Brief Introduction to Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Burnt Shadows was written in the year 2009 by renowned Pakistani-British author, Kamila Shamsie. The novel is a historical epic, documenting the most tragic events of recent global history through the lens of two families, the fate of whom seem to be intertwined throughout the story. The story has no particular protagonist or antagonist.
The hero in the novel is the life of the people affected by the major occidental blunders presented in the book – World War II, the partition of India in 1947, the Afghan-Soviet War, the 9/11 WTC attacks, and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan. However, Shamsie dives deeply into none of these events, giving a broader, yet exotically powerful perspective on each of them.
The novel was critically acclaimed and won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction in 2010. It was also shortlisted for the prestigious Orange Prize Award in 2009. Reviewing Burnt Shadows for The Guardian, Maya Jaggi wrote,
“Any reader anticipating a predictable yarn about the radicalisation of Islamist youth may feel cheated. Far more, I suspect, will feel challenged and enlightened, possibly provoked, and undoubtedly enriched.”
Political Events Presented in Burnt Shadows
Kamila Shamsie was born in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1973, just a couple of years after the creation of Bangladesh. The country was in the midst of a prolonged political turmoil during that period, which resulted in a number of Pakistanis seeking a stable and dignified life to move to the West. Each of these families had stories of the turbulent years that followed the partition in 1947, which is amply reflected in Shamsie’s works.
In Burnt Shadows, Shamsie presents some of the most tragic events of recent history, beginning with the horrific nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in August 1945. While the depiction of the tragedy is quite limited, it is powerful enough to leave a resounding effect till the very end of the novel. The story begins with a young Japanese woman, Hiroko Tanaka, and a German national Konrad Weiss falling in love. Suddenly one hears bomb sirens, and in a flash, Konrad is turned into a smudge on the stones.
The novel then moves to Delhi during the last days of the British Raj, where Hiroko, now an atomic bomb survivor and a PTSD patient, arrives to meet and live with her evaporated lover’s half-sister, Ilse aka Elizabeth. The latter’s husband, James Burton, a British, is half-hearted about having a Japanese woman in his house but agrees. Subsequently, Hiroko starts learning Urdu from Sajjad Ashraf, a clerk in the Burton house, and soon, the two fall in love.
Hiroko and Sajjad elope to Istanbul to escape his conservative Muslim family, when the second tragic event, the partition of India takes place. When the couple tries to move back to Delhi, they find that they are no longer welcome, and hence, they are forced to settle down in Karachi. Elizabeth, on the other hand, ends her marriage with James Burton and moves to New York City. The story takes a jump to 1982, 35 years after the marriage of Hiroko and Sajjad, who now have a boy, Raza.
Raza, having performance anxiety on exam day, is a young boy who ends up in a Mujahideen camp in Afghanistan. This is the era of the Afghan-Soviet War, one of the most important geopolitical events of the 20th century. The Afghan War was also the beginning of the end for the United States of Soviet Russia (USSR), commonly known as the Soviet Union. Yet again, Shamsie refrains from going too much into the event, though detailing enough to give the readers a chilling account.
Sajjad is assassinated by one of the “paranoid” Mujahideen, and Raza returns home, due to the efforts of Harry Burton, son of Elizabeth and James Burton. Harry, who’s a CIA operative, turns Raza into a military contractor in Afghanistan working with intelligence agencies, and subsequently, the story takes another jump to New York City, in 2001.
Hiroko moves to New York to spend time with Elizabeth, and by the end of the novel Raza ends up in the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, turning out to be the naked prisoner in the prologue. Hiroko, on the other hand, is once again helpless, looking out of the window, just like moments before her first love evaporated.
Analysing the Political Events in Burnt Shadows
The Hiroshima-Nagasaki Atomic Bombings, 1945
In the history of all the wars that human beings have ever fought, no weapon caused more fatalities than the two atomic bombs that were fired in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Just to put into perspective, according to the official data, over 126,000 civilians lost their lives in Hiroshima and about 80,000 in Nagasaki.
While the magnitude of the event, as mentioned above, was extremely severe, the depiction of it in Burnt Shadows is quite powerful as well. The way Shamsie writes about the ‘evaporation’ of Konrad fills the heart with horror and chills. Nonetheless, the story is more than just about the physical effects of the bombings – it covers the human aspects of it, illustrating the long-lasting consequences of it on the social and emotional lives of those affected by bombings through the life of Hiroko.
