A God in Every Stone, Archaeological Fiction, Baileys Womens Prize, Burnt Shadows, Colonialism, Foreign Literature, historical fiction, Indian LIterature, Kamila Shamsie, Novels, Pakistani Literature, Women's Literature, World Literature
Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone is a beautifully crafted work of literature that captures the history of conquest, exploration, and colonialism from Darius to Gandhi. The venue is Peshawar, prior to and after the First World War, when it was part of India and under British colonial rule. For Vivian Rose Spencer, an intrepid English young woman who has been taught archaeology by her much older Turkish/Armenian mentor and subsequent surreptitious husband, the holy grail becomes the search for a circlet of figs given by Darius to the ancient Greek explorer Scylax and lost to history since 334 B.C. According to Herodotus, Darius I had Scylax explore the Indus river to determine where it reached the sea. Scylax set out from Caspatyrus, which is now near Peshawar, but then Pactyike. Upon reaching the sea he sailed across the Indian Ocean, up the Red Sea and then returned to Darius. Southwestern Turkey, called Caria at the time of Scylax, was captured by the Hecatomnids. They treated the Circlet as a prized possession and stamped its image on their coins. In 334 B.C. Alexander the Great conquered Caria.
Separated during the First World War, Tahsin Bey, Ms. Spencer’s husband, writes her that the Circlet might be in Peshawar. She travels there and develops a life-long relationship with a young boy, Najeeb, who becomes her local guide and secret archaeology student. His education by Ms. Spencer becomes problematic for Najeeb’s mother, as a Pathan would not be alone with a woman and Najeeb was ignoring his Islamic teachings. Najeeb’s brother Qayyum, a loyal soldier to the Crown as a member of the 40th Pathans, returns home from England where he learned the prejudice of colonial Britain toward its Pashtun, Dogras and Punjabis soldiers while recovering in an English hospital after a war injury. The drama of the novel is captured by the disintegration of colonial India through the peaceful revolution of the Congress Party under Gandhi, as played out in Peshawar by Ms. Spencer, Najeeb and Qayyum.
The author imparts the cultures, prejudices, and landscape of Peshawar throughout the novel. On his initial guide through Peshawar Najeeb takes Ms. Spencer down all the lanes of the city: the famed Street of Storytellers, the Street of Dentists, The Street of Potters, The Street of Money-Changers, the Street of Partridge Lovers.
“The Street of Englishwomen?’
“They buy and sell Englishwomen there. We will try to avoid it”
“Take a detour through the Street of Inventive Guides if you must”
“He looked delighted to be caught out, and she found she was delighted to have been teased.”
She learns that he speaks Pashto, but at home they speak Hindko.
“We are more Peshawari than Pathan, but we’re also Pathan. Buy everyone here speaks both Hindko and Pashto and many people Urdu and also English and every language of the world someone here can speak. This is Peshawar.”
Ms Shamsie’s novel is a tapestry upon which a page-turning story rests. It was shortlisted for Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2015, because it has a bevy of strong English and Peshawari women breaking free from the mores of their time and religion.
I was originally searching for Ms. Shamsie’s previous novel Burnt Shadows which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for fiction. I will look for that novel even more now. This exquisite novel is a very worthwhile read.