Sunday, May 23, 2004

Poignant memories of war
Aradhika Sekhon

by Sorayya Khan. Penguin.
Pages 223. Rs 250.

NOOR is an extremely imaginative novel in which the author, Sorayya Khan, delves into the hidden subconscious of the mind of a family, which has buried its secrets so deep that even the family itself does not acknowledge these anymoreóor even want to recollect these. Yet they must come to terms with these past experiences if they are to be at peace with their present and the future.

The novel vacillates between East Pakistan where the past of the protagonists is located, and West Pakistan where they are at present. The background is the Bangladesh War and its aftermath. The book examines how war changes the lives and the psyche of the people who must suffer it. Questions are raised about the morality of warónot war as a phenomenon, but the killing it involves and how the soldiers as individuals justify it. How a person, who in other circumstances is a gentle soul, is turned into a killing machine. He doesnít even know the people he is slaughtering, but only kills them because otherwise it would be he who would be the corpse. And after the horrors he sees and perpetrates during the war, he must block it all to justify survival.

However, the author claims, everything gets registered into the collective memory of the family and you never know what triggers may unleash these memories.

Sajida, a little girl of "fiveandsix", is found wandering in a daze in the war-ridden streets of East Pakistan. A young soldier, Ali, takes her home to West Pakistan, where she is loved and cherished by him and his mother, Nanijaan. He later adopts her.

Sajida is subsequently married to Hussain. When she conceives her third child, a girl, she immediately after conception knows instinctively that the child will be "special." She sees the vision of an adolescent girl, a "strange girl", who calls out "Ammi" in a "high pitched voice of a young child registering an all-consuming need for her mother." Noor is Sajidaís secret and she decides to give birth to a child she knows will not be "normal" in the accepted sense of the word.

So, Noor is born and with her a world of colours enters the Hussain household. Although Hussain canít come to terms with the flawed Noor and repudiates both her and Sajida, but Noorís sketches and paintings take the family by storm. On her first birthday, Nanijaan gets her a box of crayons.

And thus begins her journey of colour, which starts taking the form of uncanny pictures that take Hussain, Ali and Sajida back to the past and bring them face to face with the memories that haunt them. Finally, these past experiences, denied because they were too painful, traumatic or shameful to be held up to scrutiny, are brought out and shared and the family can begin afresh and anew, the old wounds healed. The past betrayals and disillusionment find their panacea in the power of love.

Itís a poignant novel, one, which tackles the aftermath of war. Lyrical and pictorial, the descriptions are graphic and the narrative easy to follow. The author follows an easy pace, despite the psychological issues and their resolution that she deals with it. The best part is that she makes the reader accept Noor as a beautiful, lovable, totally normal girl.