A penal colony, a nameless woman prisoner, a world war, three children and a hen. From this miscellany is fashioned award-winning Pakistani author Uzma Aslam Khan’s fifth book, The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali. The lively red cover belies the gravitas of the story that begins thus: ‘The soldiers arrived on a morning in spring when the sea was unswollen and everyone said they were here to save them.’ It is 1942 and the soldiers are the Japanese army that ousted the British from the Andamans. But far from saving anyone, the military occupation opens a fresh chapter of horrors for the islanders, among whom are the ex-convict Haider Ali, his wife Fehmida—who was shipped along with him—and their children, Zee and Nomi. The siblings, as well as their friend Aye, are ‘Local Borns’.
‘Everyone who once lived in the jail now lived in a time when all times were simultaneously present.’ Though focussed on the war years, the narrative pieces together the variegated history of the islands, from the perspectives of a wide range of characters. Thus we learn of Britain’s discovery of the Andamans and their creation, in the 19th century, as a psychological gulag—though it was called a ‘prisoner paradise’—to which those convicted of participating in the mutiny of 1857 were banished. Among the first arrivals was the Burmese boy Aye’s great-grandfather who ‘cleared the forest and swamps to build this village, and on his release, the village continued to grow around him.
It was where some of the most fertile soil on the colony was farmed. It was also where malaria caused the most deaths.’ Aye’s father was one among the thousands on whom the illegal pharmaceutical trials of quinine were forcibly conducted. ‘First came the chills, accompanied by vomiting. Soon after the urine turned black.’ Insanity followed, but this too was only one among the innumerable atrocities that happened on the islands. The story details them: the arrival of shiploads of manacled convicts as the independence struggle on the mainland gained momentum, the abysmal living conditions, the hard labour that bent the backs of men like Haider who ‘was chained to the oil mill in the courtyard of the jail, grinding mustard seed,’ the hunger strikes in protest, the force feedings that went horribly wrong. Meanwhile, for the three children, there was school and Mr Campbell, the teacher who ‘would say there was a civil war in Spain and a Depression in America and pretend there was nothing happening in India.’
That plenty was going on became evident with the arrival of a shipload of new prisoners and the introduction of a most fascinating character in the novel—a woman prisoner ‘whose ribs were like fish on the beach after birds had pulled out the meat’. Her name is never revealed but her crime we get to know: shooting a British police officer. A burdened history, an emotionally charged story. Strength on strength. Hopelessness, sorrow but also courage. Above all, resilience. Though rigorously researched, the dry bones of historical facts never show through, so richly are they enfleshed with credible characters, lyrical descriptions of nature and a powerful narrative flow. This fiction is the new truth we need to know.