Pureland is a fictionalised narrative based on the tragic life of Dr. Abdus Salam, a Nobel Prize winning physicist who was excommunicated by the country of his birth and who spent his entire life in exile due to his religious affiliations. Within the first few pages, it is easy to understand that Pureland refers to Pakistan, and the city of Lorr is actually Lahore (naming the fictional town on the colloquial pronunciation).
What started as an engrossing and engaging read, soon turned out to be a drudgery to get through. Pureland is an ambitious piece of literature that could have easily been slotted with the likes of Rushdie and Mohsin Hamid. However, the endearing quality of the poetic prose that made me rave about the book in the first 150 pages soon turned out to be the reason I couldn’t wait to mark the book as read. Too much of something is never good.
Perhaps I am being too harsh since this is the author’s debut novel. If you see it through that lens, then without a doubt Pureland is at par with some of the current ‘bestsellers’. The first half of the book raised my expectations and I was sure of giving it nothing less than 5-stars. The reason for my disappointment has more to do with the editor than with the author. Said is an eloquent writer and has beautifully woven a tale of love, belonging and betrayal. The setting of the novel hits home. The India-Pakistan partition is a memory that will be etched into the minds of those who are long gone and the ones who haven’t even graced the Earth yet.
What is the book about?
The book starts with the narrator confessing to the crime of killing Dr. Salim Agha. Whether his confession is out of remorse or guilt is to be discovered in the course of his narration. He takes the reader on a journey – a journey of Dr. Agha’s life and the circumstances that led to the day of the assassination.
Back in his day, Salim was a child prodigy and his talent was recognised and honed by the feudal lord, General Khan. Through Salim’s childhood and then his schooling years, we are given a glimpse of the newly formed country, fresh from the partition. Class discrimination and politics were prevalent even then, but so was the dazzling night-life accompanied by expensive liquor.
It is during these years that Salim discovers his true identity, and falls in love with the General’s daughter. As the school-going boy progresses towards a young adult, he realises the charade he has been living all his life, compelling him to acknowledge his Ahmadi roots, with drastic results. A hasty dismal from the General and his daughter and Salim is on his way to the United States armed with a full-scholarship for one of the ivy leagues. If life for Salim had been unfair so far, he has a fresh set of hurdles to cross before he attains the prestigious doctorate degree.
While this is pretty much the crux of the story, we have shades of ISIS (the Caliphate), religious hatred, the environment of a snooty boarding school, difficulties faced by a genius trying to achieve his potential and of-course intense emotions of an unrequited love.
So what went wrong?
Unfortunately, a lot. The first 200 pages (out of 358) were beautifully crafted. The rising tension and the political situation kept me hooked on. However, post that mark the finesse in the writing went into a slump. I can count only 2-3 characters that had a distinct personality, others were just present in the background to be used as and when they were required in the story. The character development needed some work and more than their actions, their dialogues revealed the inner workings of their lives and mind. Instead of excessively focussing on the one-sided love story, Said could have easily spent more time in creating stronger characters. The last half of the book felt stretched and repetitive, the love-triangle felt forced and because of these let-downs the climax was a disappointment.
Read this book if you must. But I am eagerly waiting for Zarrar Said’s next work. A less ambitious story and a stronger editor is all that is needed to put him on the bestseller list.