A tale about archaeology, an ancient city and the struggle for independence

Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie, left, with, Arifa Akbar, Literary Editor of The Independent, right

Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie, left, with, Arifa Akbar, Literary Editor of The Independent, right

A tale about archaeology, an ancient city and the struggle for independence

15/05/14

By Naomi Canton

Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie’s sixth novel A God in Every Stone (2014) is about an unmarried feminist independent British woman Vivian, with a passion for ancient history, who travels to Peshawar in British India for an archaeological dig, with the struggle for Independence in the background.

The book moves backwards and forwards between 1930, 1914 and the 5th Century BC.

“A lot of British publishers have said it is a book about a British woman but I think she comes very late into the story. In Pakistan it’s very clear it’s about this Pakistani man Qayyum,” Shamise says, introducing the book at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival.

In the story, Qayyum is a soldier in the Indian army fighting for the British Empire on the Western Front, who gets injured and later becomes a leader in the non-violent movement for Independence.

He meets Vivian on a train travelling to Peshawar.

Shamsie admits that before writing the book, she knew little about Peshawar, and that was what originally inspired her to write the story.

“In 2009 the Taliban were in control of parts of country and bombs were going off every day in Pakistan for some time. I was discussing my earlier novel Burnt Shadows in interviews talking about the bombing of Nagasaki and I realised I knew more about Nagasaki than Peshawar because of my research,” she told the audience.

Shamsie grew up in Karachi. She said although she could at least imagine Lahore and Islamabad, Peshawar felt almost as though “it was not in Pakistan.”

“Lots of bombs go off in Peshawar, yet I admit we know more about Nagasaki than we do about Peshawar. It seemed shocking to me that we did not know much about it when it is south Asia’s largest living city.”

She said there had always been a mythology about the ancient city as “a frontier town and wild place,” and that she was fascinated by it. It was continually inhabited from at least the 6th century BC with the Persian empire, Indo-Greeks and the Mughals and it was a great Buddhist centre.

Her research for the book included examining letters sent from Indian soldiers on the front line, which revealed what they really felt about the British Empire. She also leafed through Hansard records of British Parliament and pored over letters that English governors wrote to each other.  “The one thing the colonials were really good at is keeping records and it’s all in the British Library so I was able to look at hundreds of records,” she said.

“It is stunning the degree to which the Empire was built on a basis of racial inequality. There is no way people could stand up and say these things in Parliament today, so it makes you feel much better about the London you are living in,” she added.

The book also looks at women’s rights in the former North-West Frontier province.

“It’s very emotional when an Englishwoman puts a burqa on but not when Pakistani women do it; for them it is their daily life. Viv uses it to be undetected to do things she would not be allowed to do if visible. You cannot tell what is going on in a woman’s head by how covered up she is. To think it’s telling you anything about woman inside is wrong,” she added.

Shamsie, who wrote her first novel In the City by the Sea, on a Master of Fine Arts programme in the USA, was listed as one of Granta’s 20 Best of Young British Novelists under the Age of 40 in 2013. She admitted: “I was the oldest young writer!” and “I am no longer under 40 now.”

“For writers on their first or second novel the world will be different tomorrow and they might quickly get more publishers,” she said.

But for her, on her sixth book, with Burnt Shadows (2009) having already been shortlisted for the Orange Prize and translated into multiple languages, an accolade like this was always going to have less impact, she said.

“The worst thing is the ‘what ever happened to that Granta Best Young Novelist’ 10 years later. The papers should stop doing that! It’s a horrible thing!” she said laughing.

But she added: “I am sure some of the coverage of A God in Every Stone has something to do with it and it is also a nice thing to have on your biography.”

Listen to the audio of the session below:

Watch a video clip of the Kamila Shamsie event below:

Kamila Shamise was preceded by Extra Words with policeman-turned writer Omar Shahid Hamid talking about his debut novel The Prisoner.  Listen to the audio of Omar below:

Watch a video clip of Omar below:

naomi.canton@asiahouse.co.uk

The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature programme continues until 21 May. To see the line-up of events click here.

Don’t miss our Closing Night event on 21 May when Lord Bhikhu Parekh will discuss the contribution of Indian soldiers to the Great War. 

The festival hashtag is #FAL14. Follow us on Twitter @festofasianlit.