Chosen as a ‘Granta Best of Young British Novelist’ in 2013, Kamila Shamsie’s latest page-turner explores Peshawar unlike before; there’s an ode to Mumbai too, as Kanika Sharma found out in a telephonic chat with the gifted Pakistani author
Q. Tell us about the title of the book, A God in Every Stone.
A. This book is about archaeology and Peshawar’s history, which is interesting especially when it comes to the ancient past of Gandhara, thus the stones. Having grown up in Karachi, Peshawar felt like a distant place; it’s only after five novels that I felt ready to write about it. For 5,000 years, travellers to the subcontinent have crossed it, as it is the first place you reach on foot.
Kamila Shamsie has been a regular at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Pic/Fiona Fernandez
The other reason was that I wanted to write about Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his army of red shirts. I wanted to look at the contemporary history of the place, especially the stereotypes around Pathans. Bombs are dropped there everyday but the museum there still has the world’s greatest collection of Gandhara art.
The Peshawar Musuem (a setting in the novel) is a respository of Gandhara art (as seen in the picture) that symbolises non-violence. Pic Courtesy/ AFP
You know, when Malala addressed the UN assembly she spoke of Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Badshah Khan (Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan) as her role models. In her autobiography as well, Malala speaks of how her father would show her the statues of Buddha as Gandhara history has always been representative of the culture of non-violence.
Q. Vivian Rose Spencer comes across as ordinary when compared to the women of Peshawar, especially Diwa and Zarina, her sister-in-law. Tell us why and if, that is a commentary on the empire?
A. Diwa and her sister-in-law are largely unknown in the story as they come just towards the end whereas Viv Rose Spencer, being there throughout the novel, is more exposed. I wanted these women to be there as you always hear ‘desi men interacting with the angrez’ in the stories of the empire.
A God In Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie, Bloomsbury India, Rs 499. Available at leading bookstores.
I wanted to make these women be there though they are largely on the periphery. Being secondary characters, they are less well-etched and are more about how others look at them.
The mythical aspect to Diwa (about the light flowing through her while she gives water to the soldiers in the Pakhtun rebellion of 1930), in the end, turns out to be false as Zarina says that she was ‘not an angel sent by Allah’ but just a girl. And no, their characters have nothing to do with the cultures.
About the book
The book binds the life of a young British archaeologist Vivian Rose Spencer with a Khudai Khidmatgar called Qayyum Gul. The background explores many histories of Peshawar; offering a commentary on the bomb-ridden city.
Bombay Fornicators are common in most of the city’s libraries. Pic/Sameer Markande
The Bombay Fornicator
Bombay Fornicator is a chair named by the British that has its arms extended enough to let the sitter prop his/her leg on to it. Considering that the legs were hoisted in mostly a parting position, the British converted their imagination into an official moniker. Shamsie shares, “While writing this novel, a friend mailed a photo of this chair calling it ‘hilarious’. I felt the Bombay Fornicator would be a funny thing to put it in, especially with the British being so proper. The chair disrupts the total propriety they had, bringing out the absurdity.”