaves his United Nations job to head a Pakistani government agency. The family settles in what Aliya’s grandfather (a protagonist of Khan’s previous book, Five Queen’s Road, set in the aftermath of Partition) calls the “fake” city of Islamabad, a city that pales in comparison to his beloved, history-soaked Lahore.

Aliya’s self-conscious thoughts about her identity, and her observations, are a useful lens through which to view the rippling effects of the General’s political machinations in the public and domestic spheres of Pakistan’s capital. She is mostly able to keep the two halves of her life – the Shah household and the American School where she studies – separate. But as a sensitive pre-teen, she is also aware of the tension flowing through Islamabad’s wide, empty streets. In her eyes, the city is a playground for several strange games. There’s the competition for dominance between the cars marked by Soviet and American diplomatic license plates, surrounded by the clamour of a bevy of less identifiable plates from smaller countries, the pawns of this board. From the vantage of her seat on an incongruous yellow school bus, Aliya also has a ringside view of the spitting game the American boys play, targeting hapless Pakistani passers-by. Aliya cringes, but is unable to stand up to her schoolmates.“A small part of me believed that Pakistanis deserved to be spit upon,” she remarks. “I wasn’t proud of this, of course…”

These road games provide a neat dramatic setup for the tragedy at the centre of the novel, an event that causes Aliya’s discomfort to blossom into a full-blown identity crisis. Hanif, the young, Bhutto-obsessed son of the family servant, Sadiq, is killed in a hit-and-run accident. When Aliya discovers that the car was driven by the mother of her American best friend, the accident becomes conflated in her mind with the fate of Pakistan. Her personal loss – sharpened by guilt at her inability to have communicated with Hanif when he was alive – becomes a political one. “With the hit-and-run accident on an Islamabad street, Anne Simon had behaved in her personal life the way American governments behaved in the world, doing whatever they wanted without, for the most part, suffering any consequences.”

Khan writes this death with heartbreaking subtlety, keeping it from lapsing into a cliché plot twist by revealing the details of the accident to Aliya in bits and pieces, as the adults around her attempt to censor the information. City of Spies is not a particularly long novel, but Khan’s tight rein on its pace and artful ratcheting up and down of action make the consequences of the accident appear to slowly unfurl in the characters’ lives, even as the months pass swiftly by. (There are also many lovely distractions along the way, such as the juxtaposition of various cuisines: Aliya’s mother’s European baking; the imported junk food from the commissary stockpiled at her friend’s house; and Sadiq’s cooking, which makes her house smell “like Pakistan” to an American visitor.)

As Aliya begins to view Hanif’s death, compounded by Bhutto’s hanging, in geopolitical terms, she begins to see herself as Pakistani, despite being alienated by language and class from most of her fellow citizens. “Knowing who’d killed Hanif made the spaces in my life fall into each other like collapsing sand tunnels. It would be impossible to separate them, reshape them and restore them to the way they had been.”

In an attempt to give the accident some meaning, Aliya begins to secretly learn Urdu, with Sadiq’s help. Their friendship, built over convincing, though halting, dialogue, is just one of the tenderly drawn relationships between Khan’s memorable, sympathetic characters. In a way, her simple but emotionally packed story is an attempt to depoliticise the personal, or at least to find hope in the power of communication between two people to subvert the structures of power in which they exist.

It takes years for Aliya to understand that learning a language is only one aspect of this sort of communication. After a riot, spurred by suspicions of American involvement in a siege in Mecca, results in the burning of the American Embassy, a rift forms between Sadiq and the family. At the time, Aliya thinks of the riot as another kind of game: “I was suddenly reminded of Klackers, the game of two balls suspended on a string. When one ball hit the other, the klick-klack sent it careening. Countries were connected to each other the same way, which made our world a very scary place.”

Aliya’s thoughts – and the event itself– recall the reflections on a different riot, on the other side of the subcontinent, by the narrator of The Shadow Lines as he tries to “learn the meaning of distance” while drawing circles on maps. Attempting to “imagine an event, any event, that might occur in a city near the periphery of that circle” that could bring people at its centre “pouring out into the streets”, he comes up with “none, that is, other than war”.

“My parents tell me that we are defined by the wars we have lived, regardless of whether we can name them,” the grownup Aliya tells us in the prologue, “The war of my story, the war we shared long ago, whether we knew it or not, is the Cold War.” Riots, the civilian violence often engendered by war, are real and inexplicable —“to look for words” beyond the simple description of these events “would be to give them meaning… a risk we cannot take any more than we can afford to listen to madness” cautions the narrator of The Shadow Lines. But Khan also wants to suggest the possibility of a thaw; of reconciliation through communication, however imperfect. In her story, the city may be full of spies, and people prone to making mistakes, but they are also capable of forgiveness and surprising humanity. In her attempt to square Pakistan’s dire news headlines with the minutiae of life, there is a plea for giving people the benefit of the doubt, for faith in sanity even in the face of madness.

Originally published in the September-November 2015 issue of Biblio.

Published: November 9, 2015

Comic portraits

maia

 

sarah

 

 

sonam1

 

 

shareencolumbia

 

 

shareen

 

 

Published: October 24, 2015

Self-portraits

2010:

bk

2010:
LHOOQ

 

2010:comicportrait

 

After a car-scratching2008:

Published: October 24, 2015

Like a dog

IMG_20150830_145524

Published: August 30, 2015

School on a hill

IMG_20150829_011136

Published: August 29, 2015