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Boy of fire and earth

Author- Sami Shah

Publisher- Pan Macmillan India

 Rs 499

In the world that Shah creates, djinns coexist with many modern creations, like the Internet — where both exist as portals into a world vastly different from the world we live in, writes SANYA DANG

Boy of Fire and Earth is an urban fantasy set in Karachi that reminds readers of the many legends and folklore that have been popular in the subcontinent for centuries. The novel is set in the years when Benazir Bhutto was the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Karachi is described as a city of contrasts — there is the middle class Americanised world where school children aspire to study abroad, carry their cellphones to tuition classes and watch famous American TV series in their free time.   

The novel is structured as a duology — a book divided into two parts with many interludes and digression; almost like an Indian movie where the narrative breaks at a crucial juncture for an interval. The narrative begins with various diversified attacks by djinns on people before delving into the origins of our protagonist — Wahid. His origins are mysterious yet he grows up as an ordinary boy with his share of illnesses ranging from asthma to allergies. His growing up years are described in detail, his parents’ childlessness, his attachment to books telling fantasy stories, playing Dungeons and Dragons with his friends — Arif and Hamza. This multi-linear and disjointed narrative provide you with more questions than answers.

The title refers to the protagonist who is half boy- half djinn, made from both fire and earth elements. He is unique and rare in both the worlds and has powers that can destroy djinns and their kind. The cover is quite abstract revealing only the tip of the iceberg — red and blue smoke and some shapes of djinns. The red smoke also symbolists death, bloodshed and gore which are key elements woven into the story. The blurb points to an ambitious project, the journey motif and also a comparison with the Faustian legend, a forced romantic angle and the Judgement Day climax.

Dark humour forms the backbone of the narrative and adds meaningful dialogues that balance out the sinister happenings at every stage. The writing style may remind you of Salman Rushdie, especially the moments of dark comedy. Emphasis on the scatological may have shades of Marquez. The descriptive part of the writing is simple but the vocabulary is mostly high brow, typical of the upper class educated elite. Sentence structure is very masculine and dialogues are written in the colloquial idiom. There is no English translation of the many Arabic phrases and Hindi profanities used, so some parts may be hard to comprehend for the reader not proficient in these languages or familiar with Indian culture, customs, traditions.

The stories taken from the holy Quran are similar to the ones in the Bible — those of Adam and Eve, the forbidden fruit, scheming Satan’s jealousy, the damnation of the disobedient to the ravages of Hell. Shah takes all the stories and cliches from the realm of the supernatural, turns them around and presents everything in a new light. Through the supernatural,he not only contrasts the modern world that coexists with the ancient and the traditional, but also satirizes the state of politics, economy, police, judiciary and other such agencies of Karachi. The devil himself says — “I haven’t spent much time in Karachi recently, but has the police here become magically competent?’’

The clashes between the ideologies of the Muslims in the modern world and those in the past give us many home truths about Karachi. Shah talks about the changing facets of religion, Islam’s past, present and future, the Quran being misinterpreted, how religion affects the state, politics, economy, scientific discoveries and inventions. Djinns are believed to belong to the past, the ancient world or the realm of the supernatural, but in the world that Shah creates — djinns coexist with many modern creations like the Internet where both exist as a portal into a world vastly different from the one we live in. the djinns in the novel are not the ones that come out of a lamp, grant three wishes and call you their master. The djinns here are horrific, they kill humans and take their shape to unleash more terror on earth.

Shah takes you on a fantasy ride through Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and Qiyamat whose horrifying descriptions will haunt you. The gore and violence may not let you read the novel at one go. Wahid is at the centre of every interlude and journey, a shy boy with asthma who turns out to have unimaginable powers. On the way, we meet vampires, ghouls, djinns, and Shaitan himself. Wahid, Hamza and Arif are the three musketeers who play video games and board games, taking them as seriously as real life. Dungeons and Dragons (the game) is their fantasy world that becomes real in the worst possible way- the chase, violence, blood, gore and monsters come to life. There are unknown dangers lurking at every corner, half lives are not granted and the pain felt is all too real.

The world of the novel is symbolic of our world — where the personal is political and vice versa, where the fear of being tracked down is just as real, the sense of alienation and unbelonging heightening our paranoia.The search for the ‘King of Karachi’ ends in an anti-climax but the question looms large on the reader’s mind. Who is the King of Karachi? The answer to this is given by the author through Wahid’s thoughts.  It has many rulers — the politicians who divided the city into their private fiefdoms, the crime lords who controlled the underbelly of the city.

The many cliches exist — dark dilapidated houses that harbour djinns and act as portals to different worlds, the menace of the beggar mafia et al. The stereotypes here are limited to characters like the typical physics Professor of Karachi University — potbellied, clothed in white shirt, brown pants and suspenders who runs on the many cups of tea he gulps. He also accepts that in their country, religion will always be stronger than science.

The author takes you to a place beyond and outside Time, where the Past, Present and the Future coalesce, where you bump into historical greats like the Greek conqueror Alexander.

The novel has its light and dark moments, twists and turns, transporting you to a world full of disillusionment, hypocrisy, where the innocent are slaughtered and the perpetrators never get punished, a world seething with revenge, sin, a world that will ultimately be destroyed by the very people who pretend to be its protectors. The final question is -who then is the real devil? A novel that will make you think of the issues that plague our nation, ponder the rot within the system, our own cynicism and how we can make a difference.

The reviewer is a teacher by profession and a writer by passion




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