The draw that certain artworks have on us is uncanny. It is like certain deep messages or feelings seem to ooze from those artifacts that enlighten our spirits in almost unspoken ways. And that feeling is a common one for the human condition. Battles over lost and found bits of art have always made for great themes in literature. Nazneen Sheikh has explored that theme in her novel The Place of Shining Light. And has enlightened readers by setting the scene in a troubled region of the world.
Adeel crawled toward the statue, moved by the serenity that radiated from the stone. The lidless eyes, curving lips, and sculpted stone folds of the robe exuded a hypnotic power. Tears pricked his eyes, his chest constricted, and he wondered if he was having a heart attack. The two men crawling behind him almost collided with him when he stopped moving. Adeel brushed his eyes with on hand and with the other he withdrew a pencil-thin flashlight from his pocket. He clicked it on and aimed it at the head of the statue, moving it downward very slowly. The dust-laden forma appeared to be in perfect condition. He moved toward it, pulled off the black scarf wound around his neck, and rubbed it on the face of the sculpture. The sheen of pale and unspoiled marble resembled human skin; his hand moved of its own volition and fingers cradled the face, stroking it gently.
Outside, a full moon lit the gentle valley of Bamiyan, where two rivers irrigated the land. The destruction wrought six years earlier by Afghan zealots on two gigantic Buddhist sculptures embedded in a cliff wall was followed by excavations for a copper mine in the vicinity. But this historic site formed no part of Adeel’s world. Although he knew that there were museums in Pakistan that at least pretended reverence for historical monuments, an ideologically divisive Muslim diaspora meant that he was expected to pay greater homage to artifacts representing Islamic spirituality.
The story is centered around a 5,000-year-old Buddhist sculpture and obsession by three men who wish to own it. Khalid is a leading Pakistani antiquities dealer and has arranged for the illegal importation of the statue from Afghanistan. Ghalib is a wealthy art collector and has purchased the statue for his collection. And Adeel is hired to transport the statue. But something happens to Adeel when he sees the statue and decides to keep it for himself. The ensuing plot line explores in brilliant detail not just the thrilling story but explores the philosophical questions of ownership of an artifact each character seems to have.
Khalid had a sudden urge to see an old photograph of his parents, who had died years ago. He found the framed picture in his office and looked at their familiar faces. His tall, lanky father wore a crumpled suit, locally made. He was standing next to Khalid’s mother, who was also simply dressed. Her hands, folded across her stomach, were broad, and the strands of hair escaping from her dupatta gave her a dishevelled appearance. The photograph had been taken outdoors in the little dirt yard of his childhood home. He mistook the uneasy expression of their faces a personal censure. Then he reminded himself that his gargantuan acquisitiveness had stemmed from his rejection of his parents’ willingness to live in relative poverty. He love his parents, but he had long ago decided to rise above their circumstances. While his timid father operated his business on a very modest scale, Khalid’s aspirations knew no limitations. He had travelled abroad and visited museums and galleries to learn how art was valued. The first two decades of his career were spent servicing clients outside his country. That had been the beginning, the root of what was now an immense fortune. Even so, Khalid had learned a few valuable lessons from his father. He kept his own collection to use as a bargaining chip, if the need arose. He hated financial losses, and always sought to balance his books as soon as he could in their aftermath.
Sheikh has a vivid and descriptive style. A reader can clearly envision a scene or sense an emotion from her words. And the story moves smoothly along with ease. There are deep introspective moments along with moments of drama and excitement.
That evening, faded carpets were spread over the bricks in the front courtyard. The household domestics sat on the ground in front of the drummer, while an armchair was brought outside for Ghalib. Next to him on a table rested a bottle of inferior whisky, Pakistani vodka, and numerous cans of beer. Ghalib nodded to his valet, who dipped his hands into a large straw basket and drew out garlands of miniature roses threaded with jasmine. As he distributed them, the drummer held up his hands, wanting the garlands to be wrapped around his wrists. He began to play a familiar Sufi elegy, swaying from side to side with rhythm. Ghalib was hypnotized by the flowers that encircled the drummer’s wrist, and by the gentle voices of his staff, who had joined in by singing the words. Within fifteen minutes, they were on their feet, pulled by the drum’s steady beat. Ghalib’s staff circled, dancing around the drummer as he twirled.
Ghalib sipped his beer and watched the faces of the dancing servants. Each of them wore a smile, as the party was a release from their assigned chores. Two of the teenaged boys broke away and danced together. The drummer encouraged them by quickening the music’s pace. Mesmerized, Ghalib joined in, circling each boy’s head with a 100-rupee not before tucking it safely into a shirt pocket. A generous amount of whisky was mixed with cola in a glass and offered to to the drummer. He emptied the glass in one long swallow before flinging it away, not once breaking the frenzied rhythm. Ghalib sank back into his chair and enjoyed the concert for the next two hours.
The Place of Shining Light by Nazneen Sheikh is not only a thrilling read and not only an introspective read but an enlightening one as well. Sheikh has taken the theme of lost art and exposed readers to thoughts and scenes unfamiliar to many of them. A great read.