The sun rises in a village just outside of Lahore, drowning the wheat fields in a golden hue. Mourners crowd Grandfather’s body at the Raja’s house, crying, wailing, beating their chests. And an eight-year-old Mariam Ameen, looks on, standing by the water pump, trying to comprehend the notion of loss.
The novel, Ashes, Wine and Dust by Kanza Javed begins as a simple story about the lives of children and how they deal with the ever-evolving and damaged world of adults. The book stands as a testament to the smaller losses of the everyday, such as the banal battles of childhood and the understated challenges of adolescence.
Those who feel far beyond their age, those who hold their feelings close and refuse to part with them, and those who never forget. It follows the life of the protagonist, Mariam Ameen, from childhood to adulthood, from a Lahore full of old-worldly charm to a newer, modern and rapidly evolving city. In short, Ashes, Wine and Dust is her love affair with Lahore.
Immersed in the set imperative of middle-class life in contemporary Pakistan, Mariam decides to challenge the tradition of being female. An unusual child, who grows into an unusual adult, she realizes that perhaps some women are born to stand out. Despite all their attempts to fit into society, some voices must be heard louder than others. And though the past can try to remain concealed, some secrets must eventually pour out, some wounds must be opened.
The novel enters its first phase with Mariam struggling to retain the memories of her dead grandfather, so ingrained within her. It talks of her family – the seemingly skewed relationship of her grandparents, the protectiveness of her parents, her eldest sister’s challenges with arranged marriage, the effortless lively nature of her other sisters, a pair of twins and her brother – a healer of hurt pigeons and hearts. Finally, it highlights Mariam’s sense of non-belonging in traditional Lahore and her innate inwardness.
With willful and determined self-assurance, she leaves for the U.S. in search of newer pastures (read better days), without leaving all memories of her life in Lahore. But encounters with strangers in an unfamiliar land leave her confused and vulnerable. In the midst of forging new paths, she learns of the disappearance of her younger brother, Abdullah, in America.
A reverse journeying then begins as she travels backwards to her roots to confront what she had left behind, in order to find the answers she is looking for. Against the backdrop of unyielding social institutions, threatened by change and independent individuals, Mariam vows that she will not stop looking for her brother.
Ashes, Wine and Dust describes a young woman’s exploration of self-identity through the invisible ropes of social customs, stereotypes and love. As love in all forms is tested in the most strenuous of ways, disappearance in turn, becomes the less chosen road towards a self-discovery.
It is unusual to find a debut work which is rich in texture, vivid in imagery as well as touching on a range of pertinent issues sewn into the narrative in both overt and subtle ways – from the changing landscape of a city, to the relationships between couples and family members, notions of belonging, the fate of minorities in Pakistan, acts of terrorism, the ‘American Dream’, feelings of longing and the importance of one’s history.
The most important aspect of the novel is its exploration of ‘home’. It stands as a testament to the word; the childhood home in Lahore that Mariam leaves to go to study in America was one she never thought she completely belonged to, never fit into. Whereas the home she tries to build while at university in the U.S., adjusting to the newfound landscape and lifestyle is one she feels torn in, continually living in duality.
Lastly, the home she is eventually compelled to return to once more in Lahore is a home she no longer recognizes, one that has lost its familial unity. It is infused with the rumours of neighbours and the watchful eyes of relatives, Mariam returns to a home that has lost its essence.
Hence, is it is easy to see how this debut work by the young Pakistani writer was shortlisted for the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize, 2013, making her at the age of twenty-one, the youngest and the only Pakistani writer nominated for the prize that year. Her unusual book release in October 2015 made headlines in many newspapers for being the first book in the subcontinent to be released with the help of Skype.
Sometimes, the power of literature surpasses boundaries, nationalities and politics, restoring our faith in the literary community. And so, unable to be there herself in the picturesque Uttarakhand, the young author released her book all the way from her Lahore home to a fully packed auditorium at the Kumaon Literary Festival.
All said, Ashes, Wine and Dust makes an interesting read and raises hopes that the debutante has a long way to go.
The novel Ashes, Wine and Dust will be available at Liberty Books in Pakistan.