In a poignant scene in Bina Shah’s A Season for Martyrs, an old man mentions the son he has lost to the British suppression of revolt in Sindh. It is 1943, and Sultan’s son, a rebellious Hur warrior, has been imprisoned in a raid and shot dead by the British. Later, when the trial of one of the main leaders—both religious and political—of Sindh begins, Sultan says to his friend, “…What, did you think I would mourn my son’s death? Don’t you know that my son is not dead? Martyrs live forever. That is why they are never afraid to die.”
Martyrdom is one of the things that binds Shah’s book together. Sindh is another. The poetry of Sindhi mystic and poet Shah Abdul Latif, in particular his collection of verses, Shah Jo Risalo, is yet another. Women, whether the Seven Queens of Risalo or the charismatic Benazir Bhutto, or even, in 2007, Salma and Ferzana and Ameena, trying in their own way to oppose or expose the ills of the Musharraf-led regime. Politics. Power. Land. History.
The primary story of A Season for Martyrs is that of Ali Sikandar, journalist and somewhat erratic student, caught between two worlds. One is of his estranged father, a Sindhi feudal, wealthy and well-connected, who has left his wife and children for another woman.
Another of the well-heeled, privileged and literate of Karachi and urban Pakistan: a world where Sindhi feudals are looked down upon, where rebellion—against the old order, against tyranny and oppression—is gathering force.
Emblematic of this rebellion is Benazir Bhutto, former PM, who returns to Pakistan in October 2007, readying for a bid to return to power. The story follows the life of Ali as he moves forward, from October to December of that fateful year, when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated.
And, interwoven with the story of Ali are brief episodes from lives, across the centuries, in Sindh. A mystic, deeply in love with his young wife, leaves her to go wandering—and ends up composing a great work of poetry. A man sets out to prevent the British from surveying Sindh under the pretext of transporting a gift of horses. A teenager joins the freedom movement. Another teenager, in 1943, becomes a jailer and finds himself playing chess with a man about to be executed.
All these stories, even when they seem disparate, eventually come together to present a compelling and vivid picture of Sindh and Sindhis. What makes Sindh, its language and culture, its people and its society, what they are. A land, not just of Sufi saints and feudal landlords who straddle the worlds of materialism and mysticism with seeming ease, but one far more complex. Its martyrs: from the men and women who died opposing the British, to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and 30 years after his death, his daughter.
What emerges is a fine novel, one which combines not just fact with fiction, but the personal with the political, the land with the people. It traverses time, it ranges in scope from a single soul to an entire people. And, with Bina Shah’s excellent writing and her skill as a storyteller, A Season for Martyrs becomes a haunting, memorable homage—to Sindh, to Bhutto, to the unnamed martyrs of a beautiful land.