Title: A God In Every Stone: A Novel
Author: Kamila Shamsie
Publisher: Bloomsbury, London (2014) / Atavist Books
ISBN: 978 1 9378 9430 6
The city of Peshawar is located in Pakistan, 59.1 kilometers (approximately 36 miles) from the Torkham-Border Crossing into Afghanistan. It is at the end of the Khyber Pass which cuts through the Spin Ghar mountain range and connects the two nations. Until 1947 it was a part of British India. Go back even farther, c. 515 B.C., and the Persian Empire claimed the city. Kamila Shamsie layers over two thousand years of Peshawar’s history into her novel: A God In Every Stone – by setting it in the period between WWI and the Partition of British India and by using the Persian Empire -(and the tale of Scylax, a hero who betrayed his king) to bookend her story.
It’s an ambitious novel. Vivian Rose Spencer is sent by her father to his old friend, Tahsin Bey, to take part in an archeological dig in the Labraunda region (located in modern day Turkey). It is 1914. For Vivian the trip is marked by a series of firsts – first adventure away from home, first taste of independence, first archeological discovery & first love. Tahsin Bey, the man who will be the great love of Vivian Rose’s life, tells her the story of Scylax of Caryanda. A sea Captain and Ancient Greek Historian, he is mentioned in Herodotus. In Tahsin Bey’s version of the tale the Persian King Darius I favored Scylax, the Greek explorer, and as a mark of his favor gave him a finely wrought silver crown of figs. But when Caryanda rose up against the Persians, Scylax betrayed his King and rebelled with his countrymen.* Tahsin Bey believes the crown exists and has spent his life searching for it.
And then WWI detonates and turns Labraunda into an idyllic interlude very different from everything that follows. Vivian Rose returns home to London to nurse the wounded soldiers and we are introduced to Qayyum Gul, a Pashtun soldier, who travels to France as a part of the Indian Army. He will eventually lose an eye in the Battle of Ypres and be sent home to Peshawar. Vivian Rose, traumatized by the carnage of war she sees in the army hospital escapes back to India and archeology. These two will be bound, completely unbeknownst to them, by their affection for an engaging and intelligent boy. Qayyum’s younger brother, Najeeb, who will become Vivian Rose’s student and protegé.
For the first time she gave him her full attention – a smiling boy with excellent but oddly pronounced English, as though most of his vocabulary came from books. He was dressed more formally than the day before in narrow black trousers, a white tunic, and a white turban with a grass stain which suggested he’d been standing on his head.
They turned into another lane and Najeeb said it was the Street of Partridge Lovers, and looked startled when she laughed.
– What else? Tell me all the street names!
– The Street of Dentists. The Street of Potters. The Street of Felt Caps. The Street of Silver. The Street of Money-Changers. The Street of Coppersmiths. The Street of Englishwomen.
– The Street of Englishwomen?
– They buy and sell Englishwomen there. We will avoid it.
– Take a detour through the Street of Inventive Guides if you must.
He looked delighted to be caught out, and she found she was delighted to have been teased.
All of which is only a very small part of a larger (and, in hindsight) messier plot that also includes the Khudai Khidmatgar or“Servants of God” – the Pashtun Liberation Movement with strong ties to Gandhi’s Indian Liberation Movement – led by Ghaffar Khan. Gandhi and Ghaffar Khan were good friends and shared a common philosophy of non-violence. Qayyum will become of follower of Ghaffar Khan and a member of the Khudai Khidmatgar and Pashtun Liberation.
Against this richly layered historical backdrop Shamsie uses her characters to take a hard, unsentimental look at the relationship of two cultures interacting under the social constructs of colonialism & Empire. She accurately describes the injustice, prejudice, and inequality that existed in British India without dismissing the complexity of that relationship. She also takes an honest look at both cultures’ treatment of women. Vivian Rose’s father raises her as if he were the son he never had: “a compact early agreed on between them that she would be son and daughter both – female in manners but male in intellect”. He seems remarkably enlightened until we learn how he “set her right” on women getting the vote by sending her to an Anti-Suffrage League meeting. “If all women were like Ms. Bell and you, men would fall over their feet in the haste to give you the vote”. “- Are you to spend the rest of your life making up for my womb’s insistence on killing his sons?” her mother asks at a pivotal point in the sorry.
A few months later, halfway across the world, Najeeb will find his four-year-old niece looking at one of his books.
– Do you want to learn how to read?
Najeeb sat down beside her as he spoke, both of them small enough to occupy a single chair. The child nodded her head, placed her hand on the page and said, Alif, Bey, Pay. Qayyum lifted her up in his arms, away from the book, away from Najeeb’s questioning gaze, and placed her on her grandmother’s lap.
– Play with your doll, little one.
A God In Every Stone is a lush, sweeping novel; ping-ponging between Britain and India; with a larger than average cast of characters. Shamsie paints every one of them (no matter how tertiary) so vividly as to confuse her readers into believing she is writing non-fiction. Preconceptions, projection & misunderstandings shape events. From the early chapters, where a young British woman and a wounded Pashtun soldier find themselves sharing a train compartment, to the final pages in which a single Pashtun man finds himself on a rooftop with a young Pashtun lady to whom he is not related – characters misinterpret and misjudge each others intentions. Shifting, third person narratives provide an array of perspectives – men and women who understand surprisingly little about themselves or each other. Sometimes with tragic, sometimes glorious, results.
I wrote earlier that this was a messy novel. Let me clarify: A God In Every Stone is messy like a Charles Dicken’s novel is messy – crammed full of plot, description and people. Its character’s are imperfect, like those favored by E.M. Forester – committing multiple mistakes before reaching the end. So yes – I still hold Kamila Shamsie has written a messy, imperfect masterpiece. But a masterpiece nonetheless.
*Carian Heraclides of Mylasa is a work attributed to the real life Scylax. In it Heraclides revolts against the Persians (during a Carian revolt c. 492 B.C. which was supported by the Greeks).