After reviewing Sorayya Khan’s Noor several months ago, I thought Five Queen’s Road would have a tough time living up to that beautiful book. But this, too, is a wonderful novel with much sensitivity, depth of characters, and careful plot exposition and layering. Sorayya Khan has earned her place in my top three South Asian writers active at the present (along with Githa Hariharan and Anjum Hasan).
Five Queen’s Road is set in Lahore and moves between July 1947 (Partition) and 1961. Dina Lal, a Hindu resident of Lahore, refuses to leave his city when so many of his community are fleeing. Against the better judgment of his wife, he purchases Five Queen’s Road from a departing Englishman. In an attempt to protect himself and his wife from potential violence, he converts to Islam and invites a Muslim family to live at the front of the grand house. Over time, Dina Lal and his tenant, Amir Shah, fall out, and a battle of wills develops between them. As the years progress–we are not shown them in a linear manner, instead jumping back and forth in time to have the progression revealed to us bit by bit–Amir Shah’s son, Javid, studies in the US and marries a Dutch woman, Irene. It is partly through her outsider’s eyes that we explore the complex relationships between the family members, the city of Lahore, and the house at Five Queen’s Road.
For those familiar with Partition literature, Five Queen’s Road might initially be compared to Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column (though I do think Khan is a more sophisticated writer) in that the family home acts as a character in its own right, used as a motif to explore ideas of belonging, separation and attachment. Five Queen’s Road is passed from an Englishman to an Indian (who became Pakistani), so could be seen as a metaphor for all sorts of things. But, Five Queen’s Road is also different, as ultimately, the house is just a material object, it is the people who are attached to the house that matter more. Dina Lal is given strict instructions by the man he buys the house from on how to care for the garden, what should be in each room, and so on, but he willfully neglects to do any of these things.
Sorayya Khan is a very clever writer. I am easily irritated by the literary technique of jumping back and forth in time, as it is often a device used purely for the sake of it, because an author thinks that it may be more interesting than a simple linear progression of plot and narrative. But, Khan does it perfectly. Details of the characters’ lives are revealed gradually, and just as I would begin to wonder if I had missed something, not quite understanding why something happened the way it did, another piece of information from another time was added, making me realise I hadn’t missed something, that it was deliberate. This narrative technique also works well because this is not necessarily a plot driven book. Things happen, and these things are very significant, but the main focus is on the characters, their relationships with one another and with the world. By switching back and forth in time we are able to see how they were shaped, as people, by external events in their lives.
As with Noor, I have struggled to isolate a passage that could capture Khan’s writing adequately. Five Queen’s Road’s beauty lies in the overall effect, and I highly recommend readers discover this for themselves.