Book Review: Blue Dust

Published in The Friday Times on March 2nd 2012

Aisha Sarwari reviews Blue Dust, Ayesha Salman’s bold new novel about three generations of Pakistani women

If you’re looking for prose of the level of Margaret Atwood or Joyce Carol Oates, Ayesha Salman’s Blue Dust will be a disappointment. But if you can peel through the words to see what’s underneath, there hasn’t been a bolder book in Pakistan. Where other authors have only scraped taboos, Ms Salman makes you soak in it till your skin is wrinkled. She has held a mirror up to Pakistani society.

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One is surprised by the lines that leap out of the book and mesmerize. Salman writes, for instance: “…And distraught mothers dead before their time, ?lled her head like a dye,” referring here to a bomb blast aftermath in Lahore. Ms Salman is deeply poetic and lavishly descriptive. Her novel would have been more effective if it were chronological and linear, and there should have been more time for the reader to get to know the characters and the backdrop of the times they lived in. Instead we are driven to hear of the story of every character, carefully avoiding parts of the story that have been covered by another.

The story is spread over three generations, all three centered around women and their loves. Whereas the women in the book have layers, the male characters are two-dimensional, with the notable exception of Asad who “would emerge as a Muslim fanatic and then just as suddenly a hardnosed atheist.”

If you can peel through the words to see what’s underneath, there hasn’t been a bolder book in Pakistan

Sublime in the novel is the description of Zaib’s relationship with her morally upright father who is a prominent lawyer and a keen gardener: “Sometimes Zaib couldn’t help feeling left out when he was with his plants and trees so she would break their leaves when she thought she was being ignored; daddy pretended not to notice.”

Ms Salman has captured not only the innocence of the child in those passages but also delved into the phases of abandonment which is felt upon the loss of a loved one, especially a father figure.

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Author Ayesha Salman
Author Ayesha Salman
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Someone who is benignly introduced in the book as a servant girl, Ghazala becomes Zaib’s secret friend and so a central concern in this deeply class-conscious society, where pedophilia, among other things, is common. But if this were the extent of the fire play, so to speak, Blue Dust would not merit being described as a bold novel. Ms Salman’s handling of the relationship between the two girls will linger in the minds of her readers for a long time.

The novel develops a tone which picks up on page 20 and stays with the reader till the end. This is a more difficult task than writing good prose. “Nothing is ever lost,” writes Ms Salman, “the air around you picks up your moans, your aches and delivers them to you on a platter when you least expect it. Everything unfolds in its own unique way, catching you off guard at the most unexpected moments.”

Ms Salman has raised issues which as a “Muslim-majority country” we are not supposed to have

There are surprises in the novel, and there are sad inferences about a philandering husband’s affair with a woman to be raped and drowned. The ease with which such a disturbing fact slips into the telling of this story says a great deal about the violent contours of women’s landscapes. (And here Blue Dust is reminiscent of Mohammad Hanif’s Our Lady of Alice Bhatti.)

Ms Salman has in this book raised issues which as a “Muslim-majority country” we are not supposed to have: alcoholism, for instance, given the ban on liquor. The land of massive contradictions is opened up in Blue Dust, and Ms Salman’s honesty is refreshing indeed.

It is perhaps noteworthy that contemporary Pakistani novels are doing what television has failed to do. It is inspiring to see women writers using their own names and writing boldly about Pakistani life and the world of Pakistani expatriates in the Middle East as it is, warts and all. A literature that looks away from uncomfortable truths only helps toughen the bubbles of ignorance that many people inhabit.

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