A prediction of greatness for a child can be a great joy, or great burden. In Lahore in the early part of the twentieth century Amrau Dar has four children, but she has ambitions for only one, Awais, the beloved son. As Maryam his youngest sister discovers her own special ambitions, India is heading for great changes, and even an ancient city built inside a modern one will not escape from the upheaval that is to come. This touching, beautifully written tale of young men and women growing up in a changing city with the challenges of both an old and new world around them is given an almost mystical quality by a mother still held by an old prediction. As Awais explores and discovers a city waiting to be found around him, his family struggle to understand him and the very city he loves. This engaging and mature historical novel makes confident use of character and setting to tell the story of crushed hopes and family pressures in a unique style. I am very grateful to be given the opportunity to read and review this book as part of a series of posts.
The book opens with a description of the family at home, a three story house where everyone sleeps on the roof. There is a timeless quality to the sun beaten house, which is contrast to the returning father and husband, Dar, who is painfully aware of the superstition which rules his wife and many people in the city. He is full of new ideas, the politicians of independence, such as Gandhi and Jinnah, the future and the nearly magical radio. His great friend, Shams, is a local historian of the city which Awais will become entranced by as both collect the stories and maps of their immediate neighbourhood. Awais makes one great friend, Mitoo, the son of a long ago friend of his mother’s, and the two boys go up in parallel, creating their own activities. Awais is always painfully aware of his mother’s obsession with the prediction that he will achieve greatness, and he realises how difficult it will be if he lets her down with a mundane life. Maryam is a younger child who has been largely ignored, but as she begins to assert her personality and abilities she is recognised by those outside the family as well as Awais as having special gifts which are beyond her traditional gender role.
This is a book which brings to life the very dust of the streets, the unrelenting sunlight, the excitement of living in a rich historical environment. While it acknowledges the background of politics, war and change, these are people who must live their lives where they are, coping with a system which means that Englishmen can come and attempt to map a city that they will never understand. Amrau’s assumed name, Khushid, is initially confusing but it emerges as symbolic of how the holy man’s prediction and advice has dominated both her own life and that of her family. I really enjoyed the style of this novel, full of the small details, looks and dialogue of a family, a society on the brink of change but with a stubborn attachment to a city which is more than buildings which are vulnerable and pathways which can be mapped. I recommend this as a novel to read for the characters, the setting and a world view which is immensely sensitive and attractive.
Last night a friend and I went to see the live stream of the National Theatre’s “All About Eve”. It is a long play with no interval, but the staging is brilliant with uses of video clips and side scenes. Lilly James is fantastic as Eve, very convincing, whereas Gillian Anderson is just majestic as the older Margo. The other parts are very well realised as well, and altogether it was a very good evening. As always we enjoyed the live streaming, and it is a very good way of seeing plays without the fuss and expense of going to London or Stratford etc. Worth looking for in your local cinema!