Critical Assessment

“The early chapters describing life in an unnamed Pakistani village lead one to expect something praiseworthy and exceedingly dull. But this first novel by the young writer Nadeem Aslam grows startlingly better.

“The sleepy little place turns out to have intrigue underway – murders, conspiracies and suspected adulteries, all sifted and judged by choruses of scandalised townsfolk lounging in shops and hanging about doorways. Aslam gives a forceful picture of a tightly meshed community in which the very notion of privacy seems an invitation to sin and the least consequential deed ripples out to encompass everyone. . . .

“Aslam’s touch is so delicate and sure throughout that, despite a few inconclusive plot turns and some conventional lyricism, the whole appears a model of compact, unadorned storytelling.”

Peter Matthews, “How Ideals Swelter into Decay,” The Observer, February 14, 1993.

First Excerpt

“Within the next few minutes Mr Kasmi could see the school, a charmless building. Ten yards further on and he began to catch whiffs of the penetrating odour that the newer parts of the building gave off in the rainy season.

“Mr Kasmi had once taught here. In those days the school consisted of one room, serving as the headmaster’s office and staff room, and a walled-in strip of level ground where lessons were given by the three teachers to boys who sat cross-legged on the grass. Summer holidays would begin on the day a pupil passed out from the sun. Mr Kasmi’s had been the first bicycle in town, and the sight of his gangling frame riding in through the gate the first morning had caused a sensation. The wheels left behind two wavy lines in the mud, like the path of two butterflies chasing each other in early March. Since Mr Kasmi’s retirement, however, three new rooms had been added to the building. The pond behind the old room was drained and people were asked to dump their rubbish into the enormous crater left behind. Four months later cement was poured over the garbage and the new rooms were built.”

9780345802828Second Excerpt

“Azhar raised his shoulders. ‘Why are you journalists always chasing after weird stories? Why can’t you write about ordinary things?’

“Saif Aziz made the umbrella rotate above their heads. ‘To write about ordinary things is the duty of a novelist: it’s the task of the journalist to write about extraordinary things.’ He grinned.

“‘Who said that?’ Azhar snapped his fingers a few times in an effort to remember. He poked Saif Aziz’s chest. ‘That Irishman . . . what was his name . . .?’

“The other smiled. ‘James Joyce.’

“‘Yes, James Joyce.’

“Saif Aziz leaned towards Azhar’s face. ‘Should I write about the unusual manner in which the letters were delivered here?’ His voice had quietened to a conspiratorial whisper.

“Azhar came out from under the umbrella. ‘If you must write about unusual things then go and write about that goat which I hear has been born with the Prophet’s name on its hide.’

“Saif Aziz reached out his hand and took Azhar by the upper arm. ‘One more thing, deputy-sahib,’ he said with a broad smile. ‘I would be interested in knowing what attracts a deputy commissioner to a miserable place like this.’

“Azhar freed himself gently. He began to cross to the street that would take him to the courthouse.

“‘You see, deputy-sahib,’ Saif Aziz shouted after him. ‘When I ask an ordinary question, no one makes a reply. They just walk away.'”