Maniza Naqvi’s latest offering is a sincere quest for coexistence at a time when conflicts stand the danger of tearing people apart
aniza Naqvi’s The Inn offers a radical departure from the recurring meditations on urban life that have dominated her oeuvre. The novel’s geographical setting may come as a surprise for those who have been reading the author’s work over the decades. Karachi – the bustling city that features in a vast majority of her novels – is nowhere to be found in Naqvi’s latest offering. Instead, readers are plucked out of the chaos of city life and transplanted into the idyllic Virginia countryside. The decision to shift gears and opt for a different setting doesn’t appear to be jarring as the landscape Naqvi evokes is sown deep within her literary imagination. She is familiar with its sights, sounds and flavours, and paints an intimate, intricate portrait of her surroundings.
Situated in this bucolic milieu, the eponymous inn becomes Pakistan-born Sal’s panacea when intense loneliness and his exacting job as a radiologist threaten to assail him. A veritable misfit in both rural Punjab and Washington DC, Sal begins to cultivate a deep affinity with Billy and Slyvia, the elderly couple that owns the inn. He also strikes up a romantic liaison with a woman who espouses right-wing beliefs. The relationships that he forms in this rustic idyll allow him the opportunity to discover the pleasures of a carefree existence. Over time, Sal fashions a home for himself at the inn. The rural guesthouse acts as the balm that somewhat alleviates the traumas he carries of a broken marriage and an enforced separation from his son.
The inn, however, isn’t akin to the Forest of Arden from Shakespeare’s As You Like It where guests can find a cure to their emotional distress. The owners aspire to create a serene environment, but they operate within a strict set of rules. Politics is anathema at the inn and the owners never spare an opportunity to reprimand Sal when he makes an occasional comment about politics or any knotty concerns.
Sal’s visits to the countryside retreat become increasingly stifling once circumstances take an unpredictable turn after 9/11. The terrorist attacks spark off an intense polarisation in American society and the world as a whole. The seeds of suspicion weaken the special bonds Sal has developed in the countryside. Islamophobia becomes a searing reality as the so-called War on Terror gathers momentum and results in civilian casualties in foreign lands. A deep disgust wells up inside Sal as he detects a change in attitudes towards Muslims. Unfortunately, Sal steadily begins to realise that the inhabitants of the inn are unfazed by the war. The owners also discourage him from discussing the matter as they view any form of active opposition to the war “as siding with unimaginable violence and with absolute evil”.
A closer study of the text reveals the inn is a metaphor for an America that can no longer uphold the spirit of inclusiveness.
Sal’s dissatisfaction with the war stems from the chasm it has created between the land of his birth and the country where he has put down his roots. Even so, his rage isn’t the catalyst that steers the novel towards its denouement. Naqvi recognises that fiction cannot become a site for a battle of ideologies. As a counterpoint to history, a fictional narrative must open a vista onto how love and humanity thrive amid the turbulence of war. Fuelled by these sentiments, Naqvi’s new novel embarks on a sincere quest for coexistence at a time when conflicts stand the danger of tearing people apart.
The Inn deviates from the slew of novels that explore the deleterious effects of 9/11 on economic migrants from Pakistan. Naqvi doesn’t excessively glorify the American dream as a trophy of sorts that was withdrawn in the aftermath of the attacks that took place on September 11, 2001. Her protagonist seems to be cognizant of the shortcomings of the American dream and its inability to account for his spiritual and emotional needs. For instance, Sal’s life in America is characterised by “long hours of labour and, over time, a burgeoning bank account” – an illusion that is shattered when he feels the burning desire to escape into a countryside inn. A closer study of the text reveals the inn is a metaphor for an America that can no longer uphold the spirit of inclusiveness. The rural establishment is, therefore, elevated from being a mere physical presence and becomes an embodiment of a country that has fallen victim to bigotry. As a result, Sal’s inn becomes a spirited defence against the iniquities of war and its ramifications on the innocent as well as the unknown perpetrators of its blinkered ideology.
Naqvi’s novel derives its creative thrust from America’s war against militancy but seeks to approach the subject from a distance. With its skillful use of the motif of memory and loose adherence to a linear trajectory, The Inn allows readers to take short dips into its deep waters.
The crowning glory of Naqvi’s new work is its rich panoply of characters that are at once despicable and realistic. Slyvia and Billy have been associated with humanitarian agencies that help people in different parts of the world and recognise their own inherent goodness. Sal, who allows his judgment to be clouded by rage, is prepared to build barriers rather than bridges in the face of adversity. Each of these characters is problematic and seemingly unlikeable. Even so, these qualities are what make them appear all the more convincing and appealing.
Author: Maniza Naqvi
Publisher: Maktab-e-Daniyal, 2021
Price: PKR 800
The reviewer is a freelance journalist and author of Typically Tanya