the-south-asian Life & Times          October -December 2009



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The Wish Maker

By Ali Sethi
Riverhead Books

Reviewed by Sue Barker

Ali Sethi’s debut novel The Wish Maker is a compelling yet restrained prose about growing up in Pakistan in 1990s. For a first novel at age 24 – it is more than superb. If this is the voice of young, modern and moderate Pakistan – then the country has nothing to fear from its unwanted fundamentalist elements. Intellectually way ahead for his age, Ali Sethi is the son of prominent Pakistani journalists, Jugnu and Najam Sethi.

The story is set in Sethi’s hometown Lahore. A city of 7 million, Lahore is the cultural capital of Pakistan – a country, which for the most part of its 62 years of existence, has been ruled by military dictators.

The novel, spanning three generations of women in an urban, upper middle class family, all rebellious in their own way, is narrated by Zaki Shirazi, who grows up in a household of women — his conservative paternal grandmother; an outspoken and a headstrong journalist mother who is a liberal and a feminist; and his older by four years teenage cousin Samar. The Wish Maker is about these two cousins – a boy and a girl – Zaki and Samar - growing up and living in the same house in Lahore in 1990s. They have an informal and a friendly relationship with each other. Starting off as equals, their fates diverge – because of their gender and backgrounds. Samar’s parents live in the village, but she is growing up in a city, at her aunt’s place (Zaki’s paternal grandmother) who runs the household, and also with Zaki’s widowed mother. There is no male figure in the household. Zaki’s father, an officer in the Pakistan Air Force, died in a plane crash. Ali says "This is an unusual setting in an otherwise male-dominated environment. But this is not impossible or implausible – I know of many people who have been raised in households run entirely by women." Zaki grows up feeling a sense of deprivation because it sets him apart from his peers. But as he grows older he comes to realise he has a perspective and a take on life that is unique, which most of his contemporaries and peers don’t have. The book is about the disparities between the urban upper middle class life and rural life, and above all the existential crisis that exists in Pakistan today.

According to Sethi the title of the book The Wish Maker "refers to the ability to have and make wishes, and to pursue what one wants. In its broadest sense it refers to people’s changing idea of themselves – what we refer to as identity these days. In a place like Pakistan people don’t have identities to choose from – identities are imposed upon them. In Pakistan people’s desires are more fluid and are rapidly changing than in many other places."

Ali writes about the 1990s Lahore because he grew up in that decade. After a long spell of military rule, Pakistan had fair and free elections in the 90s – and people were excited about the changes that were happening. But the ineffective elected government did not last too long. It was followed by yet another decade of military rule, challenged this time by militancy, suicide bombings and assassinations. "The story is about people who live ordinary lives in extraordinary times", says Ali.

A highly readable book, it has a few slow moments – Zaki’s school years are a bit of a struggle for the reader. The only other issue I have is Ali’s use of the word ‘fantastic’ while referring to stories of partition. These were tragic and violent stories.

The Wish Maker is an impressive first-novel by a talented and a promising writer.


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