Book Review: Those Children by Shahbano Bilgrami.

Life through the prism of childhood

Childhood impressions, beliefs and emotions have an uncanny ability to spring a surprise as you wander through the lanes of life several years later.

Life through the prism of childhood

BOnds and bonding: Children caught in an unfamiliar terrain find solace in sibling solidarity as Mahmud siblings are bound by the threads of grief and displacement

Geetu Vaid

Childhood impressions, beliefs and emotions have an uncanny ability to spring a surprise as you wander through the lanes of life several years later. A child’s eagerness to decipher life through his prism adds a glint of amazement and mystery to people, places and situations in a way that is not only tender and touching but can also be humorous and enchanting. These are the threads that Shahbano Bilgrami picks up to weave a heartwarming and engrossing tale in Those Children. 

Pakistani-American writer Shahbano had set the bar high with her debut novel Without Dreams that had been listed for Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007, and being a children’s book writer she treads on familiar ground of child psyche again with Those Children. Ferzana is the main protagonist from whose perspective the author explores complex issues of the adult world from grief, loss, challenges of puberty to religious radicalism, bigotry and war to family secrets, love and love children. 

Finding refuge in the fantasy world of super-heroes and super-sleuths is the defence mechanism that 10-year-old Ferzana and her siblings use to deal with the death of their mother and the family’s subsequent move from ‘familiar’ Chicago to ‘unfathomable’ Karachi. Teenaged Fatima and Raza and Jamila, who has a ‘special’ condition but is the leader of the ‘super-hero’ gang, deal with their grief and changes in their world through role play as Lady M, Dag, Timmer and Little Furry. 

On the surface the novel is about a journey to find family ties and return to one’s roots in an unfamiliar culture.  But as you peel the layers it becomes a reminder of how life was when one viewed it from the ‘high’ perch of a 10-year-old. How every elder was a story, how life was a huge mystery and one an accomplished spy or explorer on a mission to unravel the hidden truths and family secrets. 

Ferzana, being the youngest, is at a vantage point as she has “access” to the adults’ world that her older siblings are deprived of. And she uses her afternoon ‘naps’ with her grandmother and aunt to collect information to put the different pieces of their family puzzle in place. Ferzana’s efforts to piece together her parents’ life and their love story is in effect an uprooted 10-year-old’s need to belong and establish an identity for herself under overwhelming circumstances.

The novel has some autobiographical element as Shahbano had also moved from Montreal to Karachi as a teenager and fell in love with the city over the years. And like her first novel, the 1971 war and its repercussions are woven into the story in this one too, but the author doesn’t let a sense of repetitiveness seep into her story and emerges as an effective story teller. 

Simplicity and innocence is maintained in the narrative all through as Shahbano successfully keeps the language true to a 10-year-old’s sensibilities and experience. Glimpses of life in Karachi as well as blending of humour in complex situations make the novel a riveting read. The story has a natural flow as the author seems to be moving with the narrative rather than binding it in the limits of chapters and timelines. The twist at the end gives an interesting climax to the story and life moves on with Ferzana and her siblings as they finally find home in Karachi.  


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