This Truck has Got to be Special by Anjum Rana, Sameer Kulavoor, Hakeem Nawaz and Amer Khan

When Tara Books asked if I’d be interested in reviewing any of their new releases, I picked This Truck has Got to be Special, judging the book solely by the explosion of color and glitter on its cover. And oh, what a smart choice it was. TThGtbS is the story of Pakistani truck driver Chinar Gul, who’s finally paid off the loan for his vehicle; what better way to celebrate than having his truck newly decorated by his artist friend Zarrar? But not with any random designs in beige or oatmeal (or the more daring forest green or burgundy). Nope, this truck will be special.

(The gold bits on the cover are reflective, and super shiny.)

Author Anjum Rana, an interior designer by profession, writes on her website “…Pakistani Truck art is not only a legitimate and distinct folk art, but also represents the values and aspirations of vast majorities of Pakistanis”. The exuberant colors, the abundance of motifs, and the lavish application of glitter are all constituents of a deliberately flamboyant style that’s been honed over the years (some say it dates from the 1950s). Rana does a wonderful job of capturing Chinar Gul’s excitement and anticipation as he waits for his precious truck to be painted, and it’s all depicted without a hint of patronage.

Chinar Gul drives his truck along the Karakoram Highway, aka the Pakistan China friendship highway, aka the highest paved road in the world. It’s a tough life, albeit leavened with camaraderie with fellow drivers, and moments of stunning scenic beauty. As a poor young boy whose family could not send him to school, Chinar Gul worked as a truck cleaner (a”cleander” in the local dialect). When old enough to get a license, he began driving his boss’s truck,  becoming a driver-cleander-mechanic all in one. And now, after 30 years of being on the road, and driving his truck for 5 years, he finally owns the truck outright. The truck is his home; painting it makes it welcoming, “like a  decorated bride who is waiting for you at home”, says Gul.

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The progress on the truck’s decorations runs parallel to the story of Chinar Gul’s life. The truck artist, Zarrar, is a truck painting ustaad (maestro), who, like Chinar Gul, began as a lowly assistant at a very young age, but who now has complete control over his art. Chinar Gul doesn’t tell him what to paint on the truck, other than two requests–on the front, the words “Mashallah’, the name of God, to keep the driver safe, and on the back, “Pappu yaar tung na karr”– an admonition to those driving behind him which translates into Pappu, Man [dude!], don’t hassle me. Someone on Etsy make a decal, quick.

After much deliberation, Zarrar decides to paint partridges and mountains on the side panels, while the wheels and the bumper will be decorated with reflector tape (chammak patti), disco style. The cabin ceiling will be painted too, and the seats will be clad in multi-colored velvet, with applique lace and gold braid. The large painting on the rear of the truck is a joint decision requiring much deliberation. Chinar Gul’s wife asked for the portrait of her favorite singer, his older son for his cricket hero, and his younger son wanted an airplane. Read the book to find out what the final choice was 🙂

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Trucks on the Gilgit Skardu road. (Pic credit : By Hollern1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40240457)

The illustrations bring alive the setting– here’s Chinar Gul’s wife and children fishing for rainbow trout in Swat, and then there’s Gilgit’s bustling market, with a signboard for “Mobile Repair” cheek-by-jowl with soaring minarets. The truck designs are exuberant and fun–there’s much use of hot pink and fuchsia and parrot green, along with plenty of gold. And the story itself is at least as appealing as the visuals, with Rana’s respect and affection for this art form imbuing every page of the book. In all, I was struck by what a lovely team effort TThGtbS represents, with two Pakistani truck painters, Hakeem Nawaz and Amer Khan, providing the truck designs, a Pakistani writer Anjum Rana working with a Mumbai-based illustrator Sameer Kulavoor for the story, and a London-based graphic designer pulling it all together. Quite fitting then, that this California-based blogger loved it to bits.

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Giveaway and review: The Geometry of God

I’ve just read one of my best novels  of 2010– Uzma Aslam Khan’s The Geometry of God.  If you are interested religion, Islam, philosophy, feminism, evolution, Pakistan, religious fundamentalism,  erotica, or just in some fantastically intelligent and beautiful writing, READ THIS BOOK.

I have two copies of this book, and much as I love it, need only one. So I’m giving away the spare.  (Giveaway details after the review.)

