Of the Buddhas of Bamiyan and A God In Every Stone

In March 2001, the Buddhas of Bamiyan were blown up by the Taliban. Carved into the Hindu Kush mountains, the massive statues were considered among Asia’s most spectacular archaeological treasures; majestic but silent figures that saw and survived centuries of travellers and invaders. Today, all that remains of the Buddhas are the empty niches. But the blast revealed a secret that no one would have unearthed had the Taliban not destroyed the statues: behind the Buddhas were 50-odd painted Buddhist caves that contain examples of what is believed to the oldest example of oil painting ever. (These caves were painted between the 5th and 9th centuries. Oil painting is said to have been developed in Europe in the late 14th and 15th centuries.) The loss of the two Buddhas has also inspired a quest to find The Nirvana Buddha, which was described by a 7th century Chinese traveller as a massive, sleeping Buddha. As far as archaeologist Dr. Zemaryalai Tarzi is concerned, if the Chinese traveller was able to give accurate descriptions of the two standing Buddhas, then there’s no reason the man was concocting things when he wrote about an enormous, reclining Buddha. That here in the heart of war-scarred of Afghanistan, many in Bamiyan hold out hope of finding a Buddha of peace, the Nirvana Buddha, is like something out of a novel.

I kept thinking about the Buddhas of Bamiyan while reading Kamila Shamsie’s beautiful new novel, A God In Every Stone. It has an archaeologist as its hero, which may be one reason, but more importantly, the novel is pivoted upon a quest for something similar to the Nirvana Buddha in that it too shimmers elusively between legend and history.

There is a lot of history in A God In Every Stone, but aside from a few historical incidents, there’s little by way of fact. It unfolds between 1914 (just before the start of World War I) and 1930 (when the Qissa Khawani Bazaar massacre took place in Peshawar). Vivian Rose Spencer is a young woman who dreams of being an archaeologist at the start of the novel and by the end, she’s achieved that particular feat. Her dream is one that she has inherited from another — to find a circlet that Emperor Darius of Persia gave to his subject, Scylax of Caria. Scylax was sent by the emperor to follow the course of the Indus river and he started his journey somewhere near modern-day Peshawar.

Scylax was real and his journey is fact. The circlet, however, is real only in the world of A God In Every Stone. Vivian first hears of the circlet when her father’s friend and Turkish archaeologist Tahsin Bey tells her Scylax’s story. For Tahsin Bey, Scylax is a fascinating figure, not just because of his travels but because ultimately, Scylax chose to side with his people and stood against the Persian emperor despite being awarded marks of honour like the circlet. With the Ottoman Empire tottering, Tahsin Bey, who has some Armenian blood in him, feels a certain kinship with Scylax.

We take from the Empire what it has to give — but in the end, our loyalties are with the people we loved first, love most deeply. As Scylax ended his days writing a heroic account of Carian rebel prince Heraclides, so one day I’ll write of my Armenian cousins, the ones braver than me who lived their life in rebellion regardless of the cost.

Vivian’s tentative love for Tahsin Bey and the Turkish archaeologist’s dreams of finding the circlet of Scylax are both interrupted by World War I. With fierce patriotism consuming Britain, Vivian struggles to find her footing in this changed world where she is only “almost” as good as a son to her father who regrets he doesn’t have a soldier to send to the front. The same man had encouraged Vivian to go to Turkey to work in an archaeological dig, dismissing social conventions that suggested it would be improper for a young woman to do so, needs her to compensate for not being a man. Having grown up nourished by her father’s approval and encouragement, Vivian tries to live up to his expectations by working as a VAD nurse. When he’s proud that she’s “helped” by speaking to a gentleman from the War Office about Turkey, it’s a source of comfort and relief to her even though she knows that in the course of her conversation, she has betrayed Tahsin Bey’s confidence.

