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The beginning of Pakistan's troubles - through a teenager's eyes (Book Review)


Title: City of Spies; Author: Sorayya Khan; Publisher: Aleph Book Company; Pages: 248; Price: Rs.295

In 1979, the Shah of Iran left and the country became an Islamic republic, deposed Pakistani prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was hanged, the US ambassador to Afghanistan kidnapped and killed and lethal power games were underway in now-Communist-ruled Kabul, the American embassy in Tehran was overrun and the entire staff made captive, the Grand Mosque in Makkah attacked and seized - and attacks on US establishments in the region followed after rumours of their involvement.

It was an year of changes, both internal and external, which would impact Pakistan, not only then, but down to the present as well quite a bit of the wider world, especially the US. And we get a chance to see them through the eyes and mind of an adolescent girl, still to come to terms with her different heritage, make sense of an uncertain world and understand concepts like guilt, atonement, loyalty - and life and death.

Sorayya Khan begins her third novel in Islamabad in July 1977, as 11-year-old Aliya Shah, the third and youngest child of a senior Pakistani bureaucrat and a Dutch mother, comes to know army chief Gen. Zia-ul-Haq has overthrown Prime Minister Bhutto.

The effects of the regime change loom over them with her father, appointed by Bhutto who had persuaded him to leave his UN job in Europe and return home to help re-build the country - fears for his job (with an intelligence agent turning up regularly to quiz the servants) and increasing Islamisation. Aliya, whose elder siblings are studying abroad - observes "God was everywhere, but so was the general" but her life and education goes on quite normally at the American School, and an American classmate befriends her.

Acquaintance with the uncompromising realities of life and death take place next year when the family retainer's young son, who had become withdrawn after Bhutto was arrested for murder, and has just returned to some normality, is killed in a hit-and-run accident by a diplomat's car. It is however in the significant year 1979, when things take a dramatic turn in the wider world, they also do in the life of Aliya, who comes to know the car was being driven by her friend's mother - and more worryingly, finds the family retainer hanging around the Americans' house.

The global events also impact Aliya - the Shah's toppling leads to an Iranian classmate and his family fleeing to the US for refuge, her new principal, who had returned to Tehran to retrieve his belongings, is among the captives and the Makkah attack leads to the US embassy in Islamabad being stormed and burnt to the ground, while her school is also attacked - moreover, their servant is missing the entire day and his clothes smell of smoke when he returns.

Most Americans are evacuated the same night - and Aliya, noticing her servant leaving the house, follows him to the street outside her friend's house where a confrontation of a sort takes place. Spending the Christmas holiday in her grandfather's house in Lahore, she sees news of the Soviet forces landing in Kabul.

It is years later she finds out what had really happened on that day in November and finally comes to terms with the past. Providing a concise account of her unfortunate country in the years gone by, she mourns the passing by of Islamabad and Lahore of her childhood, noting now her "home is a barrage of headlines. You see, my country is at war. My cities are burning. My capital is a police checkpoint.... My road is a sandbag bunker.."

The author, whose previous books also incisively and empathically deal with Pakistan at other crucial times of its life (1971 in "Noor", 2003 and 1947 and its aftermath in "Five Queens Road", 2009,) spins the same magic in this near-autobiography, which straddles both the genres of coming-of-age and politics, while finding some uncanny resemblances with current day events.

But its biggest contribution is reminding us that it was 1979, not 2001 which began the US' fatal entanglement with the Islamic world - and Pakistan, due to some acts of omission and commission, soon found itself bearing the brunt.

How this happened with unfortunate reverberations not only for it but the region and the wider world can be glimpsed in this rivetting account of those two and half and turbulent years.

(07.11.2015 - Vikas Datta can be contacted at )

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First Published: Sat, November 07 2015. 09:46 IST