13 November 2011

The Fatwa Girl by Akbar Agha

Engrossing, informative - and sad
One of the most insistent thoughts in my mind as I read and enjoyed The Fatwa Girl was that a book could actually be a good book even if it doesn’t have a strongly pervasive literary quality.

For the last several years, the books I’ve read coming out of Pakistan have been of a standard of English that easily matched up to the best writing anywhere in the world. Even Moni Mohsin, with her giddy-headed and ungrammatical character Butterfly, has a style that clearly arises from an orthodox, rather elite tradition of English literature. For the first time I was reading a Pakistani English book written in language drawn from a wider section of the bell curve; one that even used ‘flouted’ when it meant to say ‘flaunted’. And never once did it upset me.
I think the main reason for my easy acceptance was that I found the plot very interesting, and revelled in the wealth of detail about Pakistani history and the different aspects of its religion and culture which are easily woven in to it.
The story is told by Omar, a young man from an upper middle class family in Karachi. The Fatwa girl is his neighbour and we learn how, despite being from religious sects that detest each other, they become friends. Amina is a smart, carefree young woman. What is it that turns her into a suicide bomber? The suspense builds up as we find out. And, as Akbar Agha takes us to this final turn in the storyline, we journey through a variety of concepts and landscapes: historical information from the Arab world and the subcontinent which contributed to the fabric of modern-day Pakistan; the myths that arose because of the nature of its people; the contrast between traditional and modern lifestyles and ways of thinking; the economic conditions which have allowed corruption to flourish and created power blocks and an ever-widening rift between socio-economic classes. From Karachi to Lahore to the beautiful but desecrated Swat and even a cameo from the Pakistani effort to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan; from Kipling to Lear to Jung; from comparing the plight of oppressed women in Pakistan and the USA: the fabric of this book arises from this knowledgeable author’s perspective on his country and the world. Says Omar,
I recalled the moment we laid Grandpa into the grave and a strange thought entered my mind. It made me think differently about religion from that day on.
I thought, a billion people can’t be wrong. But a billion people would swear that Grandfather would go to Hell for saying Jesus is the Son of God. Another billion would swear he would go to Heaven for saying Jesus is the Son of God. Which billion would be right?

Reading The Fatwa Girl, I wondered whether the story, too, was drawn from something Akbar Agha had experienced himself, and I emailed him with a few questions. He replied:
Perhaps the only thing I share in common with my protagonist Omar, who eventually, like me, joins the Foreign Service, is the feeling that the sorrow of parting is never sweet. I was a bachelor for many years in the Service and just when you got to really know someone you’d receive orders for transfer to another country. I guess the sadness of parting from someone you’ve become intimate with is reflected in Omar’s story.
If the Shia-Sunni divide is at the core of my story it’s because I’ve felt its presence even as a schoolboy. My best friend at school was someone I’d hang out with most of the day, go to movies and parties and dances together and do all the fun things teenagers do – except during the month of Muharram when we couldn’t meet at all because he was busy attending religious meetings or participating in self-flagellation which as a Sunni I couldn’t understand, and during this entire month my best buddy would become an alien to me. I’ve always felt the divide between the two sects should have been repaired a thousand years, but it’s no better now than when it started and will eventually raise its head even among the best of friends.
I asked Akbar Agha about what he is writing now and he said he has just completed a novel entitled The Moon Belongs to Everyone. Its main character is Alvi, a young Pakistani in America, a barista at a Seattle Starbucks, but his grandmother thinks he’s a barrister, and this results in a comical situation. He described the book in some detail, and it struck me that it would also very likely be filled with interesting information and perceptions, and include an element of rising suspense, both features which I had enjoyed very much in this book too.


  1. Brilliant review. Almost as brilliant as the book itself! I appreciated the painstaking effort of the reviewer making contact with the author to give us additional insight.

    The Times of India should learn from you!

    I do however have a bone to pick with the reviewer: no "pervasive literary quality?" How can you say that -- more than any other book I have read in the recent past, this book is replete with quotes from literature. From Socrates to the Holy Quran, and country and western music in between...

    Its a matter of literary taste. Like you, I found the story of The Fatwa Girl compelling. Unlike you, I found Akbar Agha's literary style brilliant -- with a dash of Lea and Perrins!

    But again, great review. I loved you blog and will be a frequent visitor.

  2. Would be interesting to know how this book compares to something by Chetan Bhagat.

  3. Hi 'Anonymous' ...
    One basic similarity is that Akbar Agha's characters are also young, educated, and upper middle class - like Chetan Bhagat's. Both authors are easy to read. This book is different from anything Chetan Bhagat has written primarily because of its depth and integrity. In it you are exposed to layers of fact about the history and culture of the subcontinent in a very pleasant way. Chetan Bhagat's books do paint a landscape but nothing as rich as this.

  4. According to Mark Twain, “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.” Books are one of the greatest friends you could ever have – they tell you endless stories and adventures, teach you lessons from the past and shape your opinion and views of the world and other concepts as well.