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The Wish Maker by Ali Sethi

Fiction Reviews

The Wish Maker by Ali Sethi

The Wish Maker by Ali Sethi
The Wish Maker
by Ali Sethi
Riverhead, 432 pp.
CLR [rating:4.5]

The Personal and Political in Modern-Day Pakistan

The Wish Maker, a debut coming-of-age novel written when the author was only twenty-three, begins when Zaki Sharazi is picked up at the airport in Lahore, Pakistan by his grandmother’s servant and driver to attend the wedding of his cousin, Samir Api. He’s been away in an American college and returns to his family of women. His father, a pilot, died when he was only two months old. He’s an outsider now, his bed too small for him, a metaphor of the traditional world he has escaped. Then the story switches to his boyhood, covering three generations of upheaval in both the family and in Lahore.

Each fascinating character breathes on the page, but each also represents a social strata. Zaki and his cousin, who spent part of her childhood and teen years living at his house, are middle class. Their roof sports a dish antenna and their refrigerator is full of chutney and other traditional foods along with cans of Slim-Fast. Samar Api exercises with a Jane Fonda Workout video and reads magazine articles such as “Fifty Ways to Lose the Flab and Gain the Abs!”

Naseem who works for Daadi, Zaki’s grandmother, represents the avaam, an oppressed class that makes up most of the country and will never rise beyond that. When encouraged by Zacki’s mother, Zakia, to spend the alms money given to her on starting her own stitching business, Naseem instead gives the money away to her gambling, philandering husband. “She has exposed herself again as a weaver of wishes,” Zaki oberves, “a person who habitually amounted to nothing.”

Daadi, Zaki’s grandmother, is an iron-willed conservative, accepting her circumscribed role as a woman and demands that every other woman in the family does the same.

Zaki’s Uncle Fazal represents feudalism. “For them,” Zakia says, “everything is property: land, labor, women. They have absolute power. They can do anything they want.”

Zakia, herself is a modern, breakaway type of woman, a liberal. She’s an editor of a feminist women’s magazine and her women friends are all professionals as well. They drive their own cars and wear faded, threadbare clothes and plain shoes without heels. They brave prison to protest the dismissal of Benazir Bhutto. Suri, Daadi’s sister, is furious with democracy because her husband’s lands were taken in order to distribute it to others in democracy’s name.

The novel must sound deadly serious, and it is. But the author’s wit is on every page. In his boyhood, Moosa, Zaki’s sophisticated cousin, teaches Zaki about smoking, drinking, and “mastipation.” Naseem, the servant, describes her hajj, her religious pilgrimage to Saudia. “Everything they have: KFC, McDonald’s, anything at all, you name it and they have it.”

One of the major surprises of this book is that although it’s from Zaki’s point of view, it’s the women of the story who are the stars. In the frontispiece, Sethi quotes George Elliot’s Middlemarch. “The difficult task of knowing another soul is not for a young gentleman whose consciousness is chiefly made up of his own wishes.” While Zaki was able to act on his own wishes and go to school in America, the women in this book have very little room to do the same. In a tender moment, Zaki, feeling like a burden to his mother, the cause of her not remarrying, asks Samir Api to make a wish. It’s as if he can’t really let himself have what he wants unless she can have it too. He helps Samir Api climb tall fences, keeps her secrets for her, and aches when he has to go to Spain with his mother, knowing that she is home suffering.

The Islamization Laws, put into practice in the early 1980’s, made it even more difficult for women to have a bright future. When Zakia was still in college, a brigadier had told her, “Madam, I would advise women like you to stay at home and observe the proper injunctions.” Certainly, her mother-in-law, Daadi, would agree. But Zakia couldn’t live like that and did everything she could to be free. There have been recent reforms that have allowed women greater visibility, but in rural Pakistan, a woman such as Chhoti had to live as a slave in her husband’s house. Only rarely could Chhoti visit her sister, Daadi. Wanting greater opportunity for her daughter, Samir Api, Chhoti sends her to live with Daadi in the city, which is how the girl ends up being raised with Zaki. But out of the watchful eye of her mother, Samir Api, a delightful girl who dreams a Bollywood actor will sweep her away, ends up falling tragically in love with a boy who rejects her, and creates a scandal that nearly ruins the rest of her life.

The personal suffering always hinges on the political. When Daadi was a little girl, her best friend and next door neighbor, a Hindu girl named Amrita, is forced to flee with her family because of the violence that broke out between Hindus and Muslims. And Zakia’s father, who emigrated from India because his mother decided to, was forced to live in a refugee camp in Pakistan and all his degrees were worth nothing. He was discriminated against for the rest of his days.

Because The Wish Maker is a book about love and family, everyone can relate to it. But it also gives the reader an intimate look into a country that is so much in the news today that it’s a great read on many levels.

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Rochelle Jewel Shapiro's novel, MIRIAM THE MEDIUM (Simon and Schuster) was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award and is currently selling in Holland, Belgium, and the U.K., and also in paperback now in the U.S. She's published essays in NYT ("Lives"), NEWSWEEK ("My Turn"), and in many anthologies. Her poem, SECOND STORY PORCH. was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She teaches writing at UCLA Extension and does a monthly column on Authorlink.



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