The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali: A land forgotten

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh | Updated on September 27, 2019 Published on September 27, 2019

Central arc Central Jail in the Andamans, the setting for most of the action in the novel. - K Murali Kumar   -  The Hindu

History meets the imagination in Uzma Aslam Khan’s new novel

A perfect work of historical fiction is one that is as compelling as it is enlightening. Uzma Aslam Khan’s new novel The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali is just that — a perfect balance of history and the imagination.

Set in the Andaman Islands between 1936 and 1946, the novel tells the story of a place that has mostly been forgotten in narratives dictated by the mainland. The eponymous Nomi and her elder brother Zee were born on the island — their father, Haider Ali, was a convict who was jailed in the Andamans. His wife Fehmeeda had accompanied him when he moved to the island to serve his sentence.

The siblings — like their friend Aye, whose grandfather was one of several convicts from Burma — know no other world than the one on their island. Their lives are played out in the shadow of the terrible Central Jail in the Andamans. The jail dictates their past and the future. Those who enter it as prisoners encounter horrors that end either in death or a life akin to death.

The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali Uzma Aslam Khan Fiction Context/Westland ₹699


Khan traces the genesis of the novel to a book she read where a British politician mentioned the jail and called the island a “paradise”. As Khan, a US-based Pakistani and the author of four previous novels, read and researched through published books, diaries, government papers, letters and more, she found facts that ended up entering the novel as lived experiences.

The worst of the excesses at the jail — commonly referred to as the dreaded ‘Kaala Pani’, or black waters — was reserved for political prisoners rebelling against the British in India. Drawing heavily on the historical accounts of what happened in the Central Jail, Khan writes about a world of torture, force-feeding, beatings, slavery, sexual assault and even medical experimentations.

The book is also the story of prisoner 218D, sentenced for her attempted assassination of a British officer in Lahore. Officially there is no record of women political prisoners being sent to the Andaman jail. But most records were destroyed by the time the British and later the Japanese occupation ended.

As the prisoner disembarks from the ship that brings her to the island, watched by the inhabitants, Khan writes: “Too many who watched had never stopped living it, the climb to the hill’s summit to one of the 693 cells... at the entrance to the jail, the high wall garlanded with manacles, shackles, iron belts and implements of torture impossible to name, each warped into figures more gruesome than the next...”

Prisoner 218D, whose name is never told, experiences the worst of the torture thought up by the British. Through her fragmented memories and dreams, the story of the mainland enters the novel. As prisoner 218D lives out her sentence in Kaala Pani, the writer draws in the cities of Lahore and Delhi, the lives of the women there trying to understand what role they will play in the independence movement, everyday life with its tragedies and heartaches that seem to belong to another universe.

Her story will remind many of the real-life tales of revolutionaries such as Bina Das. Das was sentenced to imprisonment for her attempted assassination of Bengal Governor General Stanley Jackson in 1932. She was jailed for nine years and later went on to write an account of her life, which Khan has used as one of her sources.

It is soon clear that the stories of Nomi, Zee, their parents, Aye and prisoner 218D are all enmeshed. The inhabitants of the island live at the mercy of events that always seem far removed — wars and colonial power games — and, yet, the island becomes a frontline in the story. It is occupied by the Japanese, who say they will bring freedom from the British. Instead, over 700 islanders are rounded up and sent to their deaths. Many others starve or are made to work as slaves. Zee is the first casualty, executed for his role in a minor scuffle over a chicken.

There are numerous threads that run through the novel: Those between the ruler and ruled, parents and children, man and nature, past and present. There are characters galore, yet Khan manages to make each story stand out, whether it is that of Dr Singh, who tries to create some harmony but is swept away in the tide of events; or Shakuntala, with her farm, who can neither belong fully to the islands nor leave them. The most compelling, perhaps, are the descriptions of the original islanders, robbed of their land and past. Some are now the eyes and ears of the British, while others have chosen to retreat into even more remote islands and cut themselves off from any contact.

Given the wealth of material the author works with, one only wishes the lyricism of the language had been turned down a notch. The Miraculous... is evidence of a wonderful imagination at work, which remains grounded in the minute facts of the past. The novel is shot through with some stunning set pieces — Aye gathering swiftlet nests in caves while being attacked by the birds, a boat journey undertaken by a prisoner who becomes a saviour, a man committing suicide as he swallows a deadly frog. It is imbued with tragedy and yet finds hope in the end. Mostly, it brings to life a piece of land that has seen the very worst of human depredations.

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh is a Bengaluru-based editor

Published on September 27, 2019
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