Thursday, November 27, 2003

trespassing in pakistan

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in November 2003).

Trespassing by Uzma Aslam Khan. Flamingo. $26.85

In Trespassing, Uzma Aslam Khan's deft second novel, Daanish, a young Pakistani man studying journalism at a university in Boston, cannot resist pointing out the prejudice behind the headlines of American newspapers reporting on the 1991 Gulf War. He refers to one such headline--"More Than a Madman"--about Saddam Hussein, and remarks, "The irony is that the top of the article begins with a photograph of schoolchildren in front of a photograph of Saddam and the caption reads: From birth, Iraqis are taught to obey their supreme leader's every command. The caption could easily read: From birth, Americans are taught to obey their ruling troika: the White House, Pentagon and the Media."

His professor, who has been teaching the class about objectivity in journalism, shows him the door. Daanish feels he does not belong in an increasingly jingoistic United States. But, later, back in Karachi for his father's funeral, Daanish's "Amreeka-returned" status makes him an outsider at home, too.

Khan, like fellow Pakistani English-language authors Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie, grew up in Pakistan in the 1980s and went to the U.S. for graduate studies. She writes about contemporary Pakistan and its problems, but she is more overtly political. She makes Daanish a left-leaning character who realizes that America isn't as free as it pretends to be.

At home, Daanish meets Dia, a liberal college student whose life is circumscribed by society's restrictions on women. Daanish and Dia fall in love but have to keep their relationship a secret, because society frowns upon nonarranged relationships.

In Trespassing, everybody is a transgressor rebelling against the confines of society and history.

At the other end of the economic spectrum, Salaamat, a son of a fisherman is heckled and harangued for being a Sindhi. "Everything about him--his looks, accent, language, carriage--was mocked and shredded by the 30 or so workers who poured their lives out on bus art." Salaamat is the most disenfranchised of Khan's characters. In a sense, he is the embodiment of Pakistan's problems.

Khan's descriptions of Karachi are vivid, vibrant and violent. It is easy to picture the garishly painted buses, see the boys playing cricket on every street corner and sense the terror of violent hatreds lurking everywhere.

Khan sketches a world where the weak are shoved around by the strong and the strong are dominated by "Amreeka." Trespassing is a chilling reminder of U.S. realpolitik gone horribly wrong.