A God in Every Stone: Kamila Shamsie

The first paragraph of Kamila Shamsie’s ‘A God in Every Stone’ made my heart plummet just as the imagined descent of the silver circlet from Scylax’s hands into the crocodile infested Indus river. It wasn’t as much as what was written as the way it was type-set. Would there be callisthenic hops and skips, slides and crisscrosses of words? I wondered. It was a little too precious for my liking.
But with the next paragraph that first false note was erased with an elan that made me want to applaud. Thereafter with every phrase, sentence and paragraph, Kamila Shamsie demonstrates the virtuosity of her craft.

But first, the plot. It is June 1914. A young English woman Vivian Rose Spencer and her mentor Tahsin Bey are at the site of an archaeological dig in the ancient land of Caria (Anatolia). In the next couple of months, the young wide eyed girl and the much older man move into another stage in their relationship. ‘Viv’s suspicion that no one in the world was more interesting than Tahsin Bey became conviction. In Labraunda they had spoken mainly of the site and its discoveries, but as they rose she saw there was nothing he didn’t hold in his mind – the story of every ancient stone, the call of individual birds, the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare, the overlap and contrasts of the Bible and Qur’an, the history of the tango.’

But the war arrives in their lives turning everything topsy – turvy and Vivian Rose returns home to London where she swiftly is absorbed into the wartime effort. ‘A daughter nursing in a Class A hospital was almost as fine as a son going into battle, Dr Spencer had declared. That ‘almost’ had struck at Viv’s heart and prompted her to say if only she were twenty-three already she would volunteer straight away to join the nurses at the Front. Her father’s proud smile a reward that would carry her through the worst of the Class A hospital’s horrors.’

A year later Vivian Rose whose nursing duties had frayed and worn out both her health and sanity is on a train to Peshawar. A trip engineered by her mother who until then had seemed drab and boring. ‘Viv began to see she hadn’t the faintest idea what kind of woman her mother really was. Until now, it had never seemed particularly interesting to find out.’ Vivian Rose imagines the pointlessness of her life would find a point in Peshawar. A post card, the only missive she has from Tahsin Bey promises as much and so Vivian boards a train wanting to forget as much as seeking to discover.

Lance Naik Qayyum Gul, 40th Pathans, is returning home after losing an eye in Ypres and is in the same compartment. They share a bread roll and make some conversation. They smoke in silence and shake hands as Peshawar draws near. If this had been a romance novel, we would have had yet another colonial love story. But this is Kamila Shamsie and her love stories have to it the twists and perils of river rafting; and is mostly about the ride rather than the destination.

Instead we have Najeeb, a young boy who Vivian Rose befriends. She becomes his mentor as Tahsin Bey was once hers.

The stories of Vivian Rose and Qayyum intersect for Najeeb is Qayyum’s younger brother. As much a fulcrum as the silver circlet. However it is not until fifteen years later during an upspring [the Peshawar disturbance of April 23, 1930] do they actually meet. Kamila Shamsie is too astute a writer to facilitate a pat ending. Instead every ending is almost yet another beginning and the stories of Vivian Rose, Qayyum, Najeeb and the silver circlet is left for us to imagine and fashion into a story we wish it to be. It is always a joy to read a novel by an accomplished writer. And Kamila Shamsie is certainly that and more. Her stories may not always be the kind of stories that I like but her writing has a certain luminosity that imbue even the most dreariest of situations with a grace that is as much muscular as it is fluid.

But if there is a hero in this story, it is the city of Peshawar itself. Read these lines: The Victoria progressed along the famed Street of Storytellers and Najeeb pointed out the Storyteller themselves – men sitting cross-legged on the raised floor of open-fronted stores, audiences seated across from on rope-beds beneath trees. The stories they were told in the form of poems called badalas, Najeeb said in response to her question, and she repeated the word badala and wondered where she could find a language teacher.

At the end of A God in Every Stone, I may not have found a sense of fruition but I fell in love with a city that Kamila Shamsie brought alive with her words. That alone is good enough for me to read A God in Every Stone again, and who knows the next time I may find something else to relish and savour. Need a book do more? Need a storyteller ask for more?


Publishers: Bloomsbury

Pages: 312

Price: Rs 499

Reviewed in: Asian Age 2014


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