Moni Mohsin needs hardly any introduction in Pakistan as a columnist and journalist. She has now written her first novel, The End of Innocence, set in the fictitious Colewallah district in rural Punjab and which tells the story of Laila, a privileged child who becomes unwittingly involved with the sad fate of Rani, a servant girl. The story is framed by chapters narrated in the first person by the adult Laila in 2001. She has been unable to come to terms with events that took place 30 years ago – in 1971. The rest of the story is a flashback. Narrated in the third person, it tells a tale of personal and public loss: Laila and Rani struggle with a personal crisis while the country is embroiled in a vicious civil war culminating in the break up of Pakistan.
In 1971, Laila is eight and Rani fifteen. Laila is home with her parents in their elegant house at Sabzbagh in Colewallah district, while Sara, her 12-year-old sister, is away at school in Lahore. On visits to the haveli of their grandmother Sardar Begum in the nearby village of Kalanpur, Laila has often vied with Sara for Rani’s attention. Rani, the granddaughter of Sardar Begum’s maidservant, Kaneez, has grown up playing with Laila and Sara. But Laila feels increasingly excluded when Sara and Rani start sharing “grown-up secrets.” In 1971, Laila is eight and Rani fifteen. Laila is home with her parents in their elegant house at Sabzbagh in Colewallah district, while Sara, her 12-year-old sister, is away at school in Lahore. On visits to the haveli of their grandmother Sardar Begum in the nearby village of Kalanpur, Laila has often vied with Sara for Rani’s attention. Rani, the granddaughter of Sardar Begum’s maidservant, Kaneez, has grown up playing with Laila and Sara. But Laila feels increasingly excluded when Sara and Rani start sharing “grown-up secrets.”
Laila takes advantage of Sara’s absence to cement her friendship with Rani. Rani longs to see the film Heer Ranjha at the local cinema. To please her, Laila persuades her imperious grandmother, Sardar Begum, to accept an invitation from the District Commissioner to a private showing at the local cinema. The flashback to 1971 opens with the words which become central to the plot, “Perched on the edge of a car seat, Rani and Laila hurtled towards a love story.” Sardar Begum, who belongs to another time and era, as does her home, her car, and her antique servants, is duly scandalised by the film. Laila finds its fat hero and heroine rather comic, but Rani is enchanted. Later, she tells the bewildered Laila: “I wish I was Heer.” The innocent Rani’s pursuit of this romantic dream is portrayed with great sensitivity, as is Laila’s unwitting role in Rani’s subsequent fate. Soon, through their games and their conversations, Laila discovers Rani’s secret: that Rani has met a boy she loves. Rani makes the poignant revelation, “‘When I’m with him, I’m not Rani, the servant girl. I become someone else. Someone who matters. Like you or Sara.’
But you do matter,’Laila protested. ‘You matter to me.’
‘I matter to you as Rani who lives in Kalanpur. I don’t matter to you in school with all your friends who come in cars, or when you go to the cinema in Lahore, or when you’re sitting in a hotel eating ice-cream. Do I?’ She gave Laila a little shake and turned away. ‘You don’t understand. I wish you were older.’
Laila’s eyes widened in alarm. Had she said something wrong? Had she been found wanting? Was Rani wishing that she could speak to Sara instead of her?”
The novel provides a vivid portrait of the fictitious Colewallah district, its hierarchy, class structures and the slow intrusion of the modern world. Laila’s grandmother epitomises a more traditional era, but she too has defied the orthodox, when she, as a young widow, insisted on taking charge of the family property. She also gave her son, Tariq, the best of education. Tariq has a strong social and political conscience, as has his well-travelled urban wife, Fareeda, the daughter of a diplomat. Fareeda’s stylish home, her brisk, efficient no-nonsense air provides a marked contrast with Sardar Begum’s antique haveli and her ponderous ways. Both are united by their compassion and their concern for others.
Fareeda and Tariq are vocal in their criticism of the military action in East Pakistan to the ire of Colonel Butt at the nearby cantonment. Considering the magnitude of the carnage, there seems to be a curious lack of passion in these discussions which simply culminate in polite disagreement, but the book does present many different perspectives of the conflict. This includes the very real fears of a family servant that his soldier-son in East Pakistan has been killed.
Inevitably, Laila spends a great deal of her time listening or talking to the servants though she does not always receive satisfactory answers to her questions. She also learns of the tragic tale of Rani’s widowed mother, Fatima who subsequently married the violent and insidious Mashooq, as an act of despair. However, the unsuspecting Laila has no inkling of the dark labrynths inhabited by adult emotions. She knows nothing of the scars that the reprehensible Mashooq carries. She is also unaware of the resentments and rage that have built up in Sister Clementine, the senior nun at a nearby convent, because she has been slighted by Fareeda. Soon Laila finds herself caught up in events beyond her control but for which she blames herself.
The novel also provides a glimpse of colonial history and fading lifestyles, through the character of Hester Bullock, an English friend of Laila’s parents. Hester belongs to that lost breed, Punjab’s white settlers who farmed huge tracts of land and chose to stay on after Partition. She presents Laila with a gift which leads to more sibling rivalry between Sara and Laila and so increases Laila’s isolation.
The End of Innocence is an enjoyable novel which brings another era to life and reflects upon that fateful year which changed the shape of Pakistan and its history.
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