The Wish Maker by Ali Sethi
During a book reading, Ali Sethi said he wrote The Wish Maker, his debut novel, in order to record his memories of Pakistan and the Pakistan of his parents and grandparents; in this endeavor, then, Sethi has done a fine job. The novel begins with college going Zaki Shirazi arriving at the new airport in Lahore and being met by two servants, Naseem, a long time retainer, along with a new driver. Indeed this duo encapsulates The Wish Maker’s thematic concerns between old and new, past and present, memory and remembrance, themes the twenty four year old Sethi tackles, to his credit, evocatively and unsentimentally.
On the drive home there ensues between Zaki, Naseem, and the driver a long, drawn out scene full of pedestrian details:
She (Naseem) sat next to the driver and gave him unnecessary directions out of the parking lot. At the tollbooth she gave him ten rupees, which he gave to the warden beyond his window.
“Reciept,” said Naseem, and secured it notingly.
The driver rolled up his window and began the drive away from the parking lot, away from the airport and out onto the road. His hands gripped the steering wheel. He was frowning in concentration and licking his lips.
“New driver,” said Naseem.
“I see,” I said.
“Yes,” she said.
We drove along a curve in the road and the car tilted, and Naseem reached for the strap above her window.
This slow beginning illustrates the problem, or if you will the strength, of much of the novel depending on what kind of reader you are: one who revels in the surfeit of fine-tuned details, or one who dislikes stories without plots no matter how pithy the prose. A few sections on, the pace finally picks up as much as it will in a novel in which I felt I was floating down a river observing dioramas on the banks. But what lovely dioramas they are! Perfect vignettes of Pakistan, its times and its rituals: a pre partition musical concert at Lawrence Gardens; a Bhutto era gathering where alcohol flows; Zia era acquisitions of bootlegged alcohol; the simple act of cleaning an insect riddled teapot in order to make chai; riding a red Sohrab Eagle cycle; the rise and many falls of Benazir Bhutto; the rise and falls of friendships between Samar and Tara, and Zaki and Kazim, and Zaki and Saif, and Daadi and Amrita; the youth and settlings and aging of Daadi and Seema and Chhoti and Zakia; and a wonderful set piece of a young Zakia — our protagonist’s mother — discovering her politics.
In fact, Zakia’s story could have made a short, brisk, excellent novel on its own, but here as one of many stories it loses its immediacy as well as any real impact.
Sethi renders his novel a richer soup in peppering it with vivid portrayals of walk-on characters be it Parveen the waxing woman, or Yakub, Naseem’s wagon driving son, or Zakia’s feminist friend Nargis. He also does a nice job lampooning Zaki’s freshman year at college in the U.S., as well as chronicling Zakia and Zaki’s holiday in Spain in which he gives voice to interesting paradoxes:
“Oh, no,” she (Zakia) said. “Believe me. Things are pretty bad there right now. We have every kind of crisis and a head of state who’d buying up property in the West.”
“Look at it this way,” said Karim, and leaned in to explain. “If it weren’t for the system, if the system itself weren’t as bad as it is right now, there would be no women like you to take it on.”
However, for all the beauty of the walk-ons as well as the vignettes and the relationships presented therein, major characters frequently disappear for pages with nary a reference, for example Samar’s removal to Barampur. When Samar does return near the very end of the novel, the reader is not sequentially told what happened to her in Barampur, instead, the reader realizes that that part of the story has already been divulged, all the way at the beginning of the novel, in chapter three.
For a novel over four hundred pages long, and spanning many different eras, and delving into myriad story lines this non-chronological style can often leave a reader confused and perhaps, for a reader unfamiliar with Pakistan, lost. Why are we told about Samar’s life in Barampur so early in the novel when we do not know who she is, and as a result, feel little if any sympathy for her? Furthermore the order in which her story is told removes any suspense from her tale, not that her tale ends in any character growth per se, and so to then choose to end the novel with Samar is to short charge any emotional impact Sethi means to leave the reader with. Part of Samar’s problem may be the tone Sethi employs— tall on observations, short on emotions. We don’t even know what she feels about her mother’s treatment in the village.
At any rate, even if Samar is a singularly insipid character, the novel’s circuitous style, as well its cool observational tone, suited more to a travelogue than a warm blooded novel, ultimately left me detached from many of the main characters Sethi follows to their end.
In comparison, Sethi has drawn his secondary characters exceedingly well — they live and breathe and writhe and scheme in palpable ways. I would have very much liked to know how Saif and Uzma, and Kazim, and Jamal, and, in particular, the bodacious Tara Tanvir ended up. But then the novel’s characters lives are not of interest in and of themselves, rather they are often vehicles to showcase the way things work (or do not work) in Pakistan: Saif allows the reader to see how moral corruption plays out at even a school level, Jamal illustrates how girls get bad reputations at no cost to the boys, Tara shows how some girls get away with dating, and mating. Yet these characters are far from stereo types; instead they seamlessly paint the many social strata and moral orders that make up Pakistan.
In fact, The Wish Maker is an ode to Pakistan, in particular Lahore. It is a delight for those who recognize the places mentioned such as Pioneer Store and Off Beat, and the vernacular spoken such as Naseem saying ‘vehko ji, bum da kamal’ after Pakistan tests its nuclear capability. Additionally Sethi does manage to access the universal in both the novel’s personal family politics as well as its astute commentary on national politics. Ali Sethi is an engaging writer and The Wish Maker a beguiling read for anyone interested in Pakistan. However, as charming as the slices of the novel are, upon reaching the end, I could not really remember much of the whole; ironic for a novel that is a veritable tribute to memory.