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The ‘Real’ Pakistan in Uzma Aslam Khan’s The Geometry of God (2007): A Testimony of Blasphemy

Ana Ashraf


Since their widespread implementation and amendment in the 1980s by Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, blasphemy laws have been used in Pakistan to supress freedom of speech and to create an environment of terror, fear, and subjugation. Islamist political parties on the right side of the spectrum in alliance with the military establishment ensure that resistance against these laws both judicially and socio-politically becomes almost unfeasible. Those who do have a chance to be released from the charges are faced with death threats and often become prey to homicide or mob lynching. In such a scenario, literature can and must offer an alternative imaginative space where constructive dialogue is made possible and where some form of healing is offered to the victims. It, therefore, becomes incumbent to understand the way in which Uzma Aslam Khan’s The Geometry of God (2017) offers an alternative to the state led official narrative regarding issues of blasphemy, freedom of expression and creative thought in relation to Pakistani identity. The Geometry of God deals with Pakistani history in the 1980s and ’90s under Zia-ul-Haq’s influence and legacy from three different narrator-perspectives and the (mis)use of blasphemy laws in Pakistan with respect to Zahoor, a palaeontologist. The book challenges the mainstream narrative about blasphemy as well as Pakistani history as it unfolds, and presents, instead, an alternative ‘real’ image of modern Pakistan which is more complex, polyphonic, and diverse. In this respect, this article demonstrates how Khan creates a larger alternative literary testimony within the novel through three narrator-characters as well as by employing various stylistic features. Indeed, the novel both mirrors and challenges the ‘official’ court testimony where Zahoor is silenced by false accusations against him in the name of blasphemy. Through a detailed analysis of the three narrators, this article shows how memories of past events are represented, including the way in which the literary form of the novel foregrounds the act of testimony.

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People are always talking about a real Pakistan. The idea is ridiculous “Pray five times a day and be a real Pakistani! Speak Urdu and be a real Pakistani, or English and half as Pakistani! Well, here’s my answer. Study whales and be a Pakistani!” […] When he shows her the drawing of a whale, he says, “Amal, that is a real whale and we are real Pakistanis!”
Uzma Aslam Khan, The Geometry of God (2007: 4-5)

1Uzma Aslam Khan’s The Geometry of God (2007, hereafter GG) represents Pakistani society during the 1980s-90s through the first-person narrative voices of one male and two female characters, as they grow from childhood to adulthood: Noman, Amal and Mehwish. The novel is situated against the backdrop of historical events which have shaped Pakistan to this day: the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989), Pakistan’s longest dictatorship under Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988), the subsequent rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and the increasing censorship against freedom of speech, press, and natural-scientific truth-claims related to the history and origin of humankind and planet Earth. Indeed, when Zia-ul-Haq (1924-1988) came to power by means of a military coup in 1977, the country’s legal and socio-political landscape shifted from Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s social-democratic one to the “the longest” and “most gruesome Martial Law of its history” (Zahid 2011: 8). Through right-wing Islamization of Pakistani society, Zia-ul-Haq gained “legitimization of his regime” (Talbot 2012: 123). Under Zia-ul-Haq’s Martial Law, political activities and film productions were banned, and newspapers were pre-censored. Disobedience was met with severe physical penalties.

  • 1 This did not imply that these graduates had an immediate access to high-paid jobs or governmental p (...)
  • 2 Sunni Islam is divided into four orthodox schools of law (madhhabs). Following Hanbali law, Wahhabi (...)

2In the guise of introducing “Nizam-e-Mustafa” [the system of the Prophet Muhammad], Zia-ul-Haq introduced various reforms. Firstly, the state controlled “educational curricula and textbook production”, whereby Pakistan Studies was introduced as a compulsory subject from secondary school up until university. This implementation not only led to a ban of contradicting educational material, but also to “xenophobia and the glorification of military struggle to an impressionable younger generation” (Talbot 2012: 122). The second step of educational reforms left an even more pernicious impact on Pakistan. Under Zia-ul-Haq’s guidance, Pakistan witnessed a “mushrooming of mosque schools”: 12000 madrasas were provided with the task of educating children from the poorer classes. The number of madrasas was expanded exponentially, and their graduates were granted the status of degree level even though universities did not play any part in developing the curriculum of these madrasas.1 “Many schools were loosely linked to the main Deobandi, Barelvi, and Ahl-e-Hadith Islamic traditions”2 and some of them were responsible to train “jihadis” for the Soviet-Afghan war (Talbot 2012: 131). Indeed, a large part of the strict measures taken by Zia-ul-Haq cannot be comprehended unless placed in the light of this war.

  • 3 Since 1979, “some 3.2 billion of funding flowed into Pakistan” over the next six years, making it t (...)
  • 4 In article 17 section (a), it is stated that “in matters pertaining to financial or future obligati (...)
  • 5 First Introduced in 1860 under the British rule in India, blasphemy laws were revised in 1927. Paki (...)
  • 6 Sections 295B (1982) brought stricter punishment for those ‘defiling’ the Quran with life-time impr (...)

3During the Soviet-Afghan War, Zia-ul-Haq gained legitimacy to implement Islamic fundamentalism as a force against the Soviet-Union in Afghanistan. Partially, this was implemented to improve US-Pakistan relations which were at the lowest since Bhutto’s rule; it was also partially to counter-balance India geo-politically (Talbot 2012: 120).3 While Pakistan received US aid to indirectly support the Soviet-Afghan War, the human-rights abuses went to unprecedented heights within Pakistan against various factions of society. The imposition of the Deobandi approach in Islam led to a sectarian rift which resulted in a stronger “Sunnification of Pakistan” (Talbot 2012: 128). Enacted in the Presidential Ordinance in October 1984, Hudood Ordinances aimed at introducing Islamic punishments as laid down in the Quran and the Sunnah. This implementation created a rift between the more liberal-progressive intellectuals of society and the state machinery, especially in relation to the Law of Evidence for sexual crimes. In practical terms, this law implied that for men in rape cases “self-confession involved a verbal confession. For women however medical examination and pregnancy arising from the rape were admissible as proof of self-guilt.” (Talbot 1998: 276) Rape victims could thus be flogged for adultery (zina), when their assailants remained free for lack of admissible evidence. Secondly, the Law of Evidence also came to show that the state considered a woman’s testimony half as valuable as a man, because the law stated that the testimony “of two women was only equal to that of one man” (Talbot 1998: 281).4Not only did it undermine women’s legal status, their rights as equal citizens were also strongly oppressed. Lastly, Zia-ul-Haq introduced new articles to the already existing blasphemy law which were first codified in British India in 1860 to protect the rights of Muslims,5 introducing stricter penalties against those who were suspected of blasphemy.6

4With Zia’s demise in a mysterious air crash in 1988, a rather corrupt democratic system was re-established where power oscillated between the two main political parties of the time: Benazir Bhutto led the Peoples’ Party and Nawaz Sharif led the Muslim League. In 1999, Pervaiz Musharraf, then chief of the army, arranged a coup to overthrow Nawaz Sharif and became chief executive (1999-2001) and then President of Pakistan (2001-2008), again during a time of turmoil in the region post-9/11. Since 2008, the country has seen democratic elections thrice with Benazir Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari (2008-2013), Nawaz Sharif (2013-2018), and Imran Khan (2018-2022) as president and prime-ministers respectively. However, none of these governments have laid grounds for stable democratic institutions. Many of the changes made during Zia’s rule have left a stronghold on Pakistani society to this day. The military establishment maintains and has increased its power over resources (Talbot 2012: 136). The madrasas, which in Zia’s time officially numbered 12000, have increased to more than 32000 at the time of writing. Stringent laws such as the Law of Evidence, as well as blasphemy laws, remain in force making the rights of a person to exercise free will and live an undiscriminated life a challenge. Khan’s The Geometry of God is situated within this socio-political context and offers an alternative to the state led official narrative regarding issues of blasphemy, freedom of expression and of creative thought in relation to Pakistani identity. The book challenges the mainstream narrative about blasphemy as well as Pakistani history as it unfolds and presents, instead, an alternative, ‘real’ image of modern Pakistan, which is more complex, polyphonic, and diverse.

