One of the questions I ask myself when I’m starting a new review is, “What was this book about?” Shamal Days, by Sabin Iqbal, is harder than many to answer this question about.
It is, fundamentally, a very sad book. Sad is too simplistic a word – this book aches, almost every page of it, not just with sorrow but with a distinct sort of self-loathing rooted in disgust. The emotion permeates each line, regardless of whether or not it’s addressing it directly; it is a convincing depiction of the way unhappiness can seep into one’s very worldview.
Shamal Days is a personal drama that takes place against the backdrop of larger world events. It is about politics, of both the international and office varieties (petty, messy, and unfortunately consequential). It is about sex (illicit). It is about immigrant life in the Gulf (Malayali.) Most of all, it is about Abbas, our protagonist with a finger in all of these pies. The novel jumps back and forth between different periods in Abbas’ life, distinguishable largely by which newspaper he works at and the degree of his unhappiness.
The question then becomes this: is Abbas a strong enough character to carry the weight of nearly the entire novel? I’m tempted to say yes. Iqbal paints a vivid picture of Abbas, and skilfully shows us the subtle differences in his character/personality at different points in his life.
That’s not to say that we never stray from Abbas and his long, often cynical internal monologues. Shamal Days frequently veers off track – often without warning – into the backstories of supporting characters, in a way that’s very reminiscent of the Panchatantra, not to sound geriatric.
A character – some cousin or colleague or love interest of Abbas’s, invariably – is mentioned by name, and the following several paragraphs are dedicated to cousin / colleague / love interest’s childhood, personal motivation, and the sequence of events that brought them here. Not every tangent is equally interesting, let alone relevant.
It’s not just with side characters – this book has no issue at all with taking long breaks from plot to go into the very in-depth descriptions and details of Abbas’s lifestyle back in the day, his lifestyle now, the people he was with, the city itself, the passers-by, and so on and so forth. It sets a languid pace, but the returns to the main road are often abrupt and at times confusing.
Many characters, many plots
What draws one to the book is not really setting or the rest of the cast, though. There is a tight circle of characters at the centre of the book: Abbas, Ratnam, Matt, briefly Sara – whose arcs overlap and intersect, forming the basis of Abbas’s neuroses, and so of the novel itself.
Iqbal has an affinity for sketching out the contours of his characters as dynamic beings. Their relationships to sex – Abbas and Ratnam in particular – are a good example. Present-day Abbas is a deeply unhappy man, plagued by loneliness and regret. He is also extremely obsessed with sex, except it’s in a festering, congealed sort of way – the sex drive has not escaped the disease that is his loneliness and insecurity.
In fact, we see that Abbas’s relationship to sex has been in many ways shaped by loneliness, insecurity, and shame, right from his university days. The result is a character whom one both strongly sympathises with and is simultaneously a little disgusted by.
Ratnam, on the other hand, a woman fully aware of her own desirability and in that sense quite the opposite of Abbas, appears to take a much more instrumental (yet not quite dispassionate) view of sex. Still, this barely, if at all, interferes with her deep love for her husband Bhaskar, which is written with a sensitivity that lingers well after the last page.
The Abbas-Ratnam-Bhaskar circle is easily the most compelling plotline running in the novel, and I would have loved to see a little more of it – and a little less of, say, the rest of the cast, especially the minor characters who more often than not don’t end up contributing much to the novel as a whole and, in most cases, could have been left out.
The other wing of the novel – that of national and international politics, neatly led into via Abbas’s work in the newspapers – also holds up well, if not nearly as well as the personal drama. Abbas’ sboss at Gulf Mirror, and, soon enough Abbas himself, become entangled in the need of the State to display a certain image of their past and, by extension, their present and future – in other words, to find themselves a foundation of prestige. There’s a lot to dissect there from a theoretical / political science perspective, although Iqbal is a little less interested in this than I am.
While Abbas’s younger self is certainly happier, Iqbal does a great job of maintaining a certain continuity to his character, so that each version of him follows from the last. A young Abbas, in his early days at the Gulf Mirror, still views the world with an undertone of the same disgust that becomes so pronounced in his middle age. His penchant for deep, pedestalising love for other people is what later rots into the gruelling regret and loneliness that fatigues him later.
This newspaper eventually folds, and it is hinted that Abbas himself was lucky not to follow it down the drain (although it is clear that in nearly every way short of the physical, he did). Iqbal takes his time telling the story, but as he does, the way Abbas changes as a person is drawn with a deft hand.
A little less deft, in places, is the writing itself. Perfectly functional for the most part, there are places where the wording seems awkward, like a bad translation, although this does little to take away from the impact of the passage. Iqbal is also prone to repeating himself in places – serial offenders include tired phrases like “luscious breasts” and “shapely buttocks”, both of which seem to be trotting out on every other page (I would have liked to use a pun here, but it seems Abbas is not really a leg man).
Too much repetition
The sentiment is understandable, but one wishes that Abbas’s desire could have been explored with a little more variety. Indeed, there’s a section in the beginning of chapter 20 where the same few lines are repeated almost word-for-word a baffling number of times – and this tendency, in combination with the Panchatantra-style tangents described above, might make a more cynical reader wonder at times whether he was trying to hit a word count. Iqbal is also very fond of time jumps, not all of which quite stick on landing. But these are, for the most part, smaller quibbles; –overall, Shamal Days sails smoothly.
The opening quotes to this book emphasise most on the emotionality of it, and on the sheer, colossal loneliness it tries to depict. Rightly so; the novel may open with a gruesome Palestinian suicide-bombing, and the first chapter even refers to an interview with Saddam Hussein, but these large-scale political events all end up acting as scaffolding for the internal lives of a handful of people.
At times it feels as though even the character stories are scaffolding, and what the novel is really trying to do is paint a picture of a feeling. It does it well. A deeply emotional read, with an open, uncertain ending, Shamal Days may feel slightly tiring, but is nevertheless worth the investment.
Shamal Days: A Novel, Sabin Iqbal, HarperCollins India.