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A gripping chronicle of deaths foretold

Urvashi Bahuguna | Updated on January 09, 2018
Foreshadowing: The two protagonists of The Still Point of the Turning World meet in the midst of a minor bomb blast.

Foreshadowing: The two protagonists of The Still Point of the Turning World meet in the midst of a minor bomb blast.   -  Reuters

The Still Point of the Turning World; Sheheryar B Sheikh; Fiction; HarperCollins India; ₹399

The Still Point of the Turning World; Sheheryar B Sheikh; Fiction; HarperCollins India; ₹399

Do young people in a terrorism-stricken country like Pakistan ever come to terms with the ephemerality of their lives? Sheheryar Sheikh’s latest novel considers this question

While reading Sheheryar B Sheikh’s novel The Still Point of the Turning World, Pakistani poet Munir Niazi’s Hamesha der kar deta hoon mein (I always delay) played in my head the entire time. The book haunts me because of how close to home it implodes. How much can a person delay before something or someone moves on? Why do we keep ourselves from pursuing what is bright, good and within our reach?

In a country like Pakistan where time ticks steadily and unpredictably like a bomb, what does it mean to take your time, to steady yourself before you leap?

Two young, college students in Lahore fall in love but hold back for years. This proves disastrous, as revealed in a memorial service in the first chapter — Omar and Sara lost their lives in a bomb explosion just before graduation. The novel is partly narrated by an omniscient voice and is partly speeches at a memorial event for Omar and Sara. The story reflects on the potential that died with Omar and Sara as well as the unfulfilled potential of their relationship. Omar is an intelligent boy from an elite school whose friends have all moved to American universities while he studies in Lahore. His loneliness is abject and large, and occupies its own space in the novel.

“Lucky for him, nobody was looking at him. Had anybody asked him at that point exactly what he was thinking, he would have collapsed from the exhaustion of keeping up the appearance of not being lonely as f***.”

What makes Omar relatable to a relatively privileged, middle-class South Asian is the experience of getting into a good college in your home country but still feeling like some foreign dream, some magical boost into outer space is just out of reach. Sheikh captures the ways in which Omar and his friends were once equals and tightly-knit, and no longer are. And now Omar must view everyone around him and question if they match up. But in the midst of a minor explosion, Omar first meets Sara, and she shows him a glimpse of something that could keep him content in Lahore.

Sara is patient, kind and unknowable, which deeply frustrates her close friends who pour their hearts out to her. They want something (anything) from her but she won’t hand it over. Except perhaps minutely and occasionally with Omar. Sara deals with the deteriorating health of her mother and pulls even further away. She takes her time with Omar and this is where the novel truly guts me, because we know they’re going to die. All I want is to be able to shake either or both of them and say: it’s coming and soon. Tell her now. Tell him now. Don’t you, young people of Pakistan, see? There’s never any time. Sheikh’s novel has me trying to preternaturally warn fictional characters.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is Omar’s running. He runs every day. It is meditative and cathartic, it is how he retains his balance, and how he thinks through things like Sara. His running is the most urgent and compulsive of his actions. Everything else is slow and tentative. If the novel falters, it is in the speeches that the friends of Omar and Sara give at the memorial service. They are full of raw, almost irreverent emotion and at a point or two one wonders how people could be quite so confessional at a university memorial. There are moments where I wished Sheikh had held back slightly. It would have made for a less overdetermined narrative.

If a larger point is being made in the novel, it may be that people will keep loving despite the odds, keep delaying, making mistakes and being excruciatingly human no matter how risky their surroundings are. There will be girls who turn heads, girls who have premarital sex to the horror of their morally conservative friends, and married women who have affairs and don’t hide them from their daughters. All that happens in other cosmopolitan places happens in Lahore. How keenly twinned India and Pakistan are in their lives, a point worth labouring now more than ever.

Urvashi Bahuguna is a Delhi-based poet

Published on August 04, 2017

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