5The novel depicts how, growing up under the influence of her grandfather and progressive palaeontologist Zahoor-ul-Din, eight-year-old Amal discovers fossils of the Pakicetus, “a protowhale” which might provide clues as to how the descendants of an ancestral species might have evolved into different forms. Amal’s coincidental discovery and Zahoor’s explanation of the fossils in a controversial essay titled “The Blueprint for Life” (GG 102) contradicts the state propaganda about the creation of the world and ‘history’. This brings Zahoor under harsh criticism of the state-funded Islamic ‘Party of Creation’ [Jamait-e-Pedaish]. Meanwhile, Amal’s interest in palaeontology is hindered by her gender and by the need to support her younger sister Mehwish who, aged one, loses her sight due to overexposure to the sun. In contrast to Amal and Mehwish, Noman’s father takes great pride in the rise of right-wing political Islamist views. He is an active member of the Party of Creation and supports Zia-ul-Haq’s vision to establish a pedagogical system which rejects scientific and historical explanations about the world. The Party of Creation is eager to avenge itself from Zahoor’s views on Islam, creation, history, and human life. As Noman is sent by this party to keep an eye on Zahoor’s activities, he is progressively influenced by Zahoor’s views, leading him to be mentally torn between Zahoor’s knowledge and his own background. Meanwhile, his espionage on Zahoor provides the fuel for the Party of Creation to create a false case of blasphemy against the palaeontologist. During Amal’s wedding, Zahoor is attacked by his opponents, ultimately leading to his death. Upon his death, Amal discovers a missing link regarding the fossil, leading the granddaughter to continue Zahoor’s work. At the same time, Mehwish and Noman fall in love and Amal plays a key role in bringing them together. Because all three narrators have grown under the influence of Zahoor in one way or another and have witnessed his unjust trial and the consequences on his life, they form the primary testimonial voices of Zahoor’s life, and with him, many intellectuals within Pakistan, against the backdrop of Martial Law and politicized Islamic fundamentalism that have come to influence the course of contemporary Pakistani history.

  • 7 There are two other scholars who have analyzed the book: Claire Chambers (2011) has compared Khan’s (...)

6Since the publication of The Geometry of God, various scholars have analysed the novel through different perspectives. Using the notion of “plate tectonics”, Pascal Zinck examines the novel for showing the “intrinsic instability” and the “shifting configurations of national and cultural identities” (2011: 44). Zinck examines the interconnection of the four main protagonists and the way Khan employs various linguistic and literary tools to point to the intrinsically unstable cultural and national identities. Ananya Jahanara Kabir (2011) analyses how Khan uses the “fossil-rich soil of northern Pakistan and the Arabian Sea Coastline in the south” to create a topography which relocates Pakistani history and culture (173). Kabir’s main objective is to demonstrate how this relocation expands our current understanding regarding memory, especially in relation to the existing Partition studies. Sreyoshi Sarkar (2012), for his part, examines how the novel uses the motifs “of modern bildungsroman [sic] and postmodern bricolage” to carve a “post-national community”. However, Sarkar argues that Khan not only fails to use “polyphonic conversations” in her narrative, but also that her narrative “reproduces ‘Pakistani’ as largely violent, chaotic and exclusionary, [and] a constant conflict zone at the sites of territorial and ethic loyalties” (185).7

7Most of these existing contributions have demonstrated some important elements with respect to the novel, but none of them examine the way Khan’s novel presents both thematically and structurally testimonial accounts to criticize and provide an alternative to the radicalized state narrative about Pakistani history and identity. While Zinck has made an important observation regarding the instability of identity among the four protagonists, this article will prove how the use of testimony offers stability to the protagonists beyond the cultural and national identities and provides an alternative Pakistani identity despite the unstable cultural and national identities. Moreover, while Kabir, for her part, has focused on the interconnection between fossil and memory, the sea and soil expeditions of Zahoor and Amal, and the failure of the larger Pakistani society to reimagine the past beyond pre-partition South Asian history and beyond revisionist Islamist history, this article elaborates further by focusing on both the speeches and the moments of silence among the narrators in their testimonial accounts which, accordingly, help to remember and recreate the past from the perspective of three young Pakistanis during the 1980s-90s. Finally, unlike Sarkar’s assumption that the novel fails to use polyphonic conversations and instead only projects Pakistan as a constant conflict zone, this article argues against this assumption through a careful analysis of the three narrator-characters and the way Khan uses their privilege as well as their vulnerabilities to recreate Pakistan as a harmonious territory rather than an eternal “conflict zone” at the level of plot.

8In this respect, this article demonstrates how Khan creates a larger alternative literary testimony within the novel through three different narrator-characters as well as by employing various stylistic features. Indeed, the novel both mirrors and challenges the ‘official’ court testimony where Zahoor is silenced by false accusations against him in the name of blasphemy. Through a detailed analysis of the three narrators, this article shows how memory of past events are represented, including the way in which the literary form of the novel foregrounds the act of testimony on behalf of the three narrators. In my analysis, I am guided, wherever necessary, by the notion of testimony and the role of the witness in literature as elaborated in the works of Gitta Sereny (1974), Terrence Des Pres (1976), James Young (1987), Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub (1992), Shoshana Felman (1995), Mark Micale (1995), Jacques Derrida (2001), Horace Engdahl (2002), Hayden White (2004), and Sybille Schmidt (2017).

2. Three Witnesses and the Shaping of Testimony

9The Geometry of God foregrounds the act of testimony by means of the three narrators and the overall literary and stylistic features which heighten the limitations and challenges inherent in the act of testifying. As the narrators look back individually at the past events, they create coherent and authentic narratives about the disruptive events and about their own identities. In this regard, their acts of narration are analysed as testimonial acts whereby they not only testify about the past events but also reshape their identities as witnesses. Echoing Elie Wiesel’s view, Shoshana Felman calls the contemporary age the “era of testimony” (1995: 17). For her, testimony “is provided, and called for, when the facts upon which justice must pronounce its verdict are not clear, when historical accuracy is in doubt, and when both the truth and its supporting elements of evidence are called into question” (17). Within the literary sphere, testimony provides an ontological axis through a witness who experiences a disruptive event and is now filled with the necessity and the urgency to tell this experience. Rightly then, “the ‘literature of testimony’ is not an art of leisure but an art of urgency: it exists in time not just as a memorial but as an artistic promissory note” (Felman 1992: 114).

10At the same time, a witness cannot be reduced to a subject who merely retells an event. Rather, a witness’ active engagement to “remember” leads to the emergence of his or her identity. As Horace Engdahl mentions, “[a] witness is a person who speaks out and says, ‘I was there, I saw it, I can tell people!’ As an act of speech, testimony is inseparable from this kind of self-reference and from the accompanying claim to immediate credence” (Engdahl 2002: 3). Self-referentiality and an insight into the mental experience of the witness, shape the act of telling and is supreme within testimonial literature (Micale 1995: 7). These elements make literature of testimony “not simply a statement (any statement can lag behind events), but a performative engagement between consciousness and history, a struggling act of readjustment between the integrative scope of words and the unintegrated impact of events” (Felman 1992: 114). As there is a truth-claim at stake in a testimony, the very need to providing a testimony comes from a loss in the past and a desire to gain control or overcome that loss in the present moment. Rightly then, Dori Laub takes Felman’s argument further, by asserting that “testimony is the process whereby the narrator reclaims his [or her] position as a witness” (Laub 1992: 85).

