Book Review: Burnt Shadows

“Everyone just wants to tell you what they know about Islam, how they know so much more than you do, what do you know, you’ve just been a Muslim all your life”- Abdullah

The book opens to a scene where a man is unshackled and stripped naked of his orange jumpsuit. He wonders, ”’How did it come to this?”

Written by Kamila Shamsie, the Burnt Shadows is about the history of two families united by world tragedies. The protagonist, Hiroko Tanaka, is a Japanese school teacher residing in Nagasaki, who is in love with a German, Konrad Weiss. Hiroko’s life is surrounded by a father who is branded as a traitor for ranting against the Imperial King of Japan, and love of language which transformed in love for Konrad. But in August 1945, Hiroko sees a blinding white light from the balcony of her home. Just few seconds ago she was engaged to Konrad and was looking at him from her balcony. And then the white light passes through her, pushing her on the floor, leaving a burnt shadow of her mother’s kimono, a pair of birds on her back, a mark of Hibakusha that stays with her forever.

Heartbroken, Hiroko finds solitude in Delhi, with Konrad’s family. His step sister Isle and her husband James Burton welcome her into their lives. And again, destiny shows mercy on her life by introducing Sajjad Ashraf, James’s Muslim employee. Both of them agree to teach each other their respective language, Japanese and Urdu. The hosts discourage her from this alliance, but she eventually marries him. But Sajjad has to leave Delhi and move to Pakistan, because Partition has taken away his ”Dilli” from him, just like Nagasaki was taken away from Hiroko.

In Pakistan’s tinsel town Karachi, the saga continues with Hiroko-Sajjad’s son, Raza Konrad Ashraf, whose passion for languages makes him a victim of a naive decision. He undertakes an adventure to a militant training camp in Afghanistan, which changes his life forever. Under the disguise of Raza Hazara, he travels with Abdullah, an Afghan who drives truck with dead Russian soldier painted on it. To rescue his son, Sajjad gets himself killed and leaves Raza with a lifelong guilt. He joins a paramilitary organisation to serve their operations in Afghanistan. Along with him, Isle-Harry’s son, Henry Burton also joins the same brigade. Hiroko decamps to New York with Isle and Henry’s daughter Kim, under the impression that Raza works in a hotel in Dubai.

The final lap of the book is about Raza helping his friend Abdullah, who is now under FBI’s observation, cross the American border to reach Iran. Will Raza be able to fulfill his friend’s wish? The world where Islamophobia rules, will he be able to make a difference?

Burnt Shadows is what we can call a melancholy saga of two families, struck with major world tragedies, from bombing in Nagasaki to India – Pakistan partition, Cold war and 9/11. Hiroko has lived through all but never blames any single sect. She never says that because of Americans I lost my first love, and because of Muslims I might lose my son. She is practical in her approach and never judges a person because she knows how the world works.

The book talks about many things that we generally don’t know. ‘Hibakushas”, Japanese people who were branded due to nuclear bombings and are discriminated because of marks on their body of the dreadful historic event, the assumption of Americans in Pakistan as CIA right after Partition, the paramilitary services which aim to restore balance in the already destroyed world of Afghanistan. Each and every character is very real. Hiroko, a practical woman whose has witnessed gruesome wars all her life. Isle, who now simply wants to enjoy her old age by drinking scotch and smoking. Kim, who suffers from Islamophobia after 9/11. Henry and Raza, who work with paramilitary but don’t want to follow their ways.

“What wouldn’t I do if I thought it was effective?” Harry muses. “Almost nothing. Children are out of bounds. Rape is out of bounds. But otherwise … what works, works.” Tellingly, he asks not to be quoted to his daughter.

Overall, Burnt Shadows is a good read. You might face some difficulty while reading between the lines. The plotting is a little splotched in some areas, but the story line is amazing. The twists are something which will melt your heart. In one second, everything is normal and when you turn the page, something happens that makes you pause for few seconds to register the change. What we really loved in the book is how no judgement was passed on people for being a Muslim or for fighting for their country, simple human nature with straight facts is what kept us engaged thoroughly.

There were no judgements, just pure sadness and love.

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