Thursday, October 15, 2009


By Uzma Aslam Khan

Clockroot, an imprint of Interlink Publishing, $18, 386 pages

Reviewed by Claire Hopley

Pakistan is often in the news these days. But what do we really know about the country? We know that Pakistan is Islamic, that terrorists leak over the border with Afghanistan, that hired killers target politicians and suicide bombers rip into streets and offices. We also know its relations with the United States have not always run smoothly. But why is this? What is its history? What’s it like to live there? What do Pakistanis think about?

Most of us cannot easily answer these questions because the format of television news that tells us about the terrorists and bombs allows only for traumatic incidents flashed onto our screens for just a minute or two. The written word has the potential to give a fuller account, and of the print media, novels do best at answering questions about how Pakistanis live and think. But hitherto, few Pakistani novels have come our way. Now Interlink Publishing Group brings us Uzma Aslam Khan’s “The Geometry of God” as the first book in its new imprint Clockroot, which is devoted to innovative literature from around the world.

“The Geometry of God” opens with 8-year-old Amal picking up a small fossilized bone of a prehistoric whale while on a trip to the dry mountains of Pakistan with her palaeontologist grandfather, Nana. He shows her how the fossil has a positive and negative side. When she becomes the main emotional and educational support of Mehwish, the baby sister who was blinded when a careless nurse left her gazing at the sun, Amal uses this knowledge to explain the world to Mehwish.

Amal draws pictures and letters, pressing hard with her pencil so the image is embossed on the other side of the paper and Mehwish can trace it with her fingers. In this way, she tells Mehwish about the remains of a dog-whale she discovered. This creature was an evolutionary step toward modern whales and existed in the seas surrounding the ancient landmass Tethys before it bumped into Asia and began its eons-long transformation into today’s Pakistan and India.

Nana, of course, is keen to find the rest of this ancient whale-creature. But as Pakistan slips into Islamic fundamentalism in the 1990s, hard-liners attack his and everyone else’s science as un-Islamic. They don’t just scorn Charles Darwin’s discoveries; they attack all science, from Isaac Newton to Marie Curie to contemporary analyses of the structure of the world. Responding to their attacks, Nana cites the Muslim scientific tradition, pointing to al-Khwarizmi, who formulated the rules of algebra, and Ibn Sina, the father of modern medicine. But under the dictatorial rule of General Zia, he is accused of heresy and eventually imprisoned.

Meanwhile, Amal grows up to become her country’s first female paleontologist. Male colleagues who believe it’s unnatural for a woman to be a scientist often undermine her. Sometimes she pops her specimens in her handbag to take them home rather than expose them to damage from co-workers eager to get her out of her job. When she marries, she chooses a man she loves and, most important, one happy to live in their own flat rather than subject her to traditional life with his extended family, where her only roles would be to obey her mother-in-law and have babies.

Because Amal narrates sections of “The Geometry of God,” readers get a portrait of a Muslim woman that’s far more complex than that of veiled women whose eyes gaze from the covers of so many books about the Muslim world. Certainly, Islamic tradition puts stumbling blocks in Amal’s way, but her story often reads less like that of the suppressed and more like those of Western women who pioneered their way into jobs traditionally reserved for men.

Even more dramatically, Ms. Khan uses Mehwish as narrator of other sections of the novel. For the blind girl, taste and texture fill in for sight. She combines information from these with Amal’s teaching to create a unique picture of the world. Ms. Khan conveys this in Amal’s drawings and Mehwish’s diagrams of the boxes in which she groups people with colors and other things that characterize them. Most challengingly, she shows Mehwish’s spellings. Based on what she hears, they are often revelatory: “Because” becomes “big cause”; “Newton” becomes “new tin”; “melancholy” is “me-link-holy”; “couplet” changes to “cup lit”; and “mistake” to “miss take.”

Mehwish’s efforts to apprehend the world highlight the pattern-making nature of human beings. Mehwish’s patterns grab attention because they are so personal and so different. But equally, in their role as scientists Nana and Amal trace the pattern of evolution, and their opponents, the Islamic fundamentalists, make a pattern from selected parts of the Koran.

But all patterns are not equal. Noman, another character who tells sections of “The Geometry of God” from his own point of view, makes a pattern of lies. He is the son of an Islamic politician, and though he does not share his father’s anti-scientific views, he nonetheless agrees to be his father’s secretary and ghostwriter. He is complicit in Nana’s imprisonment and, despite admiring Amal and Mehwish, brings untold problems to their family.

Pattern-making in this novel thus ranges from the logical reasoning of science to the spiritual insight of ancient philosophies through misguided error, to willful misrepresentation. Patterns sometimes superimpose on one other; sometimes they simply jar and their inventors fight for their version of life, often bitterly and to the death.

Throughout this complex narrative, Ms. Khan writes with unfailing intelligence and linguistic magic. For Westerners, she unlocks doors and windows onto Pakistan and its Islamic culture. Questions will remain with her readers: Her title is less than self-explanatory, for example. Then, too, the denouement of the novel depends on Amal inviting to her wedding a guest whom she knows to be in extreme danger. It is scarcely believable that in such circumstances, she would have invited him. A response to this criticism may lie in Pakistani tradition. Certainly, most readers will find traditions and ideas that are new to them in this skillful and challenging volume.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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