11At the centre of The Geometry of God lies the violent event of the targeted killing of Zahoor at Amal’s wedding, which results in the deaths of Zahoor, Zahoor’s son, Zahoor’s friend, and injuries for both Noman and Mehwish. During the attack, Amal is not directly hit but remains emotionally traumatised by the killing of her grandfather and other loved ones. As a result, she faces the obsessive need for a witness: “I replay all the days that might explain something […] Do I remember more, or just differently, to suit my desperate needs?” (GG 238, emphasis added). Oftentimes, the “inhuman” and “intolerable” encounter with violence pushes the witness to find new means of representation beyond the traditional means of fictionalization (Des Pres 1976: 20). All three narrators are, in Noman’s words, “encumbered by history” (82), as they create narratives which help them to understand the past while shaping up their own identities in the process. In this way, the novel presents not only the struggle of the witness to tell what has been experienced, but also provides an insight into the process that shapes their narration of these events (Young 1987: 420). As a result, one has a narrative which replicates and challenges the limitations of testimony within the legal structure and recreates it within the literary sphere.

  • 8 The term gateways might be interpreted geographically and psychologically. Geographically, much of (...)

12Before examining each of the narrators, a brief analysis of the structure of the novel is useful to later evaluate the roles that the narrators play in the novel. The Geometry of God is divided into five “gateways”.8 Each of these are further divided into “fifty-five segments” unevenly narrated by Amal, Noman and Mehwish as children, teenagers and then adults over the timespan of twenty years (Zinck 2011: 47). Recurrently, the names Amal, Noman and Mehwish emerge as titles of these sections. Amal is only eight years old when she recollects her first memories of walking with her grandfather Zahoor. Ten-year-old Noman is marked by an alienation from his radicalizing father and a deep interest in mathematics and geometry. Mehwish is the youngest and she begins her narration later than the other two characters. Apparently, this structure seems repetitive to the point of arousing monotony. These three characters emerge as narrators recurrently, and the same events are retold through their perspectives, which has led some reviewers of the book to remark that the novel is either not “plot-driven” (Devi 2010: 641) or “less focussed” in its narrative structure (Ahuja 2010: 185).

  • 9 It must be noted that the accuser does not need to present a proof in the court while alleging some (...)

13However, this repetition both at the level of narrators and events creates a “complex narrative structure” which subverts linear narrative style (Zinck 2011: 47). More significantly, it also emulates the court testimony about blasphemy to create an alternative testimony. The novel presents the monopoly of a rapidly radicalizing Islamist state which forces its own version of truth by rephrasing history and the origin of human existence to the public, persecuting people who disagree with a repetitive, monotonous trial influenced by false witnesses. The novel creates an alternative testimony for Zahoor by means of three different witness-accounts of the events. Instead of a direct, first-person account of Zahoor — which might be the more obvious choice — this alternative testimony is created through three narrators from a younger generation. Just as in an actual court trial, where Zahoor’s chances of presenting his own perspective would be limited,9 in the narrative, his perspective is similarly limited as the events unfold. As in a court trial, the names of the witnesses are summoned to better understand the accused; in the novel, the subsections within the main sections of the book are titled alternately with the names of the narrator-characters who represent various events and contexts which eventually lead to Zahoor’s trial and its aftermath. In the court, false witnesses appear to smudge Zahoor’s hard-earned reputation and professional integrity. However, as the three narrators retell the story of the ‘real’ Zahoor, they reconstitute his reputation at least at the narrative level. Finally, as mentioned earlier, the Law of Evidence (1984) imposed during Zia-ul-Haq’s rule implied that a woman’s testimony is half as good as a man. In other words, one man or two women could be presented as witnesses. In The Geometry of God, the overall narrative is structured with the help of one man (Noman) and two women (Amal and Mehwish). This choice of the author foregrounds the enactment of the Law of Evidence.

14Amal, Noman and Mehwish are well-educated Muslims of Punjabi urban and middle-class backgrounds. Thus, they are the privileged ‘few’ in contrast to the larger majority of Pakistani Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities. None of the critical studies have so far pointed to the vulnerabilities which Noman, Amal and Mehwish experience in presenting their testimonies despite their apparent privileges. Indeed, each of these narrators face difficult situations which show their vulnerable positions. For a while, Noman “batt[s] for both sides” and therefore, it makes him rather unreliable in terms of his actions and in his speech (GG 132). Amal is preoccupied with her own career as the sole female palaeontologist which, at some points, limits her attention to the events which occur to Zahoor. Amal manages to see the larger picture only when Zahoor is shot and battles between life and death in a hospital bed. Finally, Mehwish’s age and her blindness come in the way of others informing her what has been happening to her grandfather since the court trial. She is left with her imaginative friend Clog to decipher and understand all the events. The vulnerabilities of each of these characters separately, and the fact that each one of them narrates a similar event at a different time create a much needed ‘pause for reflection’ to avoid hasty judgements and jumping to conclusions. In other words, the construction of these narrator-witnesses is simultaneously grounded on privilege and vulnerability. Noman’s urge to please his father despite the awareness that his father is on the ‘wrong side’, Amal’s gendered awareness of her position as a woman in a radicalizing state in which the status of women is increasingly under attack, and Mehwish’s dependence on others to know what happens in the physical world, all add nuances to their otherwise privileged backgrounds from which they narrate.

2.1. Noman: “Another Powerless Witness” (GG 301)

15As Amal informs her younger sister Mehwish about the quarrel between their grandfather and his opponents in a crowded conference room, Noman looks at the two of them, feels envious of their “heavenly intimacy”, and wants to introduce himself to them, “[b]ut, I keep standing, listening. Till I think I’ve finally found the courage to introduce myself. Yes, I have. Yes”. At this stage, Mehwish through her ultra-sensitive perception feels the presence of a stranger and asks her sister to “[t]ell him to go away” (89). By the time Amal turns to see who Mehwish is referring to, Noman has already dropped the idea of introducing himself and leaves off. At the same time, he hears Amal consoling her sister saying that there was “no one” there (89). It is not a coincidence that Noman is called ‘no-one’. Situated between two conflicting worlds, Noman faces an identity crisis. Firstly, there is the pre-Zia-ul-Haq Pakistan in which Noman enjoyed a different relation with his father. With the involvement of Pakistan in the Soviet-Afghan War, his father’s character changed. Like many other men at the time, Noman’s father has radicalized, adhered to a stricter interpretation of Islam, and wanted the “cultural freak” (i.e., the younger generations of Pakistan) to be re-educated in Islamic history and doctrine in accordance with the views of the Party of Creation. Noman had noticed this change in his father and the subsequent emotional distance between them as follows:

He’s changed. We haven’t gone out together for months, not to feed the pigeons in the courtyard of Wazir Khan Masjid, or lick our fingers at the fish shops in Mozang Chungi, or welcome the Sikh pilgrims who come from India every year to visit the gurdwara next to these gardens. We used to do these things. (GG 16)

  • 10 In Sara Suleri’s memoir Meatless Days (1989) which covers the same timeframe as The Geometry of God(...)

16The change in Noman’s father is paralleled with the change of the country’s new Islamized identity.10 Perceiving his father’s transformation, Noman comments, “God has left this country. And this is why Aba’s changed” (17). As the Pakistani state imposes a radicalized version of Islam on its people, Noman within the narrative and Khan as the writer present this radicalization as the departure or a movement away from Islam [literally ‘submission to Allah’]. From this moment on, Noman “prays for the return of the bloom of sifr. For the Unreal Zero” (17). His desire for a “return of the bloom of the sifr” indicates the idealization of a distant past in Muslim history when human curiosity to learn and discover were promoted. Soon, Noman finds himself to be the mouthpiece, the scribe, the voice of the Party of Creation. It is his duty to explain the agenda of this right-wing Party of Creation to the youth of Pakistan through a magazine called ‘Akhlaq’. The title of the magazine points to a way of life (akhlaq) as well as of being (khalq). At this stage, Noman is involved in two tasks: firstly, he writes the editorial of this magazine which literally brings to life the ‘word’ which represents the Islamist views about creation, morality, and other related issues and is used to “silence and terrorize both scientists and secularists” (Zinck 2011: 46). Secondly, he reports on Zahoor’s activities to the members of the Party of Creation. He wants to please his father despite his disagreement with him ideologically. In this respect, Noman remains in a constant flux of anxiety and uncertainty. As he states,