The emotional pain and mental disturbance the survivors went through is unimaginable, and yet one feels what Hiroko is suffering through. With the loved ones ‘evaporated’ and scars, both physical and emotional, embossed on her life, she journeys in search of peace and love, which, in reality, she never accomplished.
The irony of the post-World War era is that those who massacred hundreds of thousands of civilians in a single city have become the torchbearers of peace and civilization. No matter how much the anglosphere defends the atomic bombings, how can one overlook the post-war benefits it reaped out of it, one of which was the US dollar becoming a global currency despite receiving opposition from none other than John Maynard Keynes?
Likewise, we witness how the lives of the common citizenry were devastated in a war that they had no role to play in, except for the heavy taxes imposed on them by their respective governments, followed by years of recession, poverty, and hunger. The ruling elite, hungry for power and dominance, caused the populace to lose their shelter, bread and loved ones – three things a common person lives for.
The India-Pakistan Partition, 1947
After surviving the nuclear bomb in Nagasaki, with bruises and burns, Hiroko arrives in Delhi, the melting pot of cultures. It was the end of times of the British Raj, and the advent of one of the fiercest geopolitical rivalries of the modern era. Before leaving the country, the British partitioned India into two states – a Muslim Pakistan and a secular India, a divide that initiated, arguably, the biggest migrant crisis in recorded history.
Millions of Muslims from India migrated to Pakistan and millions of non-Muslims from Pakistan to India, causing communal riots across the borders of the two newly formed states, each side accounting for thousands of deaths, rapes, and thefts. And since, the two countries have fought four major wars – 1947, 1965, 1971, and 1999, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths, not counting the continuous clashes across the Line of Control.
However, the worst impact seems to be on those people on either side who did not want to leave their homelands and were forced to do so. In Burnt Shadows, when Hiroko and Sajjad want to return to Delhi after the partition, they are prevented from doing so, which forces them to settle down in Karachi, thousands of miles and a heavily fortified border away from the land where they fall in love, a price they pay for no fault of theirs. This particular point in the story, without a doubt, resonates with millions of such people and is often romanticized by artists across art forms.
The song Husna, written by the legendary actor and writer Piyush Mishra for his play Pattar Anaar De, is one such example, where two soon-to-be-married lovers are separated by the partition. In one of his interviews, Mishra becomes emotional while expressing his pain and sorrow on the subject of partition, which is also a theme portrayed in Shamsie’s landmark text. He discusses the central character of his play, Husna, how she bears the brunt of the partition that turned her life into a tragic story.
The Soviet-Afghan War, 1979-1989
The Soviet-Afghan War was a nine-year war, between the Soviet Union and the Afghan Mujahideen. While apparently, it was a war between the Soviet-backed government of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and the traditional rural rebels, it turned out to be one of the biggest proxy wars of the Cold War between the USSR and the USA.
The war saw the death of about two million Afghans, most of them civilians, at the hands of the Russian imperial forces. Although the war was led by the Mujahideen of rural Afghanistan, many young boys, some even from neighbouring countries, unaware of the politics and cunning nature of war, were attracted to the idea of ‘liberating the Muslim land from the clutches of imperial forces.’ Shamsie touches the subject through the part of her novel where Raza, Hiroko and Sajjad’s son, inadvertently helps Abdullah to reach the training camps of the Mujahideen.
The Americans backed the Mujahideen, and so did most of the Allied forces, the Arab nations, Iran, and Pakistan. India, Vietnam, and East Germany, which weren’t as powerful, supported the Soviet Union. However, the only ones who didn’t get the support were the neutral civilians, millions of whom were forced to take refuge in other countries like Iran and Pakistan. The ‘paranoid’ Mujahid killing Sajjad simply because he kept on asking about his missing son, Raza, is an example of how life for an inquisitive mind would have been during those nine years.
But from an outsider’s view, one must ask who actually benefited from the war if not the Anglosphere, the global war mercenaries, and the private war companies. Raza, who once was with the Mujahideen becomes an interpreter for a private security firm, along with Harry, as they witness the CIA first backing the Mujahideen against the Soviets, and abandoning them after the Soviet withdrawal. Who wins the battle? Who was actually fighting? Was it really the Afghan resistance against the imperial forces, or was it the rise of neo-colonialism?
