Fragility under fire

In her debut novel, author Fatima Bhutto writes of things she has seen and felt when they were uncomfortably close to her life — strife in a region marred by neglect and lives ripped apart in hours because of the choice of a select few.

Bhutto’s previous memoir, Songs of Blood and Sword, blamed Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari for the assassination of her father, Mir Murtaza. Sure, her family name brings to mind games of power, blood and conflict. But it isn’t her family’s history which runs through her latest offering, The Shadow Of The Crescent Moon. It is Bhutto’s work and travels as a journalist in strife-stricken regions which render a grim, melancholy air to the story of her protagonists in her novel.

Fatima Bhutto’s novel, The Shadow of The Crescent Moon, is a fictitious account set in the town of Mir Ali

The Shadow Of The Crescent Moon is a tale of five residents of Mir Ali. Three brothers — Aman Erum, Sikander — leave home to head to three different mosques in the town. It is the first day of Eid, but tones are hushed and voices secretive.

The story begins and ends on the same morning and traces three hours in the characters’ lives. As Aman Erum takes a cab, his mind races back to his idyllic childhood and his dreams of escaping an uncertain and what he felt would be a wretched fate in Mir Ali. His chosen escape was studying commerce in the US. He thinks of how he left the love of his wife, Samarra, who is fighting demons of her own in the troubled town. Sikander, the middle brother, could not identify with Aman Erum’s drastic, escapist choices, but neither could he see himself in a world dreamt by Hayat, the youngest brother. Hayat wants to fight the injustice meted out to Mir Ali’s residents and thinks no step is too drastic. Sikander had decided to become a doctor, which satiated his need to make a difference yet stay within the lines drawn by the region’s politics. Sikander’s wife, Mina, was once a lecturer of Psychology. After a tragedy, she now does rounds of funerals of children who have died in the clashes in Mir Ali.

On the other hand, Hayat and Samarra hide a terrible secret which could change the course of their lives forever.

The Shadow Of The Crescent Moon is an intense, realistic account of Mir Ali, a town on the brink of breakdown. Bhutto’s prose has a warm and intimate quality as she describes a fictitious account of this town in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province. She resurrects the ghosts of Mir Ali’s past and the ones that threaten to haunt its future. Reading the novel feels like ambling through a faraway, hostile land, with Bhutto as a perceptive storyteller. You take in every detail she describes, and empathise with Mir Ali’s fragility — there’s the university which has teachers trained to watch out for students who speak garrulously about their fathers’ exploits and travels, Sikander’s hospital which unflinchingly doles out medicines well past their expiry date and Mir Ali’s streets waiting for death — the town is a time-bomb waiting to go off, and nowhere does Bhutto’s prose let you forget that.

What is most significant, however, is Bhutto’s passionate portrayal of the women of the region. Samarra and Mina’s lives have been shaped by conflict and personal tragedies, but their narratives are not teary and helpless. This is the most telling aspect of the book — Bhutto trying to tell the story of a region through its women, who, till date, have been relegated to the background in spite of having borne most injustice and neglect. Stereotypes are broken, myths busted and the fact that Mir Ali’s women are independent and unafraid to raise their voices shines through Bhutto’s prose.

The Shadow Of The Crescent Moon may be one region’s story, but it holds a mirror to every oppressed society in South Asia and the rest of
the world. 

The Shadow of The crescent moon
Fatima Bhutto
Rs 499
Published by Penguin Books 

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