Kamila Shamsie is a superb storyteller and a gifted writer. After reading her novel "Kartography," I wanted to read everything else she had written, and so came upon "Salt and Saffron." Ms. Shamsie does not disappoint in this extraordinary book. She explores here the complexities of family relationships - the generational legends that approach mythology, feuds that last for one hundred years, births, deaths, loves, secrets and scandals. All these dramas are universal, but the author has focused her tale on the Dard-e-Dils, an aristocratic nawab family, descended from royalty as far back as the Mughal dynasty. This huge feudal clan made their home, before Partition in 1947, in Dard-e-Dil, India. Now most are Pakistani, and have been incommunicado with their former loved ones, on the other side of the border, since the declaration of Pakistani statehood. The clash between cultures, Pakistani and Anglo (British and American), and the prohibition of loving below ones class are also tackled here.
Aliya, a Dard-e-Dil granddaughter, is our narrator and tour guide through the intricacies of the family tree, lore and history, providing the readers with some new chapters of her own. Aliya's voice is a strong and intelligent one, however, there are times when her humor - the play on words and American English slang - are just too cutesie, and become annoying. When the novel begins, Aliya is returning to her beloved home in Karachi after 4 years at an American university. She stops over to visit a cousin, Samia, in London and meets an American Pakistani youth, Cal/Khaleel, on the plane. The two have much in common, are attracted to each other and become even more so when he seeks her out at her cousin's apartment. While having coffee, Aliyah discovers that Cal's parents, American immigrants, are from the lower classes. Their Karachi neighborhood was in Liaquatabad, a poor area of the city, making Cal a most unsuitable choice for a boyfriend or husband. Samia sums it all up quite nicely when she comments,"The poor live in Liaquatabad. The Poor, the lower-classes, the not-us. How else do you want me to put this? There's no one we know who would have exchanged Karachi phone numbers with him."
Aliyah is linked as a "not quite twin," with her aunt, the mysterious Mariam Apa, who elopes with the cook, another very unsuitable match. The legend of the "not quite twins," and the curse associated with it, is explained in the novel, and it is a clever device used to link generations. The segments devoted to Mariam and Masood, the cook, and their culinary creations are literally scrumptious. "Curly shaped jalaibees, hot and gooey, that trickled sweet syrup down your chin when you bit into them; diced potatoes drowned in yogurt, sprinkled in spices; triangles of fried samosas, the smaller ones filled with mince-meat, the larger ones filled with potatoes and green chilies; shami kebabs with sweet-sour imli sauce; spinach leaves fried in chick-pea batter; nihari with large gobs of marrow floating in the thick gravy, and meat so tender it dissolved instantly in your mouth; lassai that quenched a day-long thirst as nothing else did and left us wondering why we ever drank Coke....". There are further descriptions of spiced lamb, fragrant biryanis, sweetmeats and desserts that will make the mouth water.
"Salt and Saffron" is filled with enough enchanting tales to keep Shaharazad happy, but some of the "real life" story just doesn't ring true. In many cases extreme measures are taken by individuals to fulfill their lives and desires, and these acts have dire consequences as a result of breaking family taboos - taboos which often seem based on whim.
Ms. Shamsie's prose is elegant, lyrical and witty. Her dialogue is humorous, at times pensive and poignant, and at others fast and furious. "Salt and Saffron" is a substantial novel to be savored to the last word.