Who taught me to believe Aba wrong and prove him right? I’ve come full circle. Or crashed. I can argue anything. I have no beliefs of my own. Light and darkness negate each other. The ions of my mind are in deep freeze. Meet Noman, who is an island. Not a synthesis, or even a cultural freak. But an absence. (129)

17The words used to describe him either by himself or others like Mehwish, Amal, or Zahoor are very significant. Amal calls him “no one”. For Zahoor, he “looks relatively harmless” and for Noman, he himself is an “absence” (130). All these traits associated with Noman’s character make him look very insignificant and innocuous. Far from being innocuous, his activities have very dangerous consequences for people around him: Zahoor, Amal, Mehwish and even himself. As a spy on Zahoor and the editor of Akhlaq, Noman harms both Zahoor’s future in Pakistan and the mindsets of his readers “irreversibly” (13). Yet, he shirks away from taking full responsibility for his actions as is visible in sections narrated by him. At times, it is his memory which fails him, on other occasions, he is uncertain due to being drunk, while on still other occasions, he attributes his inability to remember due to illness. In this way, Noman leaves gaps, absences or memory-holes in his narrative which are filled by other characters. For example, he recollects his first meeting with Zahoor in the latter’s house rather late in the narrative, and even then, it is difficult for him to remember accurately what happened. Instead, he says,

[a]ll right so that night at Zahoor’s house, after the third drink, I grew silly. I don’t remember what I said, something about guilt and anguish, gratitude and sin. There was also a confession. And someone quoted something to someone maybe me (241)

18Firstly, while he bats on both sides, and this time tells Zahoor of his involvement in the Party of Creation, he describes his own action as “silly” which again makes his words or action look harmless. Secondly, as he recreates the scene, he gives a rather vague idea of what really happened: “someone quoted something to someone maybe me”. This is an example of his role as a reluctant witness who, while testifying to his readers, is wary of his own involvement in the damage done. A witness is one who knows something and is willing to tell that to an audience. However, in Noman’s case, while he is bent on retelling events as they occurred, there are fissures, memory holes, acts of forgetting, which point to a witness who is also a perpetrator and therefore is creating a narrative which can arouse sympathy for him without showing too much of his own involvement in the destructive acts. In contrast, when Amal reconstructs the same scene, her information is much more specific and informs the reader as to how Noman presents himself to Zahoor. In Amal’s narration of the same event, Noman is allowed in Zahoor’s house and is sharply questioned by Zahoor. After two drinks, “[h]e blurted, ‘I’m riled by guilt! I’m a sheepish, self-effacing thief! I’ve snatched a first-class ticket to purgatory! Thank you, anguish!’” (240). On another occasion, when he re-reads his editorial titled, “The Blueprint of Afterlife”, he says, “I know Aba will be very pleased, especially with the last line, and the title, but I can’t believe I wrote it. Did Ama [mother]?” (129).

  • 11 Urdu word for grandfather used here by Amal for Zahoor.

19All these instances show the gaps and absences that Noman’s narrative leaves open. These gaps and absences also enable him to evade responsibility or full allegiance to any one of the ideological groups represented. It is only Amal who, while recollecting events after Zahoor is attacked by an anonymous shooter, acknowledges the danger that Noman represented. When Zahoor lets Noman in, exclaiming, “‘Oh, come in’, […] ‘It’s cold and you look relatively harmless’”, Amal reflects, “[h]ave never known Nana11 to be more mistaken” (238). Afterwards, when Zahoor tries to get information about the plans of the Party of Creation regarding him, he asks, “[s]o, aside from getting you to send me the two warnings, what else do they plan to do?” To this Noman remarks, “[n]othing, you’re not enough of a threat”. At this, Amal again reflects retrospectively, “He didn’t say: though I’ve already made you one” (239). Both the men underestimate the potential of the other. Noman appears “relatively harmless” to Zahoor and Noman estimates that Zahoor is not “enough of a threat” to the Party of Creation. Therefore, Noman’s witness-account cannot be read in isolation from the other two to have a better understanding of the larger picture.

20Furthermore, this also shows that Noman is far from a neutral witness. His actions have vast consequences on his own life as well as on the life of others. He can be deemed a perpetrator witness who tells what has happened and who at the same time is keen to censor some information that exhibits his inner guilt and remorse with which he cannot deal consciously. It is, therefore, important to understand his role first as a perpetrator witness and the later transformation that the narrative shows him to undergo. If all stories are stories of identity-formation and selfhood, then victim and perpetrator both construct their identities through their stories, each demanding trust, credibility and an empathetic listener. In this regard, testimonies are to be critically analysed for what they say about the “mental experiencing” as well as the “affective and ideational processes of an event” instead of the historical accuracy of an event (Micale 1995: 7). Gitta Sereny elaborates this need to see the point of view of the perpetrator as follows: “[it is] essential [...] to assess the circumstances which led up to his involvement, for once not from our point of view, but from his” (1974, 13). Sybille Schmidt takes Sereny’s argument further and asserts that by running the risk of submitting the testimonies of victims and perpetrators to the same standards of analysis, “one should consider perpetrator testimony as providing insight into the psychological or social structure of denial and of a specific absence of truth and conscious experience” (Schmidt 2017: 102).

21Noman’s narrative is significant for multiple reasons. Firstly, as mentioned above, due to his own involvement in Zahoor’s trial and public image, Noman creates structures of denial and absence. Secondly, even though he damages Zahoor’s reputation publicly, the same narrative presents an alternative version of Zahoor wherein Noman is mesmerized by his personality, beguiled to read the texts recommended by Zahoor but banned by the Party of Creation, and finally comes to align with Zahoor rather than with his own father ideologically. In this regard, just as at the experiential level, had he not been “batting for both sides”, he would not have been able to present an insider-outsider view and thus have the opportunity to transform himself from a destructive perpetrator to a person who is loved and admired by Mehwish; similarly, at the level of narrative, the complexity of his transformation would not be encompassed unless by what Amal calls “co relation” (while analysing bones from different periods) of his wilful denial and absence with other narrative voices in the text (171).

22After Zahoor’s death from the anonymous shooting in which Noman also gets injured, he imagines Zahoor demanding from him: “You have spilled both blood and ink, what more will you do with your hands?” (349). Noman spills both blood and ink which ultimately leads to Zahoor’s isolation and slow death, not to mention the hate speeches against him. The question ‘what more will you do with your hands’ arouses as much of curiosity as a sense of despair. Along with Zahoor, the narrative seems to ask what Noman is capable of after incurring so much irreversible damage. Can there be some redemption for Noman and, by extension, the first generation of Pakistanis who might face a dilemma in identifying themselves with one or the other ideological extreme? The novel provides an answer to this enigma by presenting the transformation that Noman undergoes. As he gets a chance to spy on Zahoor, Noman becomes fascinated by him, finds the answers to the questions which his father had failed to address sufficiently, and finally decides to sever his ties from the Party of Creation and resign from the editorial responsibility of Akhlaq. In the editor’s note, he writes:

Good readers true readers, members of the Party of Creation, scholars of the Academy of Moral Policy, if the second Satan is memory, you create the third: distortion of memory. You are the Past Patrol and Present Police. You pervert Him [God] the way you do all our laws and bills and histories and sciences and Life itself. I use this pen to cease editing today. (281)

23Even when he resigns, it is “you”, the reader, who is blamed for the distortion of memory and not “I”, Noman. In the same note, he asks, “is the scholar’s ink holier than the martyr’s blood? Aren’t both only spilled for this life — for you and me and nothing higher? […] I use this pen to go naked today” (280). Noman understands that once he resigns, he can never resume his position as the editor nor as a member of his father’s household. Thereby, after his resignation, he leaves his parents’ house, rents a small apartment, and earns his wages as a tutor in mathematics. Noman clearly moves away from his double-batting position to the one which is in line with his conscience. When he finds Zahoor entrapped in a blasphemy case, he tries to meet him, but always shies away from facing him, or telling him of his involvement in the case. At this stage, he declares, “[a]ll I can do is speculate. I’m not the agent. I’m just another powerless witness of a trajectory now moving by itself” (301, emphasis added). Thus, once “no one”, he describes himself as a powerless witness. This implies that although he has the possibility to see, hear and report on the events as he sees them unfolding, he lacks the agency to do anything to change them. Within the “trajectory” of rising Islamic fundamentalism, he was useful so long as he went along with the agenda of the Party of Creation (301). For a while, Noman seems to stand in the no-man’s land between extremist Islamists and progressive members of the society.

