Noor by Sorayya Khan is a beautiful book. And, as one of the first, and only, Pakistani novels in English to deal with the 1971 Bangladesh War, it is also very important.
The Noor of the title is the mentally disabled daughter of Sajida, a Bengali woman brought to East Pakistan as a young child during the 1971 war, and raised as a Pakistani. Sajida has forgotten much of her background, her language and family, with only dreams and fragments remaining to remind her of who she once was, and who she might have become had circumstances been different. But she has particularly vivid dreams, in which her long-dead mother comes to her in uncanny detail. With the birth of Noor, mentally disabled but more sensitive and intuitive than others, Sajida discovers more about her past than even she remembers. Noor also has an extraordinary artistic talent. As one of her only means of communication, Noor paints and draws her inherited memories of the massacres that her mother witnessed, but had forgotten and repressed for so many years. These memories have the potential to be explosive, as Sajida’s adoptive father Ali, Noor’s grandfather, was a West Pakistani soldier in East Pakistan/Bangladesh as a young man, and had done his best to bury the horror that he not only witnessed like Sajida, but was partly responsible for, too.
Part of Khan’s skill is in making the fantastic and the far-fetched seem completely natural. Noor, disabled, is rejected by her father shortly after her birth, but Sajida accepts her unwaveringly as an extension of herself. It is as this extension that we believe Noor is able to represent the inherited, repressed memories.
Along with the plot elements in which the imagination needs to be suspended are those for which it shouldn’t: graphic descriptions of rape, mass murder, barbaric nationalism and the ferocity of war. An indication of the controversial nature with which the Bangladesh War of Independence is still discussed can be seen in Khan’s introductory note, in which she thanks the many Bangladeshis and Pakistanis who shared their experiences of the war with her, but whom she could not name.
I have decided not to include a passage from the novel describing the horrors of the 1971 war in this review, because decontextualising them feels wrong. Noor is not a pornography of violence, and I do not wish to make it one. It reminded me, in some ways, of Bapsi Sidhwa’s Cracking India, in that it subtly builds up to something so shocking that it leaves the reader reeling. The graphic violence should be placed alongside the beauty of the relationships Khan portrays, relationships that can withstand secrets, repression and the knowledge of brutality, but only through compassion for the lessons learnt. Perhaps that is where the salvation lies for Ali, representative of West Pakistani crimes.
The suggestion is, then, that Noor represents the Pakistani memory of the war: repressed, but bursting to get out, be acknowledged, and properly atoned for; unspeakable, beyond language, as it is Noor’s paintings that dredge up the past, not her words; shameful, reconfiguring family and community ties. Noor’s father rejects her, as Sajida and Ali rejected their memories of the war, but only recognition of the trauma can allow the family, and the community, to grow.