Bina Shah’s A Season for Martyrs

seasonformartyrsThe funeral congregated in Liaquat National Bagh park. Angry clerics denounced the government for allowing the execution to proceed, and an ambulance strewn with flowers carried Mumtaz Qadri’s body slowly through the crowds. When Qadri was executed for the murder of Punjab governor and Benazir Bhutto loyalist Salman Taseer on February 29th, Pakistan’s sharp ideological divisions and complexities were once again laid bare. Taseer was a critic of Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws and their predominant use against minorities; Qadri shot Taseer 27 times with an AK-47 assault rifle. Thousands of people attended Qadri’s funeral, and more stayed quiet, with school closures throughout Rawalpindi as well as further afield in Islamabad. Security forces were on high alert.

Like Pakistan itself, Liaquat National Bagh in Rawalpindi has seen it all before. It precedes the very creation of Pakistan. First created as Company Park under the British Raj, it was later renamed after the country’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, who was shot and killed there in 1951. It was also the place of Benazir Bhutto’s last political address to her nation, and it was as she exited this park that she was killed.

Nine years after her assassination, Bhutto continues to cast a long shadow. Pakistan remains a place where political legacies and dynasties are dyed into the fabric of the nation, and where ambiguities, violence and muddled histories live on. Truths in Pakistan, about assassinations and much else, are often elusive. It is perhaps understandable then that not many writers have sought to incorporate Bhutto into their stories, yet Bina Shah has boldly done just that in her work, A Season for Martyrs.

This is an ambitious novel. It interweaves the rich history of the province of Sindh, from well before the creation of Pakistan, with a present day narrative. It is a story of saints, poets and politics. And is as much a love letter to Sindh with all its failings and complexities, as an overarching novel. “There has been a lot of academic work on this province but no fiction as such. And I thought it was really important to try and get those stories down and also to immortalize Benazir Bhutto in fiction,” says Shah. “I just thought nobody’s doing it, I better do it. It is the right thing to do right now.”

The book centers on the story of Ali Sikandar, a journalist at a television news channel in Karachi. When we meet Ali, he has been successfully concealing his origins from his social circle, but his secrecy leaves him angry and isolated. The cause of his shame and secrecy is his family’s status as feudals, historic landowners within Sindh, much decried for their social standing and wealth. Ali’s father has also married a second wife and now has a new family, abandoning the old. Ali juggles his job with finishing his degree at Bhutto University and covertly dating Sunita, his Hindu girlfriend.

The backdrop of the novel is the lead up to the 2008 elections. Ali’s family and the nature of his work steep him in the politics of the country, and yet he is disillusioned with the parties and their various leaders. And this includes Bhutto. The figure of Bhutto floats variously from background and forefront throughout the novel, omnipresent throughout.

Benazir Bhutto returned from exile in October 2007, promising to run for a third term as Prime Minister. Tens of thousands of supporters greeted her upon her return to Karachi in 2007, despite her inglorious departure eight years earlier when, marred by charges of corruption after two terms in office, she was forced into political exile. Bhutto and her family have had immense influence in Pakistan, and her arrival home captured the attention of both her country and the international community. In November 2007, President General Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency and suspended the county’s constitution, as well as deposing Pakistan’s high court judges. Vigorous protests and media crackdowns ensued.

When Ali is caught in a bomb blast while covering Bhutto’s return to Pakistan, it serves as a catalyst for his spiral into a new existence, as his carefully curated life begins to crack. He has pinned his future on gaining acceptance to a US university, thus escaping his responsibilities to his fractured family and the stifling conservatism and simmering instability of Pakistan. Yet, just as this seems within his grasp, Ali finds himself drawn to stay. He toys with leaving and instead joins the fledgling activist and artist movement protesting the state of emergency.

Shah’s novel casts a wide net. She incorporates historical narratives from the British colonization of Sindh as well as the stories of Sindhi saints and their followers as threads of the novel, cutting through the present day narrative. These passages have a lyrical feel to them, perhaps in reference to the great poetry in which many of these stories are enshrined. The work of the Sindhi master Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, an ancestor of Bina Shah’s, is particularly influential here.

