Memories on a sheet of paper
A slight murmur, a candid moment — the stage was set. Fingers were arranging and brushing and re-arranging the stray strands. Cameras were being set-up, and in an elegant saari, the principal walked in. When the chief guest, Ms Asma Jameel, and the honourable author, Kanza Javed, were seated and settled, the murmur descended. A rhetorical introduction, a recitation or two, and in walked the last few late-comers, confused and wind-swept.
Hosted by Kinnaird College’s English Club on December 8, 2015, it was the launch of ‘Ashes, Wine and Dust’, a novel dipped in the essence of a cultural mosaic, through the eyes and tears of a vivid and riveting child-turned-lady, Mariam.
Previously, many have talked and written about terms and themes echoing with the phrase “greater good”, which have become stagnant in discussion after a while. So, with a license, allow me to delve into the intricacies of this novel. A tale of a girl no different from you and I, whom a sea of contemplation of simple yet pertinent questions of life engulf: “Where are we going?” “What to do of those we have left behind?” Waves and waves of banal veracities of life, ranging from visiting graveyards to befriending a stranger to searching for a potential within the self for any possibility of reciprocating an unrequited love. Penned with a warmth that is wrapped around every syllable of the written word, Javed manages to thwart at every zest and apathy of human existence in the western and the eastern worlds.
Penned with a warmth that is wrapped around every syllable of the written word, Javed manages to thwart at every zest and apathy of human existence in the western and the eastern worlds
Back again, inside Haldia, the author had adorned herself: a mustard kurti and black tights, and she moved away from the rostrum after a brief insight to the novel, towards the stage where she along with Mehwish Khan, the moderator, addressed the novel with more defining insights.
Javed said for her, “Writing was a healing mechanism” after living through the death of her beloved naani, with whom she had many memorable moments, and to have it before the world, was to convey to them “so many beautiful aspects and conflicts that we are encumbered with, which are universal”. This novel, though mostly set in Pakistan, is no less for a reader in Nigeria than it is for one in Iceland. What’s to make of a person so at ease at talking about her personal life, and affirming it that she “wrote to be read”? Possibly that there lives a west within her as much as an east lives within the west; that those events of life rushed back to her so “naturally”, it had to address the collective conscience of individuals.
Reading ‘Ashes, Wine and Dust’ transported me back to the warm, sunny days of playing in the grounds of my naana and naani’s house, “Lalazar”, whence a trickle-down, tinkling sound was loud enough to bring me back from my childhood memories. But the cliché lost its nuance when the novel makes us think how essential it is to have a deep-rooted relationship with your grandparents, with that being of prime significance in this gyre of heritage, hybridity, gender bias and all the pains that such conflicting dynamics bring as a complimentary dishes, without which we are worse than dry husk. Many lose these oldies due to the swiftness of time, many due to ignorance, some due to lack of time, others due to misunderstandings. Eventually, all will be ashes and dust, but consider for a while, will those excuses be ever justifiable in the face of what ones grandparents are capable to offer just by being alive with us, as presented by Javed? Will our lives taste like a fine wine if these lapis lazuli were never a part of us?
Having said that, the novel also explores the relationship of Mariam with her brother, Abdullah. We always believe siblings to grow up as each other’s most trusted counterparts, but is it really true when we grow up eventually? Their trust in each other was a rather tell-tale notion, one that mothers boast of before the “wolves” in our eavesdropping-society. Mariam’s brother was her indigenous strand of life that she wanted to hold on to, one that finally did drive her back to Lahore from DC.
Constructing a memory on a sheet of paper before it lapses in the dwindling past, Javed, during a chit-chat with me, remained composed and collective, just like Mariam. It led me to realise that a reader would want Mariam to step out of her contemplative mode; to not only ‘respond’ to events around her but to thrive in her personality, to unwrap herself from beneath the wings of a protective sparrow. The momentum, the lapsing of thoughts, of emotions from a distant vantage point, was halted. But like George Elliot’s ‘The Mill on the Floss’, Javed swarmed the reader in a gush, in a rush, in a flush of emotions towards the very end.
The event proceeded to a question/answer session which would lead anyone to be a potential reader; “How much of Kanza is in Mariam?”, “Writing is frightening, you said. What was the most frightening experience you had to pen down?” The author answered them with sufficient details, but I would recommend my readers to find those answers by themselves, but from Mariam’s life.
On behalf of the author, one very commendable move was to not provide a glossary for all the Urdu words, such as “dupatta”, “daddi”, “barsati” used in the text — an endeavour on similar strokes as Kamila Shamsie in her novel, ‘Kartography’. According to Javed, “it’s a story-book so they should look for those words” and “If we study English, American and Irish literature, and we search for those words, then the reader for this novel must search for Urdu words”.
The event proceeded to a question/answer session which would lead anyone to be a potential reader; “How much of Kanza is in Mariam?”, “Writing is frightening, you said. What was the most frightening experience you had to pen down?”
The impressive occasion concluded with Javed giving signed copies to a long queue of eager students and teachers alike. Chilled by the weather and pink in the cheeks, our own “celebrity for Kinnaird and for Pakistan”, as defined by Kinnaird College’s principal, Dr Rukhsana David, Javed seemed like a sparrow feeding her young and eager ones the enticing and essential roars and rebels of life.
On a last note, Javed, who did not know anyone in the publication industries when she began writing, it being “a new experience”, with her discovering “the world of publishing, the perils, and the joys” since she “started from scratch”, kept her hopes high nonetheless. She revealed to me with a heavy heart that the publishing business in Pakistan is hardly thriving, and that too in the wrong direction, which made her next and fortunate stop in an Indian publishing house, where her editor and future best-friend, Aanchal Malhotra, made the novel “absolutely seamless”.
Javed claims that she “would be very unhappy if I didn’t produce another story”. Think of that! The author’s love for the ancient city of Athens, for the pulsating colour crimson, and with the yet, unexplored terrains of the wondrous north of Pakistan for her, we must all sit out on the porch, awaiting like a sparrow’s young, for Javed’s next hike.