Today it’s my turn on the BlogTour The Inside City by Anita Mir. It’s a beautifully complex combination of historical and political fiction with an important layer of cultural mysticism.
About the Author
Anita was born in Lahore, Pakistan and came to England when she was four. She grew up in County Durham and Wales, and it was only when she moved to Lahore with her family in her late teens that it hit her that mornings weren’t supposed to be pitch black. Pakistan was a shock. And she stayed in shock. Is perhaps still in shock. But it was also love at first sight. Lahore Lahore hai/ Lahore is Lahore. Yep. Another thing that doesn’t quite translate.
Straight out of university, she applied for a job at a newspaper and for some strange reason, got it. Most of her work there was on human rights issues, particularly those pertaining to religious minorities and women. Her lighter pieces she wrote under a pseudonym, which, seven years later, her boss told her she’d spelt wrong.
From journalism, she ambled into development work. The best of her development work was when she was privileged to head two emergency programmes.
Anita kept on coming back to England then to Pakistan then…and one day (still plan-less), just stuck it out in London.
She writes fiction and plays, has had two shorts on (The Space and Soho), been longlisted for several prizes (The Bruntwood, the Soho/Verity Bargate, the Old Vic 12), and had a short story published this year in ‘New Welsh Review’. She likes hearing her director friends tell her, ‘Any minute, you’re going to break through’. In her more reflective moments, of which there are now few, she wonders what she’s supposed to break through to. And if, when she does, she’ll like it.
Anita lives in the un-trendy part of East London and when not teaching, can be found playing basketball with her boy, or else, pouring over Lego instructions with the zeal of someone who’s going to grow up to be a YouTube star.
About the book
There are ancient walled cities all across the world. This story begins in Lahore’s walled, or inside city, as it is called in Urdu, in what was then India.
It’s fear, Khurshid thought, just fear. Unwatched, her face was grim. Barefoot, she walked to the wall of her rooftop courtyard and looked out at the city she had, in just three months, begun to love: a bulking city ever teetering upwards, with its twelve giant gates which closed each night, keeping them safe, from predators and marauders, and Dar said, bad dreams, but he’d smiled, so she’d known he was joking, only not what he meant.
A pir (seer) predicts great things for a soon to be born born boy, Awais. The year is 1919 – the year of the Jallianwala Bagh (Amritsar) Massacre where anywhere from 379-1,000 unsuspecting peaceful protestors were killed by armed British troops. Politics is everywhere and on every tongue. Will the British go? Will they be booted out? And what will happen to India, then?
But Khurshid, Awais’s mother, cares nothing for all that. Her dreams are not of nationhood; they centre on her boy who will give, she’s sure, her life the meaning and beauty she’s craved for so very long. As they wait for the future to unfold, no-one notices how different Khurshid’s youngest daughter, Maryam, is. But then her secret is outed. Maryam has a superb gift for Maths.
Though she doesn’t want to think it, Khurshid begins to wonder if the pir (seer) had been right about the house but wrong about whom the gift of greatness was meant for. She checks herself but the idea grows and grows. She tries to teach Awais her burning overpowering hate. But Maryam is one of Awais’s two great loves. He can’t believe what his mother says. He can’t hate Maryam. Or, he wonders, can he?
Awais other great love is the inside city, which through a chance encounter, he has started to explore and to map. When Partition, brutal and horrendous, takes place in 1947, it is Awais knowledge of the inside city that will save lives. But will it be enough to save his family as well?Review
Khurshid is a hard character to feel empathy for, perhaps because she also seems so driven by her own inner convictions and slight madness. She is intent on proving the words of the seer to be true, which in itself sets a self-fulfilling prophecy into movement. Her son Awais is destined for greatness, he will be incredibly clever and as such will prove how great he is.
Of course life is never that simple, and Awais struggles with the obsessions of his mother, as do his siblings. One of more poignant moments in the book is the way Mir describes the gender inequality when it comes to expectations in the society. How both men and women struggle to accept intelligence and academic prowess when the person possessing these skills isn’t a man.
Khurshid begins to hate the daughter, who in her eyes is in direct competition for the alleged greatness, so much so that Awais begins to draw away from his beloved sister. It’s interesting how the misogyny creeps in when Awais feels insecure about his own inadequacies, when before he embraced the fact that his sister was gifted with such a talent.
You can feel the dirty footprint of colonialism as it stomps its way through the story and the country. A country that has been torn apart and plagued by discourse due to interfering supposedly superior heads, hands and decisions. With what right did and do white men think they could convert, oppress and subjugate entire countries without the native inhabitants trying to rise up and retake what is rightfully theirs? Why after so many centuries are we still guilty of this level of dominance over others, as opposed to aiding and helping fellow humans?
When will the Western world learn that our democratic systems, which are based on the concept of a homogeneous nation, are not applicable to heterogeneous nations. This in essence is at the root of all conflict within India, and that’s without delving into the Lahore Resolution and the fractious nature of relationships that has existed since the Partition of India.
It’s hard to say which element of the story appealed to me more – the mystical, the historical or the political part of it. Perhaps that is the crux of the book and the point Mir is making though, that all of those elements are inseparable. To understand, to know or accept one and ignore the others is to lack comprehension of country and people.
It’s a beautifully complex combination of historical and political fiction with an important layer of cultural mysticism. Mir takes the reader on a walk through political turmoil, the destructive forces of colonialism, the historical impact of the aforementioned, and simultaneously she has laid bare the intricacies of an often misunderstood culture. It describes a fight for freedom, both on the streets and in the mind of the main character, as he searches for some semblance of inner and outer peace.
Buy The Inside City by Anita Mir at Amazon Uk or go to Goodreads for any other retailer.
Publisher: Unbound Publishing; pub date 21 Mar. 2019. Buy at Amazon com.