Surrounded by dying young men at work, Vivian’s only talisman is a postcard from Tahsin Bey that has miraculously made it to London. In it, he wishes the Spencer family well and mentions that he longs to go to Peshawar, to find the circlet of Scylax. Soon enough, dreaming of Tahsin Bey isn’t protection enough against the horrors of lethal war wounds and Vivian suffers a nervous breakdown. This is when Vivian’s mother steps in and presents herself as a bulwark between Vivian and her father. When she asks Vivian what the young woman would really like to do with her life, Vivian says she wants to go to Peshawar. Much to Vivian’s surprise, her mother doesn’t rebuke her. Instead, she says she’ll make sure that Vivian is able to do just that.

On the train from Karachi to Peshawar, Vivian isn’t the only traumatised person making their way to Peshawar. There’s also Qayyum Gul of the 40th Pathans, coming home after almost dying in battle. In Peshawar, a city that’s like a constellation made up of different travellers’ and invaders’ routes, both Vivian and Qayyum look for ways to escape the miseries with which Britain’s World War efforts have left them. However, their paths are very different. Vivian is in Peshawar to fulfill Tahsin Bey’s dream. Entirely by chance, she finds an assistant in a boy named Najeeb, who turns out to be Qayyum’s brother. Qayyum’s mission is to find his place in civilian life, away from the battleground and in the middle of the turbulence arising from a British colony developing a sense of identity that the British view as a threat.

While Qayyum sifts through different political ideas to reach a better understanding of himself as a Pathan rather than a British soldier (which is how he had seen himself for years), his brother Najeeb is introduced to another facet of their identity through Vivian: Peshawar’s history. She tells Najeeb stories of Greek explorers and Chinese travellers that fascinate the young boy and give him a sense of how his home contains much more than the history that he’s been told and taught. Vivian teasingly dubs him the Herodotus of Peshawar and Najeeb begins dreaming of being an archaeologist who will dig for stories and artefacts like Vivian does.

Divided into two parts, the first section of A God Every Stone goes from Labraunda in Turkey, to London and then settles down in Peshawar. It covers approximately a year, at the end of which Vivian returns to England. When Book II opens, about 10 years have passed. Najeeb is now Indian Assistant at the Peshawar Museum, writing to Vivian (who teaches at the University of London) to tell her that he thinks he’s found the site where the circlet of Scylax is buried. Meanwhile, Qayyum has joined Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s non-violent movement against British rule. Fittingly for a novel that begins with Scylax, a loyal but proud servant of an empire, the climax of A God In Every Stone is set in Peshawar’s Street of Storytellers where forces of the empire clash with subjects who had earlier willingly volunteered to fight alongside the British.

Shamsie’s novel is one of those rare books that you wish were longer. It’s tempting to imagine her lingering a little longer in Turkey, when Tahsin Bey and Vivian are out of Victorian society’s reach and able to steal a few discreet and achingly proper moments. Najeeb’s character leaps from child to man gracefully, but it’s dissatisfying. The reader is left to imagine how his formative years were spent and how his childhood fascination for history acquired the patina of professional ambition. In the intervening years between Book I and Book II, the relationship between Najeeb and Qayyum goes from awkward to loving, despite Qayyum’s distaste for all things British and Najeeb’s sense of gratitude for the British love for history. These details are touched upon, but lightly. A God In Every Stone doesn’t seem incomplete, but it does leave you wondering about the parts of these characters’ lives that Shamsie hasn’t written for us. As it stands, the novel is a taut page-turner that only gives in to flabby and romanticised indulgence near the end. Until then, the novel moves briskly, elegantly balancing plot and lyricism.

