Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Golden Pigeon by Shahid Siddiqui: book review

The Golden Pigeon by Shahid Siddiqui
-- Divya Dubey

[Published by the Asian Review of Books]

The Golden Pigeon, Shahid Siddiqui’s debut novel, can be classified as a historical fantasy. The author has poignantly portrayed
the implications of being an Indian Muslim in India post Partition. Using the power of imagination as a device, he constructs a world where jinns have the power to aid or obstruct events, great Mughal kings come to life to hold court in ancient obelisks and impossibilities turn into possibilities – even palpable realities.

Shiraz and Aijaz are midnight’s children. Aijaz is born on the night of Aught 14, 1947 and Shiraz fifteen minutes past midnight on the 15th. Their birth coincides with the birth of India and Pakistan as two separate nations.

As circumstances turn increasingly precarious for the Muslims staying back in India, Azizuddin Khan, the father of the two boys decides to leave Delhi to create a new life for himself in Pakistan.  It is an idea to which his wife, Hamida Begum, is strongly resistant. She is a true descendant of the Mughals, being the great granddaughter of Kulsum Zamani Begum – the daughter of the last Mughal emperor. Like her mother, Qudsia Begum, Hamida Begum is a loyalist and opposed to Jinnah’s idea of a divided India.

Early one morning she is compelled to accompany her husband to the Old Delhi railway station to escape to the safety of Pakistan. While Azizuddin steps out to buy tickets for them with Aijaz asleep on his shoulder, Hamida Begum rushes out of the building holding her younger son ‘as though possessed by a jinn’.

Dodging rioting mobs running berserk in the city, she reaches her mother’s home in the street of Ballimaran in Chandni Chowk with the help of Bundu Chacha, their faithful tonga-wala.  Qudsia Begum is known for – and often teased about – hobnobbing with her jinns. Hamida Begum waits there for her husband for a few days, and in the absence of any news of him, reconciles herself to the life of a single woman. She pursues higher education and eventually turns into a social activist. Her husband emerges as a minister in his country of refuge.

Efforts at reunion, once communication is finally re-established between husband and wife, are thwarted time and again by turmoil in both the countries made worse by indications of war.  Hamida Begum is upset with her mother; she holds her responsible for conspiring with her jinns to create adverse conditions. Only Shiraz is pleased by these constant interruptions since he considers himself a patriotic Indian. He is fervidly against migrating to Pakistan to join his father and brother. Whenever his neighbour, Brij Behari, a passionate pigeon flyer, teases him as his ‘little Pakistani’, Shiraz retorts, ‘I am no Pakistani; I hate Pakistan.’

Shahid Siddiqui
Through Brij Behari Shiraz learns that he shares his name ‘Shiraz’ with a breed of famous homing pigeons (from Shiraz, a famous Iranian city) after which his father named

Pigeons run as a motif throughout the novel. At the time of circumcision, to distract young Muslim boys from the trauma of the ceremony, adults would point to the sky to show them a ‘golden pigeon’. The moment the child looked up, the foreskin would be quickly dislodged.

The golden pigeon therefore symbolizes a new phase in their lives signifying both physiological and psychological changes.

But it is not simply a metaphor. Its real significance becomes apparent when Shiraz is falsely implicated in the murder of his friend, Brij Behari – also the uncle of his beloved Anu whom he wants to marry. Trapped by their different religious identities, both the lovers know marriage is impossible – that it might lead to communal riots in the city. Riots follow anyhow in the wake of rumours spread about Shiraz by hostile Hindus. 

At this juncture Qudsia Begum invokes her jinns – her Mughal ancestors – to help her grandson cross the border into Pakistan. This is from the scene that transpires between Babur and Shiraz:
‘What would you like to be, an eagle or a dove?’ Babur asked with a smile.

‘A dove, a Shirazi pigeon […] I am not a killer; I cannot be an eagle. I am a romantic lover like you and would prefer to be a pigeon.’

The first part of the novel more or less follows the conventions of a social realist novel. Elements of magic realism are introduced in part two, which begins here. The texture of the prose and the author’s philosophy, however, are very different from Rushdie’s. Simplicity of style and childlike innocence in the tone mark Siddiqui as quite distinct from other writers writing about the Partition.

The beginning is brilliantly visual with detailed descriptions of the lanes and by-lanes of old Delhi or Shahjahanabad: the culture ruled by disciples of Ghalib, Mir and Momin; an undiscovered MF Hussain distributing his paintings in the street for free; special days of feasting on nahari and nan. The flow too is much smoother than in the latter half where certain actions seem arbitrary and the plot is occasionally ill-constructed and hackneyed (for instance, Shiraz guarding his amazing secret or his term in jail).   

This novel may be criticized for its compactly strung threads and a happy ending for the protagonist. But rather than an attempt at offering a solution to political or social dilemmas, it is perhaps an expression of the author’s overwhelming desire for perfect harmony between contraries. Overall it is a promising debut by a writer who is sure to go places.

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