Goodreads blurb: ‘God was everywhere, but so was the general.’
It is the summer of 1977 and Pakistan swelters in the unrelenting heat. Weeks after her eleventh birthday, Aliya Shah wakes up to the news that there has been a coup d’état, General Zia has taken over the country and Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is in jail. Although the shadow of the general and his increasingly puritanical edicts threaten to disrupt their comfortable existence, life goes on for Aliya much as before as she attends the American School in Islamabad. However, when a much loved young boy, the son of the family retainer, dies tragically in a hit-and-run accident, her world is turned upside down, especially when she discovers the terrible secret of the murderer’s identity.
City of Spies is coming-of-age story that explores Aliya’s conflicting loyalties and her on-going struggle to make sense of her world. Set in late 1970’s Islamabad and Lahore, City of Spies is a gripping novel that unfolds over thirty months in Pakistan’s tumultuous history.
In the recent few months I have had the wonderful opportunity to read a couple of books that highlight the history of Bangladesh, one of India’s lesser known neighbors from the subcontinent. While one of them was a straightforward chronicling of the freedom struggle of the country from Pakistan, the other was a fictional story which used actual historical events in this freedom struggle as its backdrop. Between both these books I now have a fair idea of the history of this relatively young nation. And as if that weren’t enough, I now have had the good fortune of reading City of Spies by Sorayya Khan which gave me an opportunity to learn more about yet another illustrious neighbor of ours, Pakistan.
Using the point of view of an eleven year old girl in 1977, the author presents a picture of Pakistan where political turmoil rules the day with General Zia Ul Haq having taken over control of the country in a coup and the subsequent changes that the country faces in the aftermath. While the story itself deals with the everyday challenges of the protagonist Aliya and her teenage years, the author cleverly uses fiction and narrative plot points to bring out the changes sweeping across Pakistan and the subsequent impact it has on the characters in the story.
An accident which kills the son of one of Aliya’s family servants, the aftermath, the discovery of the person who caused the accident and how it impacts Aliya’s relationship and dealing both with the servant and the perpetrator of the crime form an interesting backdrop to what is primarily a political narrative of sorts. How General Zia, his form of Islam and his whimsical ways of running Pakistan affect the lives of everyday men and women is clearly brought out in the forms of various characters, events and everyday occurrences in the plot itself. And that to me, is where the author succeeds very well.
By using the point of view of an eleven year old girl who is half Danish and half Pakistani, the author also clearly brings out the dichotomy of the dual identity of the protagonist which forms a running thread throughout the narrative. Aliya’s struggles to ‘fit in’ with her friends at school, and ultimate resignation to the fact that she would always remain ‘half and half’ forms an interesting narrative arc which runs throughout the narrative.
In a nutshell, read this book for an incisive look into how human relationships are defined by extraneous circumstances, in this case political upheavals and circumstances and events such as accidents. If you had to read a fictional book set in Pakistan which will give a glimpse into the everyday lives of people who lived there in the late 70s, then this book is a good starting point, for sure.
Disclaimer: A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publishers in return for a honest and unbiased review.