A cautionary tale for nations toying with the extremist fringe (Book Review)
Book: Pureland; Author: Zarrar Said; Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers India; Pages 322; Price: Rs. 599
For sake of the record, Pureland, is an imaginary country, a fictional entity which carries within it lessons for nations that are grappling with the scourge of religious extremism. The geography could well be Pakistan -- a country envisioned by its founders as a land of the pure -- or other nations smilingly toying with the eager right-wing fringe. These are the Purelands waiting to happen.
Written in the first person, the author narrates the chilling justification of an assassin, who has a string of acts of terror under his belt, for the murder of Salim Agha, a Nobel Prize winning physicist from Pureland.
Agha's character is inspired by Pakistan's first and only Nobel Prize winner in the field of science, Dr. Abdus Salam, a theoretical physicist who was at the helm of Pakistan's nuclear and space programmes. Salam however, was also an Ahmadi, an Islamic revivalist sect, whose grave in Pakistan's Punjab province was defaced and the name 'Muslim' struck off by vandals on account of his Ahmadiyya faith, which is not recognised as a Muslim faith in Pakistan.
In Pureland, Zarrar Said examines this classic coming together of conflicts, that of religion versus science, hero versus villain and dogma versus doubt, using the inspiration of Abdus Salam as a vehicle to convey the story of a nation whose hinges creak ominously under the weight of extremism.
Pureland is already in the throes of change, with the Caliphate having just wrested control of the nation in a bloody regime change with accidental assistance from Agha, whose scientific exploits have rendered him a hero of his nation until then.
It is only after Agha leaves his country, or what has become of it, for foreign shores that he realises the follies of his actions. It is only when the scientist makes efforts to in a way right his wrongs, that he incurs the wrath of a nation he once loved and whose people considered him a hero and his achievements eroded by the same people who hailed him.
The narrator, who plots the death of Agha is one of his many haters.
Using the technique of magic realism and laying out a portrait of a deprived land and a people defeated by both impoverishment and hate, the author creates the hero and tracks his journey into infamy, through the gaze and rationalisation of his assassin. Through the tale of the killer, Said seems to suggest that at the end of the day, it is not just the man who drives the knife through the heart of the hero (turned villain), who is a killer, but that blood is also on the hands of a society which led to the travesty.
"In a few days, as you know, I'll be executed for the murder of Salim Agha. The charges levelled against me are of terror and barbarism. They say I am the Scimitar, the Sword of the Caliphate, sent forth by a brutal empire to unleash horror upon the West. Perhaps there's some truth to the claim, perhaps now. I'll let you be the judge. It's true that I murdered Salim Agha and I alone will take the fall. but I believe we were all responsible for his death. Because we, the people of his nation, stood silently when the storm arrived, watching our culture and our way of life vanish before our eyes," the narrator says in the prologue, as he begins the story of his assassination.
"Pureland" is an intelligent satire, spelling out a vision, which not just Pakistan or many other countries grappling with resurgent extremism, may well have to deal with in the times to come. It is a relevant cautionary tale, one where the assassin spells out the moral of the story.
(Mayabhushan Nagvenkar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)