Book: A God in Every Stone
Author: Kamila Shamsie
Peshawar in north Pakistan bordering Afghanistan is a city at the fulcrum of history. Located close to the Khyber Pass, it fell on the route that invaders from Central Asia and further afield — Darius the Great, Alexander, Chenghiz Khan, Mahmud of Ghazni, Muhammad of Ghor, Babur and Nadir Shah — travelled to conquer India.
The city and its surroundings are layered with the remains of several empires, ancient and modern, but it is Peshawar's strategic importance to the British and Americans in the last century and a half, as the bulwark against Russian expansionism, that gave it its character. Even now, this part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, has been at the forefront of the US's war on terror — 9/11, the rise of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden — events that are local and global at the same time.
In Kamila Shamsie's novel, A God in Every Stone, Peshawar's many-layered history forms not just the backdrop, but a protagonist. Set in the early decades of the last century, it is history, more particularly the search for an ancient silver circlet that the Persian emperor Darius had given his general Scylax sometime in the 6th century BC, that brings Vivian Rose Spencer to Peshawar. The search for this artifact had been the obsession of Turkish archaeologist Tahsin Bey, the man Vivian loved and would have married had it not been for the war, and she hoped to find it at the excavation site of Shahji ki Dheri where remains of the Great Stupa built by the Kushan king Kanishka stand.
It is also history over which she bonds with local boy Najeeb Gul and inspires him with the romance of digging up remnants of the past. As Najeeb writes to his brother Qayyum, "How can I explain how it feels to hold an ancient object and feel yourself linked to everyone through whose hand it passed. All these stories which happened where we live, on our piece of earth — how can you stay immune to them?"
Ironically, history is also being made as Najeeb writes this but he is unaware of what's happening around him and remains immersed in the "world of Scylax and Herodotus". His brother, Qayyum, a member of the Khudai Khidmatgar, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan's non-violent army to force the British to leave India, is suspicious of Najeeb's romantic interest in olden civilisations, the centre of this historical tumult.
Ironically, Qayyum had fought on behalf of the British in World War I. He'd been a Lance Naik in the 40th Pathans infantry regiment of the British Indian Army that went to France to fight at Ypres. Hit in the eye, he was sent to England to recuperate and returned home with a glass eye to show for his sojourn in an alien land.
This part of the novel, set around 15 years before the main action in Peshawar, does an effective job of evoking the horrors of the war often described as "the deadliest conflict in history". This was also, as Shamsie reminds us, the first time that such a large number of ordinary Indians travelled to Europe. "Until then, the movement had only been the other way," she says. The war, she informs us, also exposed the hypocrisies of the Empire — on the one hand, they wanted to appease Indian soldiers since they needed them to fight in Africa and other fronts far from home. But they were also wary of letting the Indian soldiers interact with their womenfolk.
At the hospital in Brighton where Qayyum is recovering, women nurses are suddenly taken away, leaving the soldiers who had come to value their companionship, feeling bereft and bewildered. Ironically, it is the same sense of possessiveness that the Pashtun men feel about their womenfolk, which is why they shroud them in tent-like burqas.
The novel ends with the Kissa Khwani massacre, a Jalianwala Bagh-like incident in 1930 where British troops opened fire at a peaceful demonstration of Red Shirts, as the Khudai Khidmatgars were called, and killed 400 to 700 of them.