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Trespassing: Uzma Aslam Khan


Some days ago while reading a much researched and highly engrossing book about the painting of the Sistine chapel ceiling, I stumbled upon a very disquieting fact: Contrary to popular belief Michelangelo did not fresco the Sistine Chapel ceiling lying on his back. And I thought of that moment little more than a year ago, when I in my ignorance pointed the ceiling to my son and marvelled, "Can you imagine painting this lying on your back?"

Does this revelation make the ceiling any less awesome for me? The truth is: No. In fact, all I feel is relief that the ceiling can now be remembered for its scope of artistic success rather than the artist's gymnastic prowess. Trespassing evoked in me pretty much the same feeling.

For us living on this side of the Vindhyas, Pakistan is as far removed from our everyday life as is perhaps Turkey or Mongolia [Except that is when India meets Pakistan on a cricket pitch or battlefield]…and yet because of our peculiar histories, Pakistan incites a certain curiosity. What is Pakistan really like? What do they eat? What do they fear? How do they think?

Here comes Uzma Aslam Khan who tells us that life in Pakistan is no different from that in India…. from the crimes perpetuated against humanity and nature to the hypocrisy of the society to the rampant corruption to the power-cuts to bureaucracy to love and samosas, we are the same. And therein lies Trespassing's success. That it is a novel that has less to do with where it is from and instead is more about the choices the characters make.

Broadly, Trespassing is the story of Dia, the spirited daughter of a woman silk farmer. Dia who's been repeatedly told by her mother that she should marry only out of love and not obligation. Then arrives Daanish, journalist in the making from Amreeka. Daanish is in Karachi to attend his doctor father's funeral. At the Quran Khwani where Dia accompanies her friend Nini who's gone to check Daanish out as prospective husband, Dia ruptures the fragile atmosphere with a handful of caterpillars thrust down Nini's kameez. Daanish's attention is deflected from Nini to Dia. They could have been the perfect couple except that there's a hitch….an act of trespass which won't possibly allow this match to be….

So what's new?...

What's new is Salamat, the fisherboy who moves to the city and apprentices himself to a Bus Body maker and then to a terrorist outfit and finally ends as a driver to an arms dealer. Somewhere along the line, 'Salamaat consoled himself that if he carried a load of torture equipment, it was better than being the one tortured.'

What's new is Riffat, reviver of organic dyes, nurturer of silkworms, decisive entrepreneur, who chooses to marry out of obligation rather than love…

What's new is Shafqat, popper of surprises, purveyor of shells, quintessential male - Pakistani or otherwise, restless wanderer …
What's new is Anu, vociferous mother, silent wife, whose shape of love doesn't match her husband's or even child's….

Together and separately each one of them have invaded dangerous territories and it is the weaving of these acts of trespass that constitute the fabric of this charmingly written book.

Set amidst a cornucopia of backdrops - mulberry farms, student cafeterias, bus body builders, water authorities, and American academia in the throes of the first Gulf war, the pace of the book is even and deft though the humour at times seem forced. If the book falters, it is for the fact that the splintered narrative and multitude of settings deflects attention, creates false diversions making me wonder who the true heroes of this book are. Dia and Daanish who commit the only unconscious act of trespass or Shafqut, Riffat, Salamaat or even Anu who know the exact extent of their trespasses?

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