This is a powerful, sweeping novel that follows the life of Saleem Khan, a high school teacher from rural Pakistan who migrates to Bradford in the 1960s. Saleem faces vicious racism in the Yorkshire mills, becomes a witness to the violence of imperialism when he returns to Pakistan and ends his tale contemplating suicide bombing in modern day Manchester.
It is a highly personal account of love, conflict and loss, but it is also the tale of a generation of migrant workers who arrived in Britain full of hope only to find that they faced bitter racism and poverty. The struggles of this generation changed the working class in Britain — and we see Asian workers in this novel fighting to join the union.
Mehmood has portrayed this experience of migration, racism and resistance before, but this work goes much further, delving into the vast arena of modern imperialism and the “war on terror”.
The novel draws on the themes of racism, war, class and empire. Yet it doesn’t feel forced or didactic. The story touches on political events that have shaped lives across continents and the author skilfully draws out the impact of these on the daily life of Saleem Khan.
Saleem’s relationships with family and friends are shown in all their complexity, and his strained relationship with his daughter is convincingly heartbreaking. There are a few surprises too, such as Saleem’s enduring love for a white woman. At the same time, we see how racism changes and Islamophobia grows.
Much of the action takes place in Pakistan, where Saleem returns to find that he is now a different sort of outsider — an “Abroadi”. The sketches of his life there are full of warmth and humour and touchingly convey the region’s beauty.
Yet they also portray the peril of living in a country of such strategic importance to the US, with a powerful security service that is deeply implicated in the West’s ongoing wars. Saleem and his cousin are unwillingly drawn over the border into Afghanistan where the US is supporting the Mujahideen in a proxy war against the Russians. This episode has a lasting impact on Saleem and it is where we first meet Gulzarina — a woman brutally mistreated by both sides in the conflict, whose song becomes the theme of the unfolding story.
A tale of how a potential terrorist is created can’t avoid being a comment on current political narratives around radicalisation. Saleem may seem an unlikely suicide bomber — he is in his 70s when he makes his plans for a terror attack. However, his story challenges the idea that such extreme acts are driven by religion — Saleem is propelled by his experiences of loss and the devastation of Western foreign policy.
Song of Gulzarina is an engrossing, impassioned and thought-provoking novel touching on some central themes of our times. I think it is Tariq Mehmood’s finest work to date and I thoroughly recommend it.