24Apart from the fact that he finally takes an ideological stance and moves away from a radical Islamist view, there is another aspect which hints at reconciliation on the part of Noman. Through his gradual transformation, Noman falls in love with Mehwish, who reciprocates such feelings. Their bond takes years to develop as both Mehwish and Amal learn to come to terms with the damage wrought by Noman and its consequences on their lives. Initially, Amal is protective of her sister and discourages her from meeting Noman or going out with him alone. With the passage of time, as Noman proves that his transformation is a consistent one, Amal allows him to take Mehwish out for a bike tour. The last scene of the novel presents the harmony which Noman and Mehwish achieve through their love on one such bike tour. While driving, Noman takes up the role for Mehwish which so far only Amal had done, that is, describing what he sees around him. As they come back to Amal’s house, Mehwish is filled with a sense of adventure and asks Noman,

“Spin, spinning wheel spin!”

And Noman starts to go in circles again. I hold him we have no gravityG pull.

At last we stop outside Amal’s door. “Are you dizzy can you walk?” Noman asks. I show him I can. He takes my hand and kisses it. “I want to make sure you heard. You’re sweet to my lungs, Mehwish. You’re the opposite of the bullet inside me. You’re the bloom.” Then he does what I used to do to him. He puts his hands on my face and reads it. His fingers shake he is nervous. His thumb puts too much pressure on my eyelids. But now he is relaxing taking his time even poking between my teeth where I have no gap. (353-4)

25In this final scene, multiple elements are at play. Firstly, both Mehwish and Noman reach a harmony through their love for each other. Secondly, this scene alludes to another harmony through the phrase, “[s]pin, spinning wheel spin!”. This phrase comes from a poem titled, “Ghoom Chrakhra” [Spin the Wheel] from sixteenth century Punjabi Sufi poet Shah Hussain (1538-1599), also known as Madho Lal Hussain. Using the metaphor of cotton spinning looms, which has been a major industry in the South Asian subcontinent in the past, Hussain considers the cotton spinning wheel as the universe and those who spin this cotton as bringing order in an otherwise chaotic world by obeying their creator. Thus, the spinning of the cotton is equivalent to the obedience to the ‘word’ of God, the creator. These lines are also reminiscent of a time when Sufi poets sought harmony by emphasizing the similarities between various religious strains. As Ian Talbot writes, “Pakistani Islam was not monochrome. The stark Deobandi approach contrasted with the colour and vitality of Sufi religious expression. Zia’s Islamization increased tension between these difference expressions of faith” (Talbot 1998: 126). While Khan moves towards the end of her novel, she recalls the past when inter-religious harmony prevailed in the region and when expression of creative thought could be combined with one’s faith and sense of obedience to the creator. In this way, Khan provides an alternative vision of Islam from the one she witnessed growing as a woman in Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s, and it becomes even more emphatic as Noman’s earlier rendition of a different form of Islam resurfaces at the same time when Mehwish exclaims this phrase. Earlier on, when Noman witnessed his father radicalize under the influence of Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamist regime, he said: “From now on, I pray for the return of the bloom of sifr. For the Unreal Zero” (17).

26When Noman prays for the “bloom of the sifr”, it is primarily a yearning for the ‘golden times’ in Islamic history when Al Khwarizmi (c.780-c.850) taught and presented his works in mathematics, astronomy and geography, as opposed to the present condition where a progressive palaeontologist is made to suffer for his views on natural sciences and creation. His invocation of an “Unreal Zero” shows how, unlike most characters in the novel who wish to have their version of “real” Pakistan (Page), Noman yearns for an “Unreal Zero”. Again, a wordplay, on “real”, this implies that when a society yearns for absolute and unchangeable truth, something as insignificant as a zero with the philosophical ambiguities that it entails, can bring relief to the absolutism prevalent otherwise. As in algebra, zero is the only integer which is neither positive nor negative, this also implies that Noman is no longer oscillating between two ideological positions, rather he has achieved a state of harmony with Mehwish. In terms of its geometrical shape, zero’s inner circumference is a smaller void in comparison to the larger and more infinite void outside the circle. It is reminiscent of man’s vulnerable finitude in comparison to the greater infinity of the divine as well as of man’s need to circumference the infinite in accordance with his own limited knowledge, an abstract allusion to the ‘geometry of God’. Thus, the bloom of the “Unreal Zero” is an implication of an era when one can come to terms with the mystery regarding divine and human life.

27Upon returning with Mehwish, Noman starts to make circles near Amal’s house. These circles can be seen as a physical demonstration of the “bloom of sifr” as, at this stage, at least Noman and Mehwish have embraced each other’s mysterious and unknowable selves. One might ask, why does Noman call her “the bloom” while he used the same words for a glorious intellectual tradition in Islam? Throughout the novel, the sections narrated by Mehwish are the most cumbersome and challenging. As Mehwish loses her eyesight, she learns to perceive the surroundings through other senses and describes her experiences accordingly. The instability hidden underneath all languages, or the written word is brought to the fore by Mehwish’s play with language. Mehwish’s linguistic indeterminacy destabilizes absolute determination, whether it is God, religion, or patriotism. Mehwish’s “bloom” equals the “bloom of sifr”, namely, an age in the past when ambiguous problems and uncertainty could coexist with religious fervour. When Noman reads her face with his hands just as she reads other people’s facial features, it rattles him at first. Like people who can see, he is used to reading a face with his eyes. The hands which now seek her face are nervous and shake with excitement. As if trying to understand the absence of sight, his thumb “puts too much pressure” on her eyelids. Slowly, his fingers relax and search for the marks which distinguish Mehwish from others. As he takes more time to poke between her teeth which have no gap between them, unlike his, he testifies to her uniqueness and her subjectivity (354).

28One might wonder why this is the final scene of a novel which deals with issues of Islamic radicalization, blasphemy, and its impact on contemporary Pakistan. When Zahoor is in the hospital suffering from lethal bullet wounds, guilt-ridden Noman imagines him asking, “You have spilled both blood and ink, what more will you do with your hands?” (349). In the last scene, when he uses his hands to get to know Mehwish and to understand the way in which she comes to terms with the outside world, Noman provides an answer to Zahoor’s almost accusatory question. This is Noman’s complete transformation: from being a spiller of ink and blood, he learns to understand the world differently with his hands. In the end, Noman has evolved and transformed himself to perceive things differently, a rather hopeful ending in an otherwise disturbing chain of socio-political events. Only now, he is not “encumbered” but is “illuminated” by history” (82).

29Noman’s narrative voice brings together the need to remember the past and, in the process of witnessing this past, to reshape one’s identity. His narrative shows what happens to Zahoor as an outsider (as he was someone who had no blood relations with him), and reveals how Noman leaves gaps, fissures, and memory holes which are filled by Amal or Mehwish. It also shows the trajectory through which Noman nonetheless gains the agency to transform himself and emerge as a “unique” and “irreplaceable” witness (Blanchot & Derrida 2000: 40). As his narrative presents the mental processes behind his testimonial voice as well as the “writing act itself” this liberates him from being a mere absence/no oneto a person who has created the Unreal Zero, the mysterious harmony with Mehwish and with himself (Young 1987: 420).

