Scary stories from a lovely place
I expected Azhar Abidi’s ‘Twilight’ to be a disappointing read. I had not heard of it or the author. I grabbed it in a moment of freedom at the library. It looked boring, cliched even. Just another book about the far East and Islam for a Western audience.
And it was disappointing, initially at least. I nearly put it down half a dozen times becuase it seemed unremarkable. But then, something changed. It wasn’t the writing. From the outset Abidi’s hand is delicate as it paints sensual images of places and relationships far from my own. Despite this, there was at times, a clumsiness in the expression that confused me. Abidi is obviously a good writer, but occasionally words seemed ill-chosen.
And it wasn’t the content that changed. The story was interesting enough without being riveting. The characters were archetypes of other characters in other books written about India or Pakistan or Sri Lanka. The fierce mother. The distant son. The familial servants. The daring lovers. The redemptive grandchild. The courageous guerillas.
I liked that Abidi left the issue of poverty mostly alone. There were references, but it was only a smattering in the distance of the story. For someone who studied Mulk Raj Anand’s ‘Untouchable’ and devoured everything written by Arundhati Roy and Kalheid Hosseini, this made reading ‘Twilight’ far more pleasant.
The title, ‘Twilight’, references the last years of life of Bilqis, the main character, and the climax of each relationship in her life. It is also about the cessation of youth for Samad, Bilqis’ son and love for Mumtaz, Bilqis’ servant. In the background is the war between India and Pakistan and the change this effects on the landscape of the city of Karachi. It is about how life’s strongest memories are formed when one is young, and no matter what comes in mid-life, it is these moments that endure in one’s subconscious.
And I think it is here in the notion of “twilight” and all this means in the book that the brilliance lies. As the book quickly winds on and moves from Karachi, to Melbourne, to the Himalayas and back to Karachi, it harries and reaches dizzying levels of beauty and profundity. This change snuck up on me. In a particularly illuminating passage about death I found my eyes pricked with tears which flowed freely in the last pages of the book.
Although I couldn’t relate to the cultural mores of religion or the war, I did understand the depth of importance of ones childhood. The portrait of loss when one leaves home to make a new one in a vastly different place was crisp and clear. ‘Twlight’ is a sad book, but it is truthful, and perhaps that’s better than it being happy. Perhaps that brings some hope.
I finished reading ‘Twilight’ in a rare moment of peace whilst both children napped. Instead of enjoying my solitude with tea, biscuits and housework, I felt compelled to sneak in and lie down next to Silas. I wanted to breathe as he did, listen to the rise and fall of his chest and be near his potent youth. ‘Twlight’ has frightened me about aging, but it has also explained it to me.