Shah has a complex and diverse culture and histories to draw from and she writes with a familiarity and command that only hints at the research this work must have required. She also manages to make these passages set in the past accessible for those unfamiliar, a necessary component for many Western readers. Certain minor plot details within the present-day novel seem neglected, Ali’s interest in one of his fellow activists goes nowhere and a chance meeting with Sunita after time apart seems a little contrived, but these are small.

This novel marks Shah’s publishing debut in North America, though her past works have been published in multiple languages. Her novel Slum Child, detailing the struggles of a young Christian girl from an impoverished area of Karachi was a bestseller in Italy. Class, societal fissures and tropes also provide a backdrop for this latest work and are deftly handled as the story maneuvers. “The whole country is very stuck on stereotypes about each other, that is why there is such disunity,” says Shah. “And people cling to those stereotypes as a way to justify division, prejudice and discrimination. That’s something very troubling about this society, but I as a writer can challenge that.”

A Season for Martyrs is a captivating work, but one that is not always easy to digest. The reader knows so much of the larger story from news headlines before the first page is opened, and indeed the novel ends just as the world’s attention is about to turn towards Rawalpindi, minutes away from Bhutto’s murder. One reads it with the tension of already knowing the outcome, of biting our nails to the quick. To use a well-known figure as an anchor for a work is challenging precisely because so much of Bhutto’s life has been recorded, both by herself and others. For Shah, it was a complicated balance to strike and she admits she found writing from Bhutto’s perspective very difficult. Within the novel, the reader bears witness to the former prime minister at three very different stages of her life, yet only at the end of the work do we glimpse her point of view. Yet when Shah briefly captures Bhutto’s voice, it is sparse and understated and the presence of the former prime minister does not overwhelm the book as whole or overtake the other narratives.

Bhutto’s spectral presence over the country is also expressed through the voices of the other characters in the work. The protagonist and his father represent opposing views; the older man is a diehard Bhutto supporter while his son is quite skeptical and struggles to understand and evaluate her legacy. These differing stances butt up against one another often.

This novel is also particularly poignant in how reality and fiction blend into one another in smaller facets. Real people—prominent human rights activists, lawyers and artists—are referenced, as are actual locations within Karachi that evoke a particular essence and aesthetic of this time. You get a keen sense of the mundane frustrations of living in Pakistan, from power shortages and mad traffic to the layers of bureaucracy and hustle and the minor ways class infiltrates all; these small details create a sense of verisimilitude even within the historical narratives. For someone who has spent time in Karachi, this novel is like encountering an old acquaintance, even from behind, you would recognize them anywhere. In a bitter reminder of the fragility of life, Bhutto’s is not the only killing that echoes through this work. Sabeen Mahmud, a human rights activist and proprietor of popular Karachi café The Second Floor—a space that housed many actual People’s Resistance meetings as well as the ones fictionalized within the novel—was shot and killed in April 2015, only months after this book was published.

On June 8th, a familiar news story emerged from Pakistan. Zeenat Rafiq, 18, was murdered in a so-called “honor killing’ in Lahore; her mother, Perveen, allegedly doused her with kerosene and set her on fire after she married without family consent. It was the third case of this nature reported within a month in Pakistan. It is an understatement to say that the country which produced one of the most globally recognized female leaders still struggles with gender discrimination and violence, amongst other problems, almost a decade after her death. Yet Shah remains optimistic about her home: “We look like a complete basket case, but when you are living here day to day and you are seeing the strides, you can’t write us off,” she says. “Difficult times call for a marshaling of resources and a summoning up of courage and a boldness, and that’s where we are. That spirit to fight and to fix what is wrong, not to accept this as the status quo.” This book captures periods of Pakistan’s past, both recent and ancient, that navigate, and agitate for, change. It is bold, well-crafted fiction of a volatile time, written itself in an only somewhat less tumultuous period.

This novel tackles many harsh truths in a country where life may indeed seem too short. It is a story of new beginnings, self-acceptance and the confines that bind and sometimes set us free. History and memory have long fingers that reach into the present and beyond and in A Season for Martyrs Shah’s characters navigate that tenuous space between worlds beautifully.