2.2. Amal: Aqal e Amali [Practical Wisdom] (GG 4)

30Amal’s name implies someone who is guided by practical wisdom. Her grandfather Zahoor tells her, “[y]ou know, Amal, you are more like me than either of my children. Your mother and her brother are shadows! Dents! But you are a positive!” (3). Like Zahoor, Amal is interested in studying fossils. At the age of eight, she accidently discovers fossil remains of a whale. Even though she is the more intelligent of the two sisters, and though she is more reliable as a narrator-witness in comparison to Noman, there are a few events that come to play an important role in her testimony. Despite her keen interest in palaeontology, she faces obstructions in following her passion due to her gender and the responsibility of taking care of her younger sister since their mother is emotionally unstable. When her sister loses her eyesight, Amal develops a life-long habit of looking at the ground to ensure safety for Mehwish. She must act as Mehwish’s eyes for as long as her sister is not independent. Nonetheless, she wishes to join her grandfather for expeditions and explore more than what she did at the age of eight. To her dismay, she discovers that her gender is a “security” threat (114). Her male colleagues in the lab do not appreciate her presence. Her sojourns into distant areas for explorations are downplayed by her family members. Lastly, along with her desire to conduct research in palaeontology, she is equally fascinated with life as such. She likes to go to parties at night, meet people, spend time with male and female friends alike despite her parents’ disapproval. Her parents’ constant pressure, her colleagues’ lingering disapproval, her sister’s inability to understand her emotionally at crucial moments, and the lack of proper infrastructure to travel safely to far-off expeditions, do not suffice to discourage her from pursuing her passion in life.

31In a society dominated by patriarchy which is further asserted in the name of Islamic values, Amal presents the much-needed gendered perspective of the 1980s-90s Pakistan. As she grows up in a dictatorial environment, Amal shows her hurdles and her methods of dealing with them. She also mediates, at times, between contradictory ideological positions. Her eagerness to read history by piecing together fossils is symptomatic of the author’s wish to understand Pakistan. Just as she learns the principle of “co relation” to study the history of bones, she also becomes an agent who can provide an axis to correlate various elements in the narrative. In contrast to Noman, Amal is upfront about what she experiences and the way she testifies about it. Her need to narrate comes from an urgency to make sense of the present devastation which causes Zahoor’s death. As she reflects,

I replay all the days that might explain something. When Noman first came to Nana’s house, when he first came to my lab […] Do I remember more, or just differently, to suit my desperate needs? Whatever the answer, it doesn’t explain a thing. (238)

32Her doubts about remembering either “more” or “differently” point to the need to use memory to reconstruct the past, while being sceptical of one’s own resources. The main difference in her narrative with that of the other two narrators is that just as she functions as Mehwish’s eyes, she also functions as the visual and sensory testimony of Zahoor’s past and present as well as to the shared past that the three narrators come to present. She describes her “dangerous ambition” as follows: “[w]hen I was eight he gifted me a dangerous ambition: to understand where we live. I’m still her, the girl who gazed at a brown clump in her hands, waiting for the mist to clear, the image to surface” (253, emphasis added). The imagery of gazing at a brown clump in her hands involves two senses. Through the sense of touch, she estimates the brown clump. At the same time, her gaze is fixed on this lump. The tactile and the visual combined together create a strong sensory experience. Apparently, an insignificant childhood experience, in Amal’s case, becomes symbolic of her life-struggle to make sense of herself, her surroundings, and the society that she belongs to. Under Zahoor’s guidance, she learns to read history differently and consequently narrates a different story. In the act of gazing at the brown lump, her grandfather tells her, “[s]ome people do not like what is written here.” When she asks the reason, Zahoor retorts, “[o]h, because then you dig up letters that piece together a very different puzzle about how we got here!” (4). In this way, Amal presents an account about Zahoor which is the closest the readers get to his characters and his values. She accompanies him in his walks among nature, his expeditions, and research conferences. She witnesses Noman’s interrogation by Zahoor at his house. She also shows Zahoor’s religious and scientific beliefs through which the reader realizes that, rather than being blasphemous, her grandfather is more familiar with the Quran than the average Muslim. Indeed, in light of Amal’s narrative about Zahoor, the blasphemy trial seems bogus and trivial in comparison.

33Zahoor also depends on Amal’s intelligence to make some significant decisions in his life. For example, when he finds out Noman’s involvement in the case against him, he asks Amal repeatedly: “[d]o you blame him?” Almost always pragmatic and vocal about her opinions, this time, Amal finds herself unable to speak and after a pause, blurts, “[y]ou trusted him! You treated him like a son.” He keeps asking the same question, until she answers him with a blunt “no”. To this Zahoor responds, “I was half hoping you’d say yes. But you have been paying attention” (278-9). After this, Zahoor asks her “to bring him back” (279). Despite Noman’s involvement in Zahoor’s defamation and blasphemy suit, Amal does not blame him. The implication here is that Noman is a cog in a larger ideological machine. In this respect, Noman has been used by people of radical Islamist views and there is still a possibility to bring him back. Amal not only does not blame him but even goes to the extent of approving Noman’s relationship with Mehwish at a later stage.

34Along with presenting Zahoor’s personality, Amal’s narrative also provides a nuanced approach to the otherwise too polemical world of ideological clashes. Where, on the one hand, one has a progressive thinker like Zahoor and, on the other hand, literalist Islamist scholars who push their own political and Islamic agenda in Pakistani society, Amal stands and occasionally mediates between these positions. For example, the dichotomy of rigid radical Islamists and progressive scientists is challenged in Amal’s life when she realizes that these men of science whom she accompanied at the age of eight were more interested in her when she was a child, than when she has become an adult:

Now there are security reasons. I need permission from this and that ministry, and most of all, I need a man to guard me. The scientists don’t want that burden. It takes away attention from their work.

It’s the same at the university. Men don’t want me in their lab. (114-5)

35The refrain that men of science show to her is a result of a similar patriarchal pressure which exists on both sides of the spectrum, whether it is men who think they are obedient to the will of God or men who follow their scientific curiosity. Many experiences are denied to Amal. She realizes this as she enters the adult world. Similarly, her criticism regarding the restrictions which come with her being a woman is not limited to men of her society, rather, she finds women not very helpful either. This realization can be seen from her very rudimentary relation with her mother, with her aunt who forces her to bend her will to true Islamic teachings, and with other women at work who “cram together in a tight little square, their righteousness frozen hard, and I don’t know what’s worse: the gloating of female chastity or the bloating of male conceit” (270). She tries to mediate between male and female social experiences and between the ideological boundaries of Zahoor and Noman’s father. As Amal reflects,

While Nana waits for the final verdict, I summon a centre from which to chart the distant past of a land as much his legacy as that of his accusers. And as much mine and Fawad’s, or Ibrar’s [her co-workers at the lab]. I overcome that unnameable hunger — a longing to be understood, or more, believed. (292)

36Indeed, it is helpful to read against the grain her own statement about what she must do to save Zahoor from anonymous haters. She states, “[w]hat we do is build a sound barrier around Nana, so he can’t be seen or heard or even heard of. He becomes al ghayb. The absent. We’re to stop even imaging him.” (302). Although, at the experiential level, Zahoor is transformed into “al ghayb” [an invisible being], the opposite occurs at the narrative level. It shows to the reader the larger perspective about Zahoor’s personality, his views on religion and science, his occasional shortcomings. Through Amal’s narrative it becomes almost impossible to make Zahoor invisible. Rather, like the meaning of his name, he ‘blossoms’, appears fully, and is ‘manifested’ despite an absence of a first-person account by him. While Zahoor-ul-Din is persecuted for blasphemy i.e., “an act of insulting God” (Ahmed & Gulrajani 2020: 105), the meaning of his name is a manifestation or an appearance or even a blossoming of religion,, even as the military dictator’s name, Zia-ul-Haq, whose approach to religion and science he opposes, implies ‘light of truth’.

37Within the Muslim tradition as Din is a guidance towards truth, one might say that both names have similar connotations. However, while Zia-ul-Haq was bent on making his version of ‘din’ as the absolute truth to gain absolute power, Zahoor was able to manifest ‘din’ through his ability to mediate between his faith in Islam and Quranic verses on the one hand, and the Darwin-based methods of “randomness, trial and error” on the other, which he calls “accidental stages” or “fluke encounters” (111) owing to the unlikely presence of fossils on a hillface instead of at the bottom of a cliff or underground (Zinck 2011: 44). As Amal continues with her grandfather’s scientific methods, she discovers another fossil remain which authenticates Zahoor’s narrative. While dissent, protest or even meaningful dialogue with the opponent is impossible in Zia-ul-Haq’s Pakistan, Khan creates a topography where Amal’s narrative reconstructs the past to register her protest and to reclaim her grandfather and, by extension, her own scientific practices from the realm of heresy and blasphemy to the realm of knowledge and truth. In doing so, like Noman, Amal not only testifies about the past but also reconstructs her identity within the present.

