Khan (Trespassing, 2004, etc.) fuses the romantic, the spiritual and the political in her story of two sisters in 1980s and ’90s Pakistan.
The same day that eight-year-old Amal finds an important fossil on a dig with her grandfather Zahoor, her baby sister Mehwish goes blind, supposedly from looking too long at the sun. Zahoor, a professor whose Darwinism is under attack by Islamists, encourages Amal’s curiosity, and she becomes a scientist, as well as Mehwish’s protector. Their grandfather also encourages Mehwish, who becomes a poet and narrates her sections of the novel in a playful made-up language combining English and Urdu. Six years after Mehwish loses her sight, the girls are noticed at one of Zahoor’s lectures by Noman, a young man whose father, a member of Zia’s Party of Creation bent on ridding Pakistan of Western science, has sent him to spy on the professor. An angry but dutiful son, Noman has relinquished his mathematical ambitions to write articles in his father’s name extolling strict adherence to Sharia, though he himself enjoys liquor and marijuana with nihilist friends. Meeting the enlightened Zahoor changes Noman’s life; he is increasingly torn between family loyalty and his intellectual awakening. When Zahoor is arrested, Noman blames himself and breaks with his father, then takes a job teaching math. Meanwhile, Amal, who also blames Noman, becomes a lab assistant (as a woman she is barred from doing actual fieldwork) and eventually agrees to marry longtime sweetheart Omar only if he will allow her independence. Noman, once drawn to Amal, discovers genuine, spiritual love for Mehwish, who slowly responds. As these private lives are about to reach fulfillment, political realities hone in. The consequences are tragic but not insurmountable.
The author’s take on fundamentalism can be polemic, but the characters, the poetry and the philosophical questions she raises are rendered with a power and beauty that make this novel linger in the mind and heart.