The 9/11 Attacks, and the (Recurring) Aftermath
September 11, 2001, Manhattan, New York. The World Trade Center, the two most powerful buildings in the world, was hit by two aeroplanes hijacked by Al Qaeda terrorists, and the world was never the same again. The attacks shook the entire civilized world, resulting in close to 3,000 fatalities, including 19 terrorists.
However, what resulted was the self-approved license to the Americans for openly discriminating against the Muslims in the country, and the American government to invade any Islamic country they wanted. Discarding all the conspiracy theories and some solid evidence that it was an insider job, it is hard to deduce the theory behind the attack and what exactly Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda wanted to achieve.
Coming back to the novel, Hiroko is again a witness to Ground Zero, and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan later that year. Though painfully, the novel shows how life came full circle, and she was on the receiving end of the wrath of destiny with her son, Raza, being picked instead of the man Kim, Harry’s daughter, identifies. Her subsequent efforts to undo the wrong go in vain and expose the post 9/11 tactics of the United States, which was hunting with the target on the backs of whoever they found.
Another gruesome aspect covered in the novel that documents the horrors of the post-9/11 era is the establishment of Guantanamo Bay in 2002. This torture camp that ensured indefinite detention without any trial of the inmates, was commissioned and built by the then POTUS, George W. Bush, a man who didn’t even apologize for the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians killed in the Iraq War despite it emerging as a well-established fact that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. When a man can literally bomb an entire country by peddling fake intelligence, what he could have done with a specially commissioned Nazi-style detention camp in his own territory is beyond imagination.
The opening prologue of a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, and the climax disclosing it to be the son of an atom bomb survivor is quite symbolic. For one, it states that the oppression of the anglosphere has endured to date. And sadly, we still have the Pentagon meddling and causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians through proxy wars and direct involvement in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and even in some parts of Europe, a recent example being the alleged involvement of the CIA in the failed military coup attempt in Turkey in 2016.
In an interview with publishing house Bloomsbury, Kamila Shamsie made a point of talking about Burnt Shadows. Here’s what she said,
“In the last few years, there’s been so much talk about the clash of civilizations, and it’s never been an expression I’ve believed in because… You know, I am a Pakistani Muslim, I live in London and am educated in America. So never that there’s anything inevitable or essential or really truthful (about) that there’s this clash of civilization that must happen.”
At the beginning of writing this article, I strongly disagreed with her point and thought that Shamsie was being ignorant of the fact that historically, cultures have clashed, and they continue to clash to this day. Their clash, thus, is inevitable, no matter how hard we try to avoid it. However, by the end of the article, I understand why she said so, and that it is possible for the world to be one big pot of cultures, where every civilization has its own history, which may or may not be universal.
Having said that, I still feel that civilizations will clash, and also that it is inevitable, though it doesn’t need to be essential. The existence of racial discrimination in the US more than a century after the civil war, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict even after decades of war, the Indo-Pak conflict that only intensifies, the larger Anglosphere versus the Islamic world is a reality, which one cannot simply ignore, no matter how possible a hypothetical world seems to be.
Apart from this particular point, studying Burnt Shadows has been a revelation for me, and I am looking forward to studying other works by Kamila Shamsie. I also conclude that the novel is a true masterpiece and an essential text for the students of post-colonial studies. In fact, Burnt Shadows may probably be the most important text in post-colonial literature written by a woman since the turn of the century. The political aspects of the novel are multi-layered and venture into unearthing the role of the occident and the anglosphere in the political turmoil throughout the 20th century and the first decade of the new millennium.
Noman Shaikh is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Bombay Reads. He grew up in Mumbai, a city he loves more than any other, and currently works as a content consultant. His expertise lies in creating high-quality academic and marketing content in the form of blogs, articles, op-eds, etc. Noman has worked with reputed brands, including Economic Times (through Spiral Media), Coinbase (through MattsenKumar), AdEngage, Della Group, GBIM Technologies, VAP Group, etc. For his published portfolio, click here. Contact Noman on noman@bombayreads for engagement.