2.3 Mehwish: Aqal Nazar [Wisdom of Imagination] (GG 4)

38If Amal is the practical wisdom, Mehwish is aqal nazar [wisdom of imagination]. As she loses her eyesight, Amal acts as her sister’s eyes and as a teacher who introduces language to her. Due to her inability to see, Mehwish develops a habit of breaking words the way she hears them, or the way she feels them with her hands on braille. This, at times, results into strange puns, misspellings, and coincidental double meanings. Her difference of perception is highlighted by the way she misspells various words and gives them a new meaning. In her perception, people become “pee pull”, melancholy becomes “me link holy”, intimacy as “inty messy”, promiscuous as “promiss kiss”, palaeontology as “pale into logic”. While many people around Mehwish brush these words aside as gibberish, all these distortions imply criticism about the socio-political events and their consequences on human life. Intimacy has indeed become a mess under Zia-ul-Haq’s rule, people are reduced to ‘urine’, all in the name of linking the holy to political actions. And like Zahoor, many people become ‘pale into logic’ in the name of Islamic fundamentalism. Kisses are only promises, a metaphor for love in general, but cannot be publically manifested to express love in a rigid society restricted by Sharia law. Anyone who links and interprets the holy differently from the way the state proposes it, is destined to become melancholic. In another example, in a conversation with Noman, Mehwish says, “[o]f all God’s names, Fareeb is the most magnificent”, to which Noman is puzzled and responds, “[y]ou mean Fareed. Without comparison”. Mehwish reasserts, “No. Fareeb”, and Noman claims, “But that means fraud. Cheat” (298-9). When corrected by Noman, Mehwish is not surprised and rather says that it was because in braille the difference between ‘d’ and ‘b’ is of one dot. What might be passed as a mistake creates double function because, after all, Noman’s main conflict is that he feels like a fraud or fareeb. Secondly, the reference to God as “fareeb” can be interpreted as a strong critique of a society in which the name of Allah becomes a fraudulent means to punish innocent people like Zahoor. As her narrative progresses, one realizes that rather than being a handicap, language distortion, misspellings and her constant corrections, are a tool to remind the reader of the fallibility, uncertainty and ambiguity underneath the absolute notions created through language. That is why, unlike Amal and Noman, the segments narrated by Mehwish result in greater ambiguity and metaphoric value. The character of Clog presents another example of how Mehwish’s narrative contains a testimony which is beyond sight, hearing or the sensory. As Mehwish recalls Amal saying, “people do not only see with their eyes ears and hands but also with their memories” (171), one sees the manifestation of this remembering in Mehwish through an invisible character named Clog. Clog is an imaginary character, no one sees it, expect Mehwish. No one around her understands anything she says when she is conversing with Clog. As the family is involved in discussing the blasphemy case, her grandfather’s trial, his ailing health, and his death threats, Mehwish is kept in ignorance from this information as others imagine that she is too young to get involved. However, Mehwish overhears fragments which help her to understand what is happening and she has Clog’s company who explains her things in a poetical way. For example, Clog writes a poem to explain the origin of the blasphemy laws during the British rule and its inheritance and modification in Pakistan since 1947. Clog concludes his poem with the following stanza:

To find a verse create a code
Duller than death or the lock up
This gnawing sentence without full stop. (219)

39Listening to this poem, Mehwish is disturbed and shouts to Clog, “I did not enjoy it at all!” (219). Although often humorous in its effect, Clog represents a negative development of Mehwish’s imaginative faculties. As she cannot share her thoughts with others, she imagines Clog around her. Clog is her rebellious self which experiments with language, says things in a poetic sense which otherwise cannot be said and remains in Mehwish’s consciousness as a warring presence. Clog, as the meaning of the word suggests, proves to be a ‘block’ between Mehwish and other people. Clog signifies the impingement of freedom of expression that people feel when alleged with blasphemy or when living under dictatorial and authoritarian regimes. In this regard, Mehwish’s witnessing shows beyond the sensory experience and represents her “wounded consciousness” (White 2004: 114), the healing of which is through a “recourse to myth, poetry, and ‘literary’ writing” (118).

  • 12 A short poem composed of writing couplets of minimum 5 and maximum 15 couplets. Originating from th (...)

40As a form of dissent, she presents Zahoor a token of “illegal ghazals” just before his death,12 as she says, Before he died I gave him some illegal ghazals Clog gave me” (353). Her insistence that Clog gave her these ghazals implies that she does not want to be responsible for her words, just like Noman. Nonetheless, by presenting these ghazals to her grandfather, Mehwish continues in line with Zahoor to critically question the authoritarian practices. Furthermore, the term “illegal” has a historical allusion. Under Zia-ul-Haq’s rule, Faiz Ahmad Faiz (1911-1984), a great revolutionary poet, remained in exile in Beirut until 1982, and his poetry was banned from being sung in public. As a protest against this ban, Iqbal Bano (1940-2007), a famous ghazal singer of the time, made sure she sang Faiz’s poem titled “Hum Dekhenge” [“We shall see”] in front of a crowd of fifty thousand people in 1986. Bano sang this song clad in a black sari which was an act of double protest: firstly, against the ban of Faiz’s revolutionary poetry, and secondly, against the ban on women wearing saris (Grewal 2020). Just as the poet and the singer registered their protest through poetry and singing respectively, Mehwish, with the help of Clog, writes her protest in poetry. As Mehwish falls in love with Noman and has a companion with whom she can share her traumatic past, Clog disappears from her consciousness. Clog’s disappearance symbolizes the healing of Mehwish’s “wounded consciousness” which was made possible through her creative ventures and the harmonious love between her and Noman (White 2004: 114).

3. Conclusion

41During his successful election campaign, Imran Khan stressed on bringing tabdili [change] against the old corrupt political system and envisioned a naya [new] Pakistan. In his first speech as Prime minister, he promised the Pakistani people to create a state “like that of Medina” (Khan 2018). This promise is reminiscent of a similar urge by Zia-ul-Haq’s to create Nizam-e-Mustafa [System of the Prophet Muhammad]. While these slogans imply a return to the ‘lost’ past, at least in Islamic terms, the last three years of Imran Khan’s government have revealed that despite these slogans for change and newness the status quo remains intact. The so-called naya Pakistan remains entangled with the old problems of corruption, bad governance, intolerance towards minorities and gender inequality, over-regulation of so-called ‘Islamic’ laws, and the (mis)use of blasphemy laws. Indeed, Khan’s recent remarks about the protection of blasphemy law, his views against women, and his calling of Osama Bin Laden as a “martyr” while addressing Pakistan’s national assembly in June 2020 all point to the way in which his government have bent their agendas to the will of a military establishment which uses a certain version of Islam as their trump card to absolute power and suppression of freedom of expression (Iqbal 2021). While Imran Khan’s envisioned Pakistan does not come to fruition, it is significant how literature provides the earliest topographies of the shape of a different, if not, ‘new Pakistan’.

42Indeed, Uzma Aslam Khan in The Geometry of God presents a world in which her protagonists, situated within a militarized and right-wing Islamizing state of the 1980s and 90s with the looming shadow of War on Terror, are bent on defining the ‘real’ Pakistan in their own ways. With its narrative structure and characterization, the novel represents the implications of a ‘real’ Pakistan from the perspectives of various characters. By incorporating various literary devices, it presents glimpses of Khan’s own vision of the ‘real’ Pakistan within the realm of the fictional, the imaginary and the literary. As a testimonial narrative, the novel depicts what happens to Zahoor before, during, and after the court trial and it redresses the damage incurred on Zahoor because of this trial. In contrast to his character assassination, his slow disappearance from the public realm and his final demise through targeted killing, the novel reconstructs his character by using three varied, polyphonic accounts, and brings Zahoor back to the centre. His legacy continues through the transformed lives of three individuals connected to him.