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Given that most books with the slightest connection to Islam feature covers with veiled women baring their kohl-lined eyes for the curious outsider’s gaze, The Geometry of God’s black-and-white jacket depicting an animal skeleton is probably fair warning that Uzma Aslam Khan’s Pakistan is going to get in the way of the sensationalized portrayals of the country so beloved by mainstream (Western) media. In her third book, Aslam gives us a female paleontologist, charged writing about the erotic, and a profound inquiry into the often-vexing relationship between faith and reason. Add to these riches the voice of a blind child “taste-testing” words, and The Geometry of God becomes that rare creature, a novel where the urgency of the message is matched by the verve of the narrative.

Eight-year old Amal, accompanying her paleontologist grandfather Zahoor on a dig, finds the fossilized ear bone of a dog-whale—a discovery that revolutionizes theories about mammalian evolution in the region. On the same day, Amal’s younger sister Mehwish goes blind. Each event has profound consequences for both siblings. Amal, who grows up to be a paleontologist, takes up the task of interpreting the visual world for her sister. Mehwish, simultaneously limited and liberated by her blindness, develops a unique relationship with the physical world, even as the siblings befriend Noman, the son of a creationist politician.

The intelligent, well-educated Noman is charged by his father to use the Quran to logically “prove” scientific laws false. Bound by family duty, Noman overcomes the demands of his conscience and his intellect to author revisionist texts that successfully remove all references to Newton, Archimedes and Einstein. But the fundamentalists seek to energize their political campaign by targeting living rather than dead scientists, and no-one suits their purpose better than Amal’s flamboyant, outspoken grandfather. Noman, designated to be the architect of Zahoor’s denouncement, must decide where his loyalties lie.

The Geometry of God is all about angles, planes and perspectives. At the literary level, Khan shows us the same event through the eyes of different characters, demonstrating the inadequacy of a unilateral vision. At the thematic level, the central preoccupation of this text is questioning how we know what we know–about the physical world, about ourselves, and especially about God. While religious fundamentalists believe in a single interpretation, Khan describes two approaches to God–first, through khayal, thought which comes from intellect and zauq, an experience of joy achieved through the senses. Khan’s work is in fact a perfect synthesis of both approaches; we understand her universe as much through the sensuous in her writing as by her thoughtful description and analyses.

So, to sum up, this novel concerns itself with epistemology, aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, logic… yes, Khan’s canvas is philosophy itself.  The novel’s themes are further revealed in the author’s playful, luminous use of language. Mehwish “sees” words sideways so as to reveal hidden meanings; paleontology hence becomes “pale into logic”, dog-whale “dog-wail”, perilous “peri less”, commander “come under”, and promiscuous “promise kiss”. Despite the obvious temptation, there is no gimmickry; in fact, the author’s intelligence, imprinted on every page like a watermark, blooms into full color when delving into Mehwish’s strange and lovely inner world.

“I have questions in my head like Amal in traffic lines are crooked cars are over taking left and right. It is as noisy as the silence when she leaves me in a place I do not know.”

The Geometry of God is set in the seventies and eighties—an era when the CIA was pumping millions into the country to combat Russians in Afghanistan, and when the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq was gaining power on a platform of Islamic orthodoxy. The book may be (and probably will be) read by many as a primer to the growth of fundamentalism in the region; to my mind, however, that is the least of what this gorgeous, complex stunner of a novel offers.

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This review appears in the current issue of Eclectica magazine as well as The Asian Review of Books.

If you’d like a copy, please  leave a comment here or email me, and I’ll randomly pick one person by the end of the month. I’ll ship to anywhere in Canada or in the US. I would really really appreciate it if the winner would review this book too–work like this invariably never gets the audience it deserves.

The Geometry of God by Uzma Aslam Khan

Clockroot  Books, 2009

Genre: Literary Fiction

UPDATE: WINNER!!!!

The winner was chosen from the comments/email replies to my post. I sorted all the responses by date received and Ms. Internet picked a number. The winner is J.T.Oldfield!

I’ve emailed the winner; if I don’t hear back by the end of the week, I’ll pick another person. Thanks to all those who showed an interest in this book; I hope you will be able to get hold of a copy elsewhere.

  • Paperback: 386 pages