In his new book, Shaheen Chishti weaves a narrative that focuses on two elements – women and suffering
A descendant of the revered sufi, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, whose shrine is also known as the Ajmer Sharif Dargah, Shaheen Chishti is aware of the legacy he carries on his shoulders. A dapper, well-spoken, modern man is what may come across but the essence of who he is and the book he has written betrays the outer shell. Deeply religious, a feminist and a staunch supporter of female empowerment in all fields – “I want to see a government with more women” – he’s a man on a mission.
Shaheen Chishti weaves a narrative that focuses on two elements – women and suffering. Three female voices echo through three painful periods of history including the Bengal famine, Holocaust and the Notting Hill Gate riots. All three are stains on man’s history due to the devastation caused by them and the consequential, staggering loss of human life. But Chishi goes beyond that. For him, it’s the impact that such lapses of humanity have on generations ahead and the poignant realisation that it takes a tragedy for humans to come together. Women and their survival is something he wraps the plot around, implying that if humanity is to retain its purity, if mankind is to make progress, it can only do so if the females are given a chance to live and prosper.
Telling a story for its own sake does not interest him. Residing and working in the UK, money and numbers are but a means of belonging in the modern world. It is the impact the actions of man and the consequences that they have, especially on women, that he wants to explore. “Suffering of women is universal. It has been happening since time began. It is about time we started addressing these things. I have written a book but I want to make a constructive appeal to the people. My campaign is a representation for women,” Chishti says.
The Granddaughter Project starts off with a deeply symbolic reference. A tree, alluding to the Tree of Life, one that connects three women harking from different times with specific reference to the three aforementioned historic atrocities. For Chishti it’s a very significant link to the characters. “That’s how I see women in society. Women give us shelter, they give birth, women are the mothers, daughters, sisters, friends and that’s how I see women, they are the foundation of our society. That’s what I thought, a prosperous, ever-growing tree.”
With the three historical incidents, Chishti is mirroring his life and channelling his thoughts in the book. Yes, the context enables the reader to identify with the setting, immediately widening the scope for establishing a personal connection with the event and the geographical location but it’s also Chishti himself connecting with the reader.
“The Bengal famine… was our [subcontinent’s] holocaust. Millions of Bengalis died of starvation. It had an impact on our society and I was very taken aback by that. The holocaust obviously, I grew up in England and I am blessed to have wonderful friends from other faiths as well and I felt it was very important to cover that to build bridges and to recognise each other’s suffering. And having gone to Holland Park School in London which happens to be right next to Notting Hill Gate and growing up there in the ’80s and ’90s so it was natural for me to read up on the race riots that were led predominantly by misunderstanding because a husband and wife, black and white, were seen talking. It was perceived to be a wrong association and that led to riots. Then there was the Notting Hill Carnival which I also used to attend. My school friends in the ’80s were wonderful, black people and I felt I owed it to them to highlight these things,” says Chishti.
Multi-culturalism at the forefront, the story itself explores themes of friendship, motherhood, isolation, friendship, patriarchy, healing and more, all of which are elements within Chishti as he travels through life on his own mission. He paints beautiful, emotionally charged scenes where the rawness of the relationship emerges beyond any categories.
What Chishti manages to achieve is that although there are different storylines, the suffering endured cannot be denied. The fact that all three took place on one planet and the consequential bonding that emerges out of these incidents indicates that there is a higher level of existence that is attained through suffering.
Not that it is glamourised a la Hollywood – rather, it is through the pain that all man-made elements – political ideologies, economic wars, concocted hatred - are stripped away causing the humanity to shine through for a purer, deeper way of connecting with fellow humans, the message being that it is imperative to move from mankind to focusing on kind and kindness alone.
In the ‘new world’, where our children are carrying not just the weight of their own uncertainty but also the history of the pre-pandemic world, humanity is at a crossroads. Will it finally achieve gender equality? Is constructive action finally being executed? The Granddaughter Project is a substantive start and a constructive one, with deeply symbolic lessons. The written word is where it begins.
The Granddaughter Project
Author: Shaheen Chishti
Publisher: Nimble Books LLC
The reviewer is an author based in Lahore