BOOK REVIEW: A Beggar at the Gate

Thalassa Ali is a relative newcomer to writing novels. "Beggar at the Gate" is the second book from her Paradise Trilogy which she has been writing on Victorian India. "A Singular Hostage" was the first part of this effort (which I have not had a chance to read yet) and the last book of the trio is expected to be out next year. "Beggar at the Gate" focuses on Lahore just after the death of Maharajah Ranjit Singh.

It will be of as much interest to Pakistanis as well as others interested in that part of the world. Thalassa herself is of English-American extraction and has lived in Pakistan for a number of years. Her late husband was a Pakistani and she knows our culture well. The flavors present in her work may already seem familiar to many of us. But most of all, in spite of the liberal nature of this work compared to our usually conservative mainstream, the sympathetic and positive image of Sufi Islam here is indeed noteworthy.

Surah Nur (Light) from the Holy Quran is the bed rock of this story from which "An olive, neither of the East nor of the West," describes very well the central character of Mariana Givens, an English girl caught between two cultures. Her presence in the midst of international and local intrigues and the emotional upheavals which ties her to a little boy, and his father and other members of the family of Shaikh Waliullah Khan Karakoyia makes for some interesting reading. Starting on a journey from Calcutta where she is ostracized by her own English community for having gone native and marrying one of the locals in Lahore, a marriage we learn that is yet to be consummated, and while protecting and taking care of the gifted child Saboor, Mariana is at once a target and the creator of much controversy. The author prepares the scenario quite well here as the reader feels Mariana's predicament while reading: "Ghulam Ali stared down at his knife, remembering what Dittoo had told him: that the English people seemed to abhor the young memsahib's marriage to Hassan Ali Khan, and as a consequence she had been suffering at their hands."

And it is in Lahore that Mariana faces many tests. There is the test of marriage consummation that she must overcome. She has to decide whether to leave Hassan or to stay with him. The civil war is on in Lahore's streets as Prince Sher Singh fights the forces of the Rani to claim Ranjit Singh's vacated throne. And in the background there is much British intrigue. Lahore is burning as its social degradation includes loot, plunder and mass killing. And in the midst of all this remains the sanctuary of Qamar Haveli inside which Mariana wants to reach to save herself from outside elements. But she finds only its locked doors and much violence in the streets outside.

It is here that Thalassa Ali's Beggar character emerges. "At last filthy and terrified, she crawled into the haveli's front door. Making herself as small as possible inside the folds of her chador, she reached out a dirty hand, palm up. "Alms," she croaked, "Alms for Allah." To find more in "Beggar at the Gate" one has to look at the Beggar character in three dimensions. First and foremost is in the obvious physical dimension where Mariana is seeking the sanctuary of Qamar Haveli to save her life from the chaos outside.

The second dimension is where she is trying to gain entry (in a symbolic manner) and find refuge from the prejudice and bigotry of her own people due to her marriage to the native Hassan. And last but not least is her uncertain love for Hassan and obvious attachment to little Saboor that also leading her to the gates of this building where his family resides and her eventual choices are made. And whichever is the author's true intent and without giving away the ending, the journey that Mariana embarks upon here is magical, mystical and almost sensual. - Ras H. Siddiqui (Thalassa Ali is having a book launch event for "A Beggar at the Gate" on January 23, 2005 at the Pakistan Mission to the UN, 8 East 65th Street between Madison and 5th Aves New York, New York, 10021)

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