Scintilating Love Story
Thinner Than Skin is the fourth novel from Uzma Aslam Khan, and is now running for the Man Asian Literary Prize, which will be announced in next March. Born in Lahore and raised in Karachi, Khan, 43 is married to American writer David Maine and currently living in Massachusetts. As with her earlier books (The Story of Noble Rot, Trespassing and The Geometry of God), Khan continues to explore new territory, both geographic and literary.
This book is set among the magnificent landscape of glaciers, mountains, rivers and valleys in northern Pakistan and the local population, who are handsome, hospitable and in control of their destinies until the fangs of terrorism begins to destroy their lives.
The story unfolds in the icy climes and unfriendly peaks of the glaciers of north Pakistan and is narrated by Nadir, a Pakistani photographer living in San Francisco, and Maryam, a lady from a nomadic tribe in north Pakistan.
The novel comprises three stories. There is the tale of Maryam and her family, members of the nomadic Gujjar herding tribes who are indigenous in Pakistan. Their paths are crossed by a party of four expeditionists-two Pakistani men, Nadir and Irfan, best friends from childhood, and a pair of Americans, Wes and Farhana, the latter being Nadir’s lover. Added to this story is a bomber who, on the run from an explosion in Karachi, is thought to be hidden in the mountains, and is being chased with full force by Pakistan’s military. All these stories intersect among the high glaciers of Pakistan’s north-west region, where a tragedy occurs that leads to a sad and fatal climax on the Ultar Sar glacier, where the various strands of each story weave to their conclusion amid various emotions of human nature is on the show. There are descriptions of shamanistic rituals that are attributed to Gujjar tribes of the area but sadly which are ruined by the influx of religiously orthodox ideas. These communities are targeted by both military, which target young men on the pretext that they are militant sympathisers, and are exploited by militants who hide among them, demanding support and eventually take their young sons to join their fight.
And if one needs any further reason to read this interesting book, there is an account of the mating of glaciers-an annual ritual conducted by high-altitude villagers to provide themselves with water for drinking and for irrigation of their terraced fields which itself make for a wonderful short story.
Thinner than Skin is a haunting tribute to these lands, and to the nomadic life of the indigenous people there, where China encroaches and Pakistanis, Uzbeks, Russians, Chinese and Afghans all come together to trade. It is a work of piercing beauty and intelligence, and an urgent noble for our times.
By Nilabh Krishna