43Despite his initial “batting for” two sides, Noman gets a better grip over his troubled conscience. Through his testimonial narrative, one reads between the lines and sees the absences and denial of guilt and shame as he plays a key role in making Zahoor a blasphemer in the public eye. Amal presents her grandfather’s perspective through her own testimonial narrative and shares her gendered perspective as a female palaeontologist in Pakistan. Lastly, Mehwish’s testimony grapples with the damage of oppressive laws within the realm of the imaginary. Her imaginative friend Clog brings to the fore how she suffers in silence and learns to use that silence to write protest poetry. As Clog remains an incomprehensible entity within the public realm, one might say that there is a testimony at play which testifies against silence, oppression, and injustice. In this way, Khan’s novel presents disruptive events leading to Zahoor’s death through the testimonial accounts of Amal, Mehwish and Noman which accumulate into a larger testimony of the ‘real’ Pakistan during the 1980s and 90s. The alternative testimony created by Khan forces one to acknowledge the right of the people to speak their mind within the public realm, as Khan brings the deepest fears and rebellion of her characters to the public realm within the fictional space. At the same time, all three of her narrators in the process of testifying about Zahoor recreate their identities. This reconstruction is set far from what is expected of them socio-culturally: Noman no longer associates with his radicalized father; Amal is eager to pursue her career as a palaeontologist; and, against all odds, Mehwish has learnt to be independent. Therefore, their identity-formations bring a hopeful outlook to the notion of what a ‘real’ and ‘new’ Pakistan might look like. Against the looming legacy of Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamization within contemporary Pakistan, the testimonies of these three narrators create a larger, alternative testimony which, in turn, provides a more nuanced understanding of Islam, modernity and Pakistani identity.

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1 This did not imply that these graduates had an immediate access to high-paid jobs or governmental positions. On the contrary, many of these graduates were “ill-suited for careers other than within the burgeoning religious establishment” (Talbot 2012: 131). While pondering about their fate in 2017, the chief of army staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa remarked, “[w]ill they become maulvis [clerics] or will they become terrorists?” (Hadid & Sattar 2019). In this regard, Prime Minister Imran Khan emphasized “introducing a core-curriculum” with subjects like Math, English, and science to ensure that these madrasas produced “better qualified students” (Hadid & Sattar 2019).

2 Sunni Islam is divided into four orthodox schools of law (madhhabs). Following Hanbali law, Wahhabism, originating from what is now known as Saudi Arabia is the strictest form of Islamic jurisprudence. Muslims in South Asia can be divided into Deobandi and Barelvi traditions: the former group shows a closer allegiance to Wahhabism; the latter group adheres to a “more traditional South Asian version of the faith centered on the practices of Sufi mysticism” (Lewis 2010). Ahl-e-Hadith is a religious movement that emerged in northern India in the mid-19th century. In contrast to the Deobandis who consider prophet Muhammad more than just a human being as a nur [light], Ahl-e-Hadith regards the prophet as a human being only and the Quran, Sunnah, and Hadith as the sole sources of religious authority (The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, 2014).

3 Since 1979, “some 3.2 billion of funding flowed into Pakistan” over the next six years, making it the “third largest recipient of US aid after Israel and Egypt” (Talbot 2012: 120-1). The leakage of weapons, smuggling of drugs and the over-flow of Afghan refugees are some of the consequences of this conflict which affect Pakistani politics and identity to this day (Talbot 2012: 121).

4 In article 17 section (a), it is stated that “in matters pertaining to financial or future obligations, if reduced to writing, the instrument shall be attested by two men or one man and two women, so that one may remind the other, if necessary, and evidence shall be led accordingly” (Qanun-e-Shahadat Order 1984: 14).

5 First Introduced in 1860 under the British rule in India, blasphemy laws were revised in 1927. Pakistan inherited these laws and new clauses were added between 1980-1986 under Zia’s rule. For more on this matter, see Ahmed & Gulrajani (2020); Ochab (2021).

6 Sections 295B (1982) brought stricter punishment for those ‘defiling’ the Quran with life-time imprisonment in comparison to a ten-years imprisonment in the previously existing 295A section, and 295C introduced in 1986 made death a mandatory punishment for anyone who makes directly or indirectly derogatory verbal or written remarks.

7 There are two other scholars who have analyzed the book: Claire Chambers (2011) has compared Khan’s novel with other Muslim authors of the 20th century and situated the novel within a larger canon of Muslim writers, but her analysis of the novel, though relevant, is rather brief and generalized. Similarly, Diviani Chauduri (2021) has examined how the novel, in relation to contemporary Anglophone South Asian literature, presents vernacular landscapes beyond the discussion of climate change.

8 The term gateways might be interpreted geographically and psychologically. Geographically, much of the narrative is based in Lahore which is known as the city of gates. In the past, thirteen gates gave entrance to the city. Although the British destroyed almost all of these gateways, some of them are reconstructed in contemporary Lahore and it is also common among the local population to keep calling the various locations in Lahore by their old gateways. Thus, the gateways literally become linguistic signs of a lost past which is kept alive through language and memory. In a similar vein, Khan creates gateways of “the world”, “the man”, “the word”, and “the afterlife” despite their decay under the dictatorial regime and in its aftermath.

9 It must be noted that the accuser does not need to present a proof in the court while alleging someone with blasphemy. Instead, the verbal testimony of an accuser is taken as a proof. As is mentioned by Ahmed & Gulrajani, “the language of Section 295C does not require proof of blasphemous intent” (2020, 106). This puts a person alleged with blasphemy in Pakistan in a situation where his denial will not be entertained. The pernicious implication of is twofold: within the court, the person is silenced and within the socio-political realm, once one is alleged of blasphemy it is difficult for the person to prove him- or herself innocent through a speech act.

10 In Sara Suleri’s memoir Meatless Days (1989) which covers the same timeframe as The Geometry of God, Suleri portrays the radicalization of Pakistani Muslims under Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship in a strikingly similar fashion. When Suleri’s father becomes overtly obsessed with Islamic doctrines, her grandmother, who had been a strict follower of Islam in the past, abandons the daily ritual of five times prayer. As Suleri notices her conservative grandmother evade from religious practices to annoy her radicalizing father, she writes, “I think we dimly knew we were about to witness Islam’s departure from the land of Pakistan. The men would take it to the streets and make it vociferate, but the great romance between religion and the populace, the embrace that engendered Pakistan, was done” (Suleri 1989: 15).

11 Urdu word for grandfather used here by Amal for Zahoor.

12 A short poem composed of writing couplets of minimum 5 and maximum 15 couplets. Originating from the Arabic verse, the form later became popular with its usage by Medieval Persian poets. Since the eighteenth century the same form has been used extensively in Urdu poetry.

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Electronic reference

Ana Ashraf, The ‘Real’ Pakistan in Uzma Aslam Khan’s The Geometry of God (2007): A Testimony of Blasphemy Angles [Online], 14 | 2022, Online since 01 April 2022, connection on 20 August 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Ana Ashraf

Ana Ashraf is currently an independent researcher. She received her PhD in English Literature from KU Leuven in 2020. Her dissertation, entitled Literary Testimonies of War and Conflict of Twentieth Century British and Pakistani Women Writers, investigated the literary responses of a selection of British and Pakistani women writers to wars and conflicts in the 20th century as examples of literary testimony. She is mainly interested in Modern and Contemporary English Literature, Literature of War and Conflict, and Anglophone South-Asian Literature. Her recent publications include the book chapters “The Ambivalence of Testimony in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1948)” (2020), “Literature as Testimony: Textual Strategies and Contextual Frameworks in Fatima Bhutto’s Songs of Blood and Sword” (2019), and the article “The Spectral, the Uncertain ‘I’ and the Spectacle in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Demon Lover and Other Stories” (2019). Contact: ashraf.ana [at]

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