Nostalgia, less a word and more an emotion, brings out the best from most. Some speak, others write. Just like Awtar Engill, who in his novel, City of Unrest, goes back to his days in Peshawar, where he was born, and culls out characters that are amiable as well as intriguing at the same time. From the pre-Partition days, he has captured emotions of the common folk and presented a story that speaks of those times in true earnest. When the Partition — a ‘coldly calculated move’ by the then Viceroy Lord Mountbatten — happens, the author gets intense with his narration. The pain, the trauma, the loss and the longing, has been narrated well. This, despite Engill having moved to India, Shimla, to be precise, post the division, but not before gathering a bagful of childhood memories.
Peshawar, ‘the largest city and cultural hub of South West Asia since as early as 539 B.C.’, becomes the extended metaphor for the values people stood by; a bucolic society, where ‘making a mountain out of a molehill was common’, Peshawar assumes an identity larger-than-life in the hands of the author, whose years of experience speak out at every nook and cranny. Simple characters engrossed in their daily chores — a Nanki, an Attar Singh, the ‘fair’ Premo, an assiduous Jaggi and his twin brother, Trilok, an Omaran, the queen of Karimpura; Beebo Baamni, a Brahmin widow, Maan Chand, Kamman Singh — hold the story together, where history takes over literature, often. So, there is a Babur ‘barbarian’ who invades Peshawar, Pearl Harbour that is bombed by the stealthy Japanese air force and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima as well as Nagasaki, which changed the course of history. Quite a lot to ingest in a single piece of literary creation!
The writing is simple, rather simplistic. The linear flow is broken by poetic utterances and abundant sprