‘Pureland’ by Zarrar Said: A magic realist novel on the lines of ‘Midnight’s Children’

‘Pureland’ is informed less by the ghost of Dr. Abdus Salam than by the very living spirit of Rushdie

M.A. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan and its greatest leader, was by no means a devout Muslim. As everyone knows, he married a non-Muslim, preferred a ‘Westernised’ life, did not speak either Gujarati or Urdu fluently, and had to be posthumously cemented into the dominant Sunni regime of faith by his followers. Perhaps, had Jinnah been religious, he might not have been able to believe, as he and many like him obviously did, that you could demand a nation in the name of religion and expect it to stay essentially secular or at least fair to people of other faiths!

Guardian angel

Zarrar Said’s Pureland is not about those early years, but it presents the logical conclusion to that great act of collective and individual delusion. When Said’s novel begins, Pureland, obviously based on Pakistan, has been taken over by the Caliphate. The narrator of the novel is (supposedly) a dreaded terrorist working for the Islamic Caliphate, now under arrest for killing the scientific genius, Salim Agha. It is this terrorist/ assassin’s confession that provides us with the text of the novel.

The book is dedicated to the late Dr. Abdus Salam — “who loved a nation that never loved him back” — and the storyline as well as the blurb try to highlight this connection. Like Dr. Salam, Salim Agha, the protagonist of Pureland, is a child prodigy from the provinces born into the Ahmadiyya community (ostracised in Pakistan) who goes on to win the Nobel Prize for physics.

But the historical Dr. Salam was very much an integral part of the Pakistani scientific community, and considered the “father” of

the country’s successful nuclear programme, although in 1974 he did choose to leave Pakistan in protest after the passage of a bill declaring members of the Ahmadiyya movement to be non-Muslims. However, unlike Agha, he was not murdered. He died peacefully in bed, and in 1998 Pakistan even issued a commemorative stamp in Dr. Salam’s honour.

In some ways, despite the blurb, Pureland is informed less by the ghost of Dr. Salam than by the very living spirit of Salman Rushdie. For one, though Said judiciously avoids Rushdie’s linguistic gymnastics, this book returns us to the magic realist genre as political parable. One can even find some familiar characters and connections: the levitating fakir, the witch-like mother or grandmother, the generous and feudal general, the beautiful and headstrong heiress, the hero born with supernatural powers (or, in this case, the child prodigy), the lecherous servant, the river of stories, multiple fathers, etc.

Grappling with politics

All this makes for a racy and entertaining read, especially for readers who like Rushdie but sometimes find him too difficult. In general, this is a captivating novel, with a slight twist at the end, and a clear political conscience. Nothing is pushed too far, not even the magic realism — which might be good or bad, depending on what you want to read.

Finally, it is Said’s attempt to grapple with the politics of Pakistan that makes this novel noticeable, apart from the fact that it signifies a promising first attempt. I am not sure that magic realism is the best of ways to grapple with politics — though, of course, every postcolonial magic realist writer claims that he is doing something else these days — but it did become a valid option with Midnight’s Children.

Rich dividends

It must be noted that the earlier best magic realist texts did not allow themselves to be reduced to direct political parable or allegory: this was, arguably, Rushdie’s contribution to the genre, and it can still be argued whether a magic realist text that is basically an allegory or parable is really magic realist. Because, if the magic realist text becomes just another way of telling a story about the reality out there, then the magical or fantastic element is subsumed under the realist element, which runs against the tenets of magic realism: the magic should be irreducible.

But let literary-type critics carp-varp. Magic realist texts have offered options to narrate the political in postcolonial contexts, which — as Rushdie showed in Midnight’s Children and Shame — can lead to rich dividends. Pureland does not reach the level of Rushdie at his inimitable best, and yet it combines a racy narrative with political insight and commentary: “You could feel it, growing up, that Pureland was in some way being set up for the Caliphate to take over. We felt it many years earlier. In fact, before the turban-clad army blew through our cities with AK-47s slung over their shoulders, we were in a way, expecting them.”

I guess that might be the difference between people like Jinnah in the past and people like Said today. Jinnah, after all, did not seem have expected any turban-clad army to take over Pakistan. I suppose Jinnah was like us in India today: we cannot envision any whatever-clad army taking over our secular and democratic nation. I am sure we have no reason to.

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