A year-long diary set in LONDON
A God In Every Stone – by Kamila Shamsie (a novel set in Peshawar)
1st August 2014
A God In Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie – a novel set in Peshawar.
This is a BIG and complex novel – moving from an archaeological dig in Turkey in early 1914, across the first year of the 1st World War, and through into Peshawar in both 1915 and again in 1930. It is also pretty challenging on one’s knowledge of ancient Persian mythology…(did you know that the Caspatyrus of mythology is modern day Peshawar? Or that Syclax betrayed Darius, the Emperor of Persia, and sided with the Carians against the Persians?). In Shamsie’s version of the story, Syclax has a valuable circlet given to him by Darius and the circlet then subsequently disappears. The search for its rediscovery is central to the storyline of A God in Every Stone.
The constant throughout the story is Vivien Spencer. Before the outbreak of the War, the young Viv went on an archaeological dig in Labraunda, Turkey. She was an ‘intern’ working with Turkish archaeologist, Tahsin Bey, a quite old (in both senses…) friend of her father’s. Bey’s ‘Holy Grail’ was to rediscover the circlet that Darius had given to Syclax. She fell in love with Bey (and he with her), but they were separated when war broke out. Viv worked for a short while in London as a nurse looking after the war wounded until she received a ‘coded’ Christmas card from Bey suggesting that she visit Peshawar where he hoped to join her. She (with difficulty) persuaded her parents to let her go and set off into the unknown.
The second theme of the story develops in parallel. Qayyum, a Pashtun soldier, is wounded fighting with the 40th Pathans at Ypres. He loses an eye, is invalided out of the army, and sent back to his native Peshawar. On the last part of his journey home he shares a railway compartment with Viv. Viv, when she arrives at the station in Peshawar, is befriended by a local boy called Najeeb. She teaches him English, the classics, and fosters his love of archaeology. Only much later does she discover that Najeeb in in fact Qayyum’s younger brother. His lessons with Viv are when he is meant to be at the Mosque being instructed in the Qur’an – a fact which his mother finds out and bans the lessons from continuing.
Viv deduces from archaeological evidence (and shares with Najeeb) that Darius’ circlet is possibly buried alongside a white stone Buddha at a site in Peshawar, and that this is the message that Bey was trying to communicate to her. But they cannot get permission to dig and she returns to England. Fast forward 15 years to 1930.
Najeeb is now working at the Archaeological Museum in Peshawar, and has got permission to dig at the site. He writes to Viv suggesting he join her and asking for funds to finance the adventure. She travels out – and finds a very different Peshawar. Ghaffar Khan, a leader of the non violent protest movement against British Rule in India is in the ascendancy, and his Khudai Khidmatgar has many followers. Tensions run high… and eventually burst over on 23rd April 1930 when the infamous (and actual) massacre in the Street of Storytellers takes place. A British army officer panics, orders his men to open fire, and carnage reigns. ‘Many’ (estimates range from the official number of 30 to up to 500) were killed. This single act changed the face of the Indian fight for independence.
Viv is caught up in the aftermath as she searches for Najeeb, and tries to piece together what happened to him, She re-encounters Qayyum (15 years on) who is on the same mission. Together they find the truth.
As I started by saying, A God In Every Stone is a BIG book. It brilliantly portrays the culture and way of life of Peshawar (none perhaps more so that in explaining the different reaction to Viv when she is ‘disguised’ in a burqua as she searches for Najeeb after the massacre). It also has a real sense of history and, in particular, the history of empire – or, rather, 3 empires. The decline of the all powerful Persian Empire of ancient times, the decline of the Ottoman Empire as the effects of the 1st World War impacted – and the beginning of the decline of the British Empire (Peshawar is, in fact, in modern day Pakistan after independence and the break up of British India…).
It is a book that I really enjoyed and would wholeheartedly recommend. I possibly wish, though, that I had first taken a refresher course in Persian mythology…!
Tony for the TripFiction team
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