Of Elephants and Brightness

One of the good things about airport bookshops in strange places is that they often stock books that I wouldn’t otherwise come across, and my two picks – from Dubai – were both worth the price.

The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown by Vaseem Khan is a fun read. Set in Mumbai, the premise is pleasingly absurd. The British crown jewels are exhibited in India, and not only is the crown stolen, but with it the Koh-i-Noor, the diamond whose name translates to Mountain-of-Light, claimed by Britain as a spoil of war in the 1942 Punjab War. In steps Detective Inspector (Retired) Chopra, with his baby elephant, Ganesh, to solve the crime.

He does, albeit on the back of rather too many faces he can’t quite place. But what makes the book worthwhile is the happy dust that’s sprinkled over it. Mumbai is a vast metropolis teaming with poverty and corruption. These are not glossed over, but Chopra’s indominatable optimism sweeps both him and the reader through this. Even the bad guys aren’t evil, just misguided. And, without giving the ending away, the diamond is acknowledged as a symbol for both nations.

And, while I wouldn’t rate Khan’s depictions of Mumbai on a par with Chandler’s of LA, he comes pretty close.

The protagonist of the The Sand Fish, by Maha Gargash of Dubai, is also a Noora – in this case, a common girl’s name in Arabic, meaning brightness. We start with her in her younger years in the Musandam, a little visited promontory that extends into the straits of Hormuz. The book is set in the 1950s, when people in this area lived as they had since the dawn of history.

I haven’t been able to read much fiction by Arab women (because there’s so little, at least in English). Although Gargash’s book is not as vibrant as Rajaa Alsanea’s Girls of Riyadh, what it lacks in pace it makes up for in the depiction of life in that place and time. The Sand Fish makes it clear how limited the options for women (and indeed, for men) were; it depicts the power dynamics between wives of polygamous husbands, and it hints at the changes that were to sweep that part of the world from insignificance to global fame.

And yet, at the end of the book, it’s the author in her notes, not the protagonist Noora in her internal life, who tells us why the book ends the way it does. That does not ruin the book, but it does make the end of the story anti-climactic. And I still have no idea what a sand fish looks like.


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