It’s no surprise that Shamsie sculpts her major characters skilfully. Every page, every sentence offers an opportunity to see through Vivian, Qayyum or Najeeb’s eyes. As a result, not only does the reader enjoy a communion with the characters, the city of Peshawar and the things that happen in it are seen from different perspectives and they come together like images in a flipbook. But even those who appear only briefly in A God In Every Stone are given some wonderful moments. Take for instance, the rather slimy Remmick whom Vivian uses but can’t really outwit. Then there’s Vivian’s mother who seems to be an unremarkable, conservative woman until she decides that her daughter clearly can’t fight for herself. “How quickly everything that was inconceivable for a woman has become her duty. Isn’t it miraculous that competence has sprung up in us in the exact shape of men’s needs?” she tells Vivian when the latter tells her that working as a nurse is her duty. Or Qayyum’s friend’s father, a proud Pashtun farmer whose son is killed in a tribal feud: “An extra pair of hands is more useful to me than another boy dead in the hills. Did you really think I expected you to go up there to have your throat slit before you even got your knife out of your waistband? Don’t look at me like an idiot.”

What may rest a little less comfortably is Shamsie’s decision to ignore the negative aspects of colonial archaeological expeditions, ranging from unwitting damage to looting as well as the prevalent tendency of the early 20th century to privilege European history over Oriental antiquity. There’s also her clear disdain for the burqa. Not only does Vivian get a fair number of lines describing how stifling and uncomfortable the burqa is, none of the Peshawar women who enjoy the author’s affections cover themselves up. They are as atypical of the society in which they live as Vivian is of Victorian Britain with her short hair and her singlehood. Few in A God In Every Stone conform completely to a type, which is what makes the novel such an enjoyable read. In fact, the lack of conformity to stereotype is an important theme in the novel — historically, it’s held has the reason that the British reacted as violently as they did when faced with the Pashtun Khudai Khidmatgar. They didn’t expect the Pashtuns to remain non-violent, certainly not when faced with machine guns, tanks and bayonets.

The longing for a little more of A God In Every Stone comes from wanting to spend more time with Shamsie’s characters in the old Peshawar that she’s imagined so beautifully in the novel. This is how Najeeb as a young archaeologist sees the city:

What he most loves in Peshawar is the proximity of the past. All around the broken bowl of the Peshawar Valley his glance knows how to burn away time. So in a single day he might encounter the Chinese monk Fa-Hien throwing flowers into the Buddha’s alms bowl at Gor Khatri while recalling the eight elephants who with their united strength could not drag the alms-bowl away from the monastery; the Kushan king Kanishka laying the foundation for the Great Stupa which the Buddha had prophesied he would build; the Mughal Emperor Babar, seated on the back of an elephant, hunting rhinos in the swampy marshland where later his descendants would create gardens; the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh standing on the heighs of Bala Hisar Fort, surveying the city below through his one eye about which his foreign minister wrote, The splendour and luminosity of his single eye is so much that I have never dared to look at his other eye; and Scylax.

There’s a lovely circularity to A God In Every Stone, with Vivian discovering her love of history from Tahsin Bey’s stories and then telling similar tales to Najeeb and inspiring him to study archaeology. The mark of honour that was given to Scylax, one who was colonised, is an obsession of a Turkish man who is both coloniser and colonised, courtesy his mixed ancestry. As the circlet slips out of different hands and cultures, it leaves only a faint but persistent sense of absence that is nevertheless a powerful reminder of how remembering is a concerted, determined effort to not forget. There are also the concerted efforts to obscure history, like the massacre at the Street of Storytellers when the British opened fire on unarmed crowds and killed an estimated 400 people.

It wouldn’t be fair to reveal whether the fictional circlet of Scylax is ultimately found, but it’s chilling to think that there could be a future time in which all the accounts of the Buddhas of Bamiyan will seem like legends because the physical reality will show only the empty, carved recesses in the Hindu Kush mountains. And yet, there’s hope in the story that Shamsie tells in A God In Every Stone because just the memory of the circlet is enough to inspire the curiosity, centuries after its disappearance. And that’s the curiosity that ensures the stories and the histories survive. Amen.

A God In Every Stone (Bloomsbury), Rs 394 at Flipkart and Amazon. If you want to see some photos of the places Shamsie writes of in the novel, click here.

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