Young man leaves troubled homeland to study at an esteemed American university. He returns, and finds things have changed. So begins The Wish Maker, Ali Sethi’s debut that, alas, succeeds in its ambition to be a social novel.
The novel centres on a pair of young Pakistani cousins, Zaki and Samar. Zaki has returned to Lahore for Samar’s imminent wedding, back to their grandmother’s busy house where Zaki’s mother is organising the wedding. His mother is a journalist-activist who runs a feminist magazine, much to the chagrin of her mother-in-law and sistersin- law. From these initial beginnings Zaki quickly swings, for the rest of the book, into telling the histories of the people of this household, including his grandmother, mother, Naseem the maid, Samar, and, of course, himself. These stories are interspersed with chapters where the family reacts to the nation’s political teetering between democracy and dictatorships. Zaki returns to describe the present only in the end, where an earlier trope of Samar’s infatuation with Amitabh Bachchan is used to sew the book together.
It doesn’t work. The chronological sequence of the vignettes makes for aimless reading – it might work as a social chronicle of a family, but it remains mostly plotless without a strong dénouement. A coming-of-age tale needs to show the coming-on of something, usually a crisis that bends people into unnatural shapes. This novel sprawls, on the other hand, without a sense of scale, and its heft leaves little imprint of any weight.
Zaki’s sensibility doesn’t permeate the stories he tells, so that we have little idea of what he makes of the proceedings. The one time he takes a strong stand is when Samar is sent to her paternal village as punishment for a love affair, and Zaki accuses his mother of being a “half-baked liberal.” His mother slaps him, and we move on into the second section of the novel, with nary a mention of this again.
Sethi’s voice is one of breathy restraint throughout, and this lack of modulation tends to smother his occasionally golden descriptions, such as when he points out a man “who seemed to reside permanently in morning,” or when he notices a sari that shone “in brassy dents.” And his comic set pieces can be effective, such as when Samar exercises with Zaki’s mother:
“She began to exercise and stood on Friday mornings behind my mother, who had set up the TV and the VCR in her room. They wore tracksuits and stood in poses of attention, waiting for the woman to appear on the screen. ‘Come on, everybody,’ said Jane Fonda, and bent. ‘Can you feel it?’ ‘Feel it,’ said my mother. ‘Feel it,’ said Samar Api.”
But more often than this, the reader encounters stretches of banality puffed with sentimentality:
“‘Okay, Jamal, I’m sorry. Just forget it – please just forget it.’ She hung up the phone and stared at it. ‘Samar Api…’ I said. But she looked away in time to hide the tears.”
The Pakistani novel in English seems to have reached its inevitable global cusp. Sethi’s memoir-scape could have taken place anywhere in the world, and could be any teen’s usual almanac of gewgaws: the first hair waxing, the advent of dish television and videogames, the first porn movie, the first cigarette, school bunking, the first crush, weight anxieties (the chronology is not intended to be ironic, as far as I can tell). His characters remain inside the concentric circles of their own concerns while Pakistan’s politics rumbles in the background, both detached from the reader.
The book’s epigraph is from Middlemarch: “The difficult task of knowing another soul is not for young gentlemen whose consciousness is chiefly made up of their own wishes.” Self-ironic or not, one wishes the author had paid more attention to his characters, one of whom teases her George Eliot-reading friend that people are “not like characters from your book. Stop worrying.”