Saturday, April 21, 2018

Kamila Shamsie - Salt and Saffron

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Author: Kamila Shamsie
Title: Salt and Saffron

Scribd threw up this book among a recommended reading shelf, based on my past choices. The name was intriguing and I picked up the book (i.e., opened the pages on the app) and dived right into the book. It was such a page turner that I was deep into the book before I realized that I had not saved it in my books. Easily remedied, as the name of the book was so catchy, I could not forget it if I wanted to.

Aliya is a compulsive teller of stories. She spends a long flight from USA to London captivating her fellow passengers with stories of her family. Her co-passenger Khaleel is impressed and just as they are getting to know each other better Aliya realizes he is from the wrong side of tracks.  She is a scion of a nawabi family that traces its roots back to Taimur the lame.  Also, she is drawn into the affairs of her family. Something terrible happened in her family because of which one of her aunts was ostracized.  Aliya had a falling out with her grandmother which is another issue that is rankling the family members.

Aliya finds herself confronting the history of her clan in a effort to understand the happenings of the present.  The story of Dard-e-dil, Aliya's nawabi family, has been handed down from generation to generation. They collaborated with Babur and later even tried to collaborate with the British, in order to maintain their independence. But Partition of India finally drove a wedge between the family and they were likewise divided. The how's and why's of this division form the backbone of this story.

I loved the easy telling of all the clannish tales.  All big families have stories that ultimately become legends, some embellished as they go along. It is all a part of our past when we had no other means of entertainment but telling of things. Here too there were numerous stories regarding encounters of various family members with household lizards. The story of the rift between three brothers who headed the family at the time of partition was likewise distorted and embellished in retelling.

The language finds the right balance between being faultless and mixed with just the right amount of vernacular to give it a desi feel. The exchanges between various characters are witty and replete with humor. It is like a more serious Moni Mohsin. Despite the light touch, the book addresses class divide which is the bane of all societies. Any book that harks back to the 1940s has to deal with the trauma of partition in this subcontinent.  As the migrants here were Nawabs, they did not steal across the border hiding in trains, having lost all their worldly possessions; they were taken across with an army convoy guarding them.

There are several reveals at strategic places in the novel. The problem of the ostracized aunt, Miriam is explained soon enough. The problem between Aliya and her Grandmother is also described in due time. The piece de resistance is the story of the triplet brothers in the 1940s. The story is good enough, but I was slightly disappointed that the story came from the lips of some characters. Surely a story that was so distorted needed to be found with more difficulty.  However, it is a minor dissonance, most of it in my mind, my opinion as a reader. The rest of the book is a delight and Kamila Shamsie is a find for me. An author whose works I will read with pleasure from now on.


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