30 June 2019
Uzma Aslam Khan has very well innovated and presented to us a hidden, forgotten and unknown part of our history in a multitude of voices, a faraggo of colours and a rain of sheer imagination and celestial language. In this novel set in the Andamans during World War II, each islander risks being shot as a collaborator by whoever happens to win the war
In a narrative that swings back and forth within the years of World War II, Uzma Aslam Khan presents a richly imagined universe containing the young Nomi and her brother Zee, and their friend Aye. These three children are Local Born, the offspring of prisoners transported to the Andamans. In a territory that is a penal colony, even when prisoners have worked off their sentences, there is no coming out of prison. Ex-convicts are given a plot of land to farm and live on and women arrive from the mainland, either prisoners or settlers, to breed a community that will supply and serve the prisoners and their jailers.
The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali is a classically constructed novel. There are the three children at the centre, and a web of threads between them and their community.There are the threads, fragile and taut, marital or professional, between those who were once prisoners and those who were not.
Then there are the inescapable threads connecting the white colonisers with the islanders, Indian and Burmese. For those who live in the Andamans, it doesn’t matter what flag the colonisers fly. When the Japanese invade the penal colony, the islanders are left to shift for themselves, either making terms with a gun held to their heads, or suicidally spying for the Allies. The atrocities build.
Sometimes, a young boy passed her cell. He was slender and brown and he hurt. He had enormous eyes that tapered at the ends, where the hurt was. He had a square jaw and his cheek was growing into a man’s. Perhaps he did not know how to shave. Sometimes, he stood outside her cell till one of the warders started to approach and then he would dart away. Without a sound. He had the feet of a cat. She had seen him before, but could not recall when.
Perhaps he would come today.
She started to hear it, the sound she hated most. They were holding someone down. Soon would come the rush of liquid and the horse doctor’s voice. She covered her ears with her hands. She rocked herself back and forth.
From the women warders in the factory she had learned what the hunger strikers wanted. Their demands were hers, too, if they only knew. Newspapers. Light in the cell. Better food. Proper medical aid. No more rationing of water. Warm baths. Bedsheets. No more rough handling. The warders laughed at this.
That other sound. The sound of laughter.
The strikers also asked for the freedom to answer the letters they were now allowed to receive. Why did no one write to her?
She rocked herself back and forth.
The Bengalis had asked for fish. She did not like fish. She wanted the taste of her mother’s love as she fed her cubes of mutton.
How many daughters see their mothers for the last time in court?
She pressed her hands to her ears more tightly, but the screaming did not stop.
— Excerpt from The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali by Uzma Aslam Khan
How is history handed down to us? Who narrates it? And what role does perspective play in shaping facts? Uzma Aslam Khan’s latest novel, The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali, is a vibrant defiance of traditionally accepted histories. Through a rejection of historically privileged perspectives, well-rounded and responsible research, and a lyrical narrative that a reader can effortlessly float through, Khan gives a voice to the marginalised and oft forgotten.
From children growing up on a prison island to the only female political prisoner in a jail, and from forced prostitution to mass starvation, Khan writes of the lives that history would rather ignore, creating a brilliant gash in the narrative structure historically manufactured. With sometimes soft and often courageous moments of humanity amidst gut-wrenching pain, she takes her readers through the many days that make a life, on prison islands where people understand what it means to be fearful of hope, and still have the will to carry on another day, another breath.
Uzma Aslam Khan’s historical novel is set in the Andaman islands in the mid-twentieth century, when it functioned as penal colony for prisoners of the British empire. It follows two siblings, whose father is sent to the islands as a convict, and chronicles the upheaval in their lives when Japanese forces occupy the island. The novel, which is partly based on real stories that Khan excavated, also explores the lives of women prisoners on the island.
Uzma’s narrative moves back and forth to different years and characters much like the relentless barrage of waves hitting the islands. Each of her characters, be it the daring survivor Aye, a broken Haider Ali, the drug-damaged father of Aye, vulnerable Shakuntala or the mysterious prisoner 218D, is crafted meticulously.
Nomi reminds one of Anne Frank and the similarities between the two teenagers caught in the cauldron of a brutal war only go on to ratify the truth that devastation of war doesn’t discriminate. They may be on different continents and under different oppressors but their agony and pain is disturbingly similar.
Language remains the strongest character in Uzma’s narrative — reflecting extreme pain of loss and helplessness at one time and the cold-blooded brutality of the killings at another. Her words play with light and darkness to transport the reader to the gloomy days and blood-stained alleys, so much so that one can actually smell the stench of blood and gore.
The triumph of Uzma’s book is that it straps you into your seat and makes you ride the rollercoaster for yourself so that you are jolted out of any pity or derision you may feel, and shaken into a sense of genuine empathy. Every stupid, horrific question of ‘why didn’t you’ and ‘why did you’ is efficiently invoked, comprehensively slain and feminism modeled as a way to stay breathing in the face of war and nationalistic dehumanization. Unlike the Tumblr posts and comic gifs you may have ignored at your peril, this book shows far more than it tells. After reading it, you really have no excuse for not getting it.
Ambitiously imagined and hauntingly alive, The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali writes into being the interwoven stories of people caught in the vortex of history, powerless yet with powers of their own: of bravery and wonder, empathy and endurance. Uzma Aslam Khan’s extraordinary new novel is an unflinching and intense page-turner, an epic telling of a largely forgotten chapter in the history of the subcontinent.
This is a story of our past, present, and, unless we change, our future.
What do I mean by change? Change is an hourly, meditative practice. The empathy you speak of, it has to be cultivated, to become a habit, through what I can best describe as a process of radical inclusion: of those who are profiled and policed because of race, religion, class, caste, nationality, refugee status, immigrant status, sexuality, gender. Of course, this isn’t radical inclusion; it’s just inclusion. In my book, one of my characters says ‘the opposite of peace is not war. The opposite of peace is inertia.’ If we could normalise inclusion, so that it doesn’t seem radical, if we could overcome the inertia that keeps us from normalising inclusion, then ‘othering’ would not be so easy.
That us what the book tells us in its majestic sweep into an unknown parts of our history.