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Vulnerable on all sides

By Sally Bland - Dec 23,2012 - Last updated at Dec 23,2012


Thinner Than Skin

Uzma Aslam Khan

US: Clockroot Books/Interlink Publishing, 2012

Pp. 345


There are a few novels that sadden one when they end — not because of the ending itself but because of not wanting to let go of the characters whose life one has shared for a while. My first experience of this sort was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”. The most recent was Uzma Aslam Khan’s “Thinner Than Skin”.

Conveying sights, sounds, smells and textures in taut prose filled with promise and foreboding, Khan transports the reader to Northern Pakistan near the Chinese border, with its towering mountains, bottomless lakes and living glaciers. With nearly tactile descriptions of everything from endless vistas to small crevices, she displays the natural beauty and stark, sometimes threatening, conditions in this area from the perspective of those who live there and those who are just visiting. “Thinner Than Skin” is rich in history, geopolitics, sociology, anthropology, legend and environmental concerns. It is also rich in tension — interpersonal as well as tension between outsiders and insiders, old and new, and government actions vs. people’s needs.

On one level, this is a story about the ambiguity of returning home. Nadir, a young Pakistani man who lives in San Francisco, is madly in love with Farhana, a researcher of mixed Pakistani-German heritage, who wants him to take her “back” to Pakistan where she has never been. Though her unreal attitude grates on him, he agrees, but the ever-present friction between the two grows when she invites an American colleague, Wes, to join them so that they can study glaciers in the north of the country. To this uneasy triangle is added Irfan, Nadir’s boyhood friend whom they meet up with in Karachi. He is the only one really familiar with the area where they are headed, and the visitors’ behaviour often irks him.

Nadir, who tells half the story, has another passion: photography. He feels he sees the world better through the camera lens. Much of the aesthetics of the novel come from his narration of what he sees via his lens.

A counter narrative is provided by the author telling the other half from the point-of-view of Mariam, a young mother of the Gujjars who inhabit the rugged northern reaches of Pakistan. For these nomads, mobility is crucial as they move between a highland lake and the lowlands to graze their livestock, but now their home, mobility and access to the land are threatened by an odd assortment of enemies.

Reviled by the settled population who don’t regard them as true Muslims, they are victimised by government agents who introduce new livestock breeds that don’t fit into local conditions, close off pastureland, fine them for trespassing, and turn a blind eye to or even join in illegal logging that is destroying the environment on which they depend. 

In a spin-off from neighbouring conflicts, the Gujjars are also caught between extremist militants trying to recruit their sons, and plainclothes and uniformed agents who wreak havoc on their simple tent dwellings on the pretext of searching for “terrorists”. Mariam sometimes suspects that these men are “all in each other’s pockets… Perhaps they were all exactly the same”. 

In her worldview, “Everything alive is in movement and everything that moves is alive. These men were unchanging. They were not alive.” (p. 195)

Nadir and Mariam are both vulnerable, though in different ways. While Nadir takes refuge in his photography, Mariam has a secret shrine where she shelters from the threats surrounding her, and perpetuates the ancient beliefs of her people. She also has Ghafoor, a flamboyant, platonic lover banned from the area for fighting the forest officials, and now a trader moving between the border regions of Pakistan and Xinjiang, home to the Uyghur people. Ghafoor, who is something of a legend, appears and reappears at pivotal times in Mariam’s life, urging her to be strong and keep moving, and spinning stories about the new Silk Road trade where he encounters a dizzying mélange of the peoples, goods and languages of Central Asia.

While cultural differences are part of the reason the travelling party has ambiguous and sometimes disastrous encounters with the local people who are usually known for their hospitality, the bigger problem lies in the situation they unwitting enter. Hounded for years by CIA agents and US drones, the areas they visit are currently swarming with agents and military personnel of all sorts, supposedly pursuing an undefined “killer” responsible for a bomb attack. Anyone could be a suspect.

Khan interlaces these multiple sources of tension in taunt, understated prose until they implode in unexpected ways. She is especially adept in describing events as people actually experience them, not always as a total happening but from a limited angle or via small details. “Thinner than Skin” is a fascinating introduction to the real life and culture of people in areas usually described only in stereotypical jargon. It is also a protest against environmental destruction, government insensitivity to people’s needs, and the stupidities and cruelty of the “War on Terror”, but like most good literature, the protest is not rhetorical but couched in the story.

Books@Cafe is expected to get “Thinner Than Skin” in January.


Sally Bland

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