Mountains in Love: A Review of Thinner Than Skin
My review of Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin for The Friday Times.
Mountains in Love
The book begins with two intriguing and sub-textually pertinent quotes, providing hints as to what the story has to offer: “It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality.” (Virginia Woolf) and “There are one or two murderers in any crowd. They do not suspect their destinies yet.” (Charles Simic) Indeed, Thinner Than Skin is a tale of characters who are grappling with tenacious phantoms and stumbling towards destinies they cannot foresee.
The novel is set primarily in the background of Pakistani Northern areas, Kaghan Valley in particular, with its melting pot of communities of Pakistanis, Uzbeks, Russians, Chinese and Afghans. It is a place where old traditions and customs are laced into the fabric of geography, and the sense of enchantment is palpable and ever-present. The culture is being corroded by the presence of government officials and military convoys, and the infiltration of jihadis with their fanatical brand of religion. A terrorist suspect, actively pursued by the military, is said to be taking refuge in the valley, where the locals speak of him as the Fareebi, the shapeshifter.
Three strands of narration are woven together through the pages. First is the account of Nadir, a photographer from Pakistan seeking recognition in USA (a man who “spends his life hiding behind a lens”), and his relationship with Farhana, an American woman of German-Pakistani ancestry, who wants to ‘go back’ to a country she has never visited, on the pretext of studying glaciers. Second is the story of Maryam and her family, members of nomadic tribe who make seasonal journeys between pastures and mountains with their livestock. Maryam’s affinity for her family pagan rituals earns continual consternation of the increasingly puritanical Muslims. The third account is that of Ghafoor, a trader with a past linked to Maryam, who has traveled far into China and Central Asia, and is well-acquainted with trouble and trouble-makers.
To her credit, Uzma Aslam Khan recognizes the way Pakistan is stereotyped. “Where are the beggars and bazaars or anything that resembles your culture?” Nadir is asked by an interviewer examining his photographs. Almost as if in protest, the novel attempts to show the depth of cultures indigenous to the areas, and how there is far more complexity to it than foreign eyes can see. She is acutely aware of how well-meaning cultural condescending attitudes can do more harm than good (“You do not barge into a place thinking you can fix it. Who are you? Who are you? What makes you think you can do that?”). At the same time there are ruminations on the transcendence of human nature over languages and cultures. (“Do we desire and despise in the same sounds in all tongues?”)
There are discerning observations sprinkled throughout the book, on the state of life in Pakistan struck by one tragedy after another (“And yet, despite the monotony of dead, something lived. Resilience can flower in the muck of death and despair, particularly when it doesn’t even know it.”), the hush-hush treatment of sexuality (“where lust was a life-size secret”), romantic relationships (“Why did men always expect gratitude for the smallest gesture, when their largest, most catastrophic mistakes were irreversible?”), history and geography as anchors of community (“What will become of us, without homes? Without our past?”), and cultural imperialism (“… my father had a fierce aversion to what he called the fascist eye. He was terrified of its power to replicate an imagination that could not resist it. He bemoaned it, right until his death, the way the Third World is seen by the First World that makes up these terms. What he called ghoorna. Their gaze. On us.”).
Uzma Aslam Khan provides us with many gorgeous descriptions, such as the ritual of the mating of glaciers, which can only be watched after swearing an oath of silence, the various shamanistic practices of the nomads, and the striking anthropomorphic qualities of mountains, with the romance of Malika Parbat and Nanga Parbat making frequent appearances:
“Apparently, people believed that on days when the mountain appeared – the one that only looked liked Nanga Parbat, but could not have been – the Queen’s snow melted even faster, due either to her rage at having her beauty overshadowed, or her excitement at beholding her lover. And on such days his snow also melted faster, due either to his rage at having his beauty uncloaked – whose eyes were worthy enough? – or his triumph at beholding the Queen’s ferment. Whatever the reason, the lake that day had a strong tide.”
Thinner Than Skin is best appreciated for the poetic and tender quality of its prose (“They watched her, and despair became their glue, and glue became a tangle of arms in which to carry the woman to her hut.”), for observations laden with philosophical musings (“…she would say that a broken heart should never grow cold. It was the cruelest of burdens. Not even God would carry it.”), and its unearthing of ancient traditions (“Looking up from beneath him in the grass, she spoke a name of God that was older than Allah. Tengri…. It means the endless hemisphere of the sky.”). The plot is ultimately unsatisfying, the pace of the novel is often sluggish and demands persistence, the mythical enchantment at times appears forced, and the ponderings of characters are prone to repetition and monotony. However, despite these drawbacks, the book offers a rewarding and memorable journey into the emotional and geographic landscapes of Northern Pakistan.
See also: My interview with Uzma Aslam Khan