A first novel can be a risky proposition for the reader. Since the author is a first timer, the investment that one is about to make in reading can be a daunting one. Thus, it was with some trepidation that I picked up Blue Dust by debutant novelist, Ayesha Salman. Thankfully, the experience was highly rewarding.
The novel, based mostly in Lahore, is the story of two generations of a family fighting societal prejudice, inner demons, the need to conform and the need to be individual. At its core it is a love story, but about the different forms that love can take, and
how it can be cathartic and destructive, sometimes both at the same time.
The central character of the novel is Zaib, the daughter of a Muslim man and a Christian woman. The father sacrifices a lot at the altar of his love for Zaib’s mother; a wife and children estranged, a flourishing legal career stalled by scandal and prejudice. To a large extent Zaib’s views towards love are formed by the relationships she forges and sees as a child, and these in turn affect those of her own children.
Zaib is written in many ways as a reflection of her mother, and her daughter Alya, in return, as an extension of Zaib. Each woman is damaged in her own way, and battles her demons with varying success. Their relationships with the men in their lives also reflect this; both Zaib and Alya seem to be dealing with serious “daddy issues,” and both suffer from lack of attention from their mothers at critical times in their lives.
The other main characters in the novel are also female, but almost diametrically opposite to each other; Devi, Zaib’s sister, is an emotionally fragile defeatist, who needs her sister to help her battle chronic waves of depression sparked by a philandering
husband and an unstable son, while Alya’s sister Sonia is possibly the strongest woman in the family, holding up the morally
questionable actions of those around her up to full view. However, this preponderance of female characters does not make this
‘chick-lit’; quite the reverse, in fact.
The universe of Blue Dust is the not-quite-real world of magical realism; a world that to some extent only exists in the mind of the author and the characters. However, Salman casts an unflinching eye on the society we live in, our hypocrisies and our seemingly endless ability to screen out the horrors that surround us. Where other authors approach scenes of abuse, violence and exploitation on the periphery, Salman takes them head on, describing the actions in graphic detail and direct language. It is like she wants to jolt the reader out of his complacency, and in this she succeeds remarkably well.
The narrative is not the easiest to follow. Reading Blue Dust will require some effort on the part of the reader as the story jumps around and reality and fantasy are interwoven in a complex tapestry that succeeds in taking the reader inside the mind of a person slowly losing the distinction between fantasy and reality. However, the effort in reading is extremely rewarding; often, language of this sort can come across as forced or affected, but not in the case of Blue Dust. These are simply the words needed to tell this story, and the narrative is richer for it. Oftentimes, it is the dream sequences that forward the story, as the characters’ hidden demons emerge, providing critical insight into key events. Language is used expertly to differentiate between reality and dream-space; no wonder the author is a poetess, so skilfully are words strung together.
Blue Dust is, in many ways, an exceptional achievement. I had to check back more than once to reconfirm that this is, indeed, a first novel. Salman wields the kind of skill with the written word it takes many people entire careers to achieve. The book also
inhabits its universe completely, twining together fantasy and reality into a seamless whole where one cannot exist without the other.
It also raises crucial questions about many of our society’s taboos; pedophilia, alcoholism, mental illness, drug abuse and feudalism are only a few of the scabs which the novel picks at. It almost seems too much to cover, but the volume manages to do it exceedingly well, simply by placing the causes on the periphery of the main narrative.
This is not an easy book to read. The reader will have to make investments of time, brain cells and emotion into reading it. An engrossing story, characters that have the power to stay with you and food for thought on the state of our society make Blue Dust an impressive debut, setting the bar high not only for her own future offerings, but for Pakistani fiction for the rest of the year.
By Ayesha Salman
Roli Books, India