Snapshot of life in Pakistan
Reviewed by Ramesh Luthra

The Wish Maker
By Ali Sethi.
Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books. 
Pages 406. Rs 499.

VERY rarely does one come across a young voice with quite a new yet mature and somber approach to life and people around. This pleasant combination do we meet in Ali Sethiís The Wish Maker. The book has arrived on the literary scene with a whiff of fresh air. We have a fair glimpse of the changing Pakistan, especially of the youth. Late night parties, musical concerts, boys and girls visiting restaurants, clubs et al together. What comes as a surprise is the schoolchildren watching blue films, drinking stealthily and politics creeping into schools. Saif, a ministerís son, manipulates to be selected the monitor, but in vain. Change has certainly ushered in elderís circle, too. Progressives like journalists, lawyers and artists are raising their voice against the military-cum-mullah pact that has given Pakistan a bad name. Even the poet when saw Zaika (before her marriage) predicted, "Bhai inquilaab tau tum laogi". In a way, the writer coveys that only the youth can bring forth change in the country.

The protagonist Zaki, a fatherless son, is brought up by two strong womenóhis mother Zakia is a firebrand journalists who fights against repression and injustice, hence her house becomes the centre of activity of women lawyers, journalists and professionals, while Daadi too puts up a brave face against the odds of life. Undoubtedly, it centres around Zakiís family, yet political turmoil in the country is referred through the characters time and again. Daadi and the family watch TV and discuss the situation. Elections are held empowering a particular set of people still the vicious circle of dethroning goes on. Daadi and her school friend Seema feel that nothing has changed, as the army has come to power again and elections failed worth their name. Because "as a nation, Pakistanis are a generally resilient people. Decades of repression have taught them the tricks of survival".

With Chhotiís family, we are taken to the feudal world of yore days: purdah and endless restrictions on women. The author feels that the change is inevitable since "the landholdings are smaller in every inheritance". Samar Apiís long stay with Daadiís family away from village and final good-bye to it after her motherís (Chhoti) death obviously indicates a gradual rebellion against the feudal system. Finally, she meets her ĎAmitabhí.

The author seems to be well versed in weaving a colourful tapestry of the plot very deftly with no loose threads. It finishes where it starts, interlocking so many subplots. The flashback style is handled with great dexterity, from Daadiís school days, her childhood memory of Partition, her own marriage, his motherís trip to the hills along with Nargis, to his fatherís marriage and death soon after display Ali Sethiís unique narrative skills. With great ease, the story changes over to Naseem and the driver, Barkat. No heavy demands on our credibility; no transgression. One wonders at such a coherent and well-knit work, that too from a young debutante. Still the reviewer feels that the feudal life in Chhotiís family in Multan is simply sketchy, while Ali Sethi relishes detailing through out otherwise.

Another aspect that charms the reader most is poetic language that sweeps us away with it: "The house was undergoing a slow revival./Sleep clung to corners doused in shadow." Begum Roshan Araís musical notes are described in the finest ever stroke of language, "She went up and touched the place where she was heading `85 . But she touched it and went past it". Short and lilting sentences like "Small smile of contentment/she watched him watch himself" have a haunting quality that gets etched on our mind long after we have laid the book.

The beauty of the piece gets enhanced by a rich sprinkling of humour, wit and satire herein. Stating what democracy stands for in Pakistan, Zakiaís words are a fine example of wit, "Everyone we know is a minister, or knows a minister. We are the minister class ... ." Even minor characters display their power of wit and satire like Barkat commenting, "The poor man is poor, and the rich man is rich." All this provides a fair window to Sethiís rich felicity in language.

Eventually, I feel like quoting Khaled Hosseini of The Kite Runnerís fame, "The Wish Maker, in Ali Sethiís mature and sure-handed prose, is an engaging family saga." Ali Sethi steadfastly resists the usual cliches about both Islam and his native country. Instead, he offers a nuanced, often humorous, and always novel look at life in modern day Pakistan." The Wish Maker rightly deserves a special niche in the realms of this genre. It stands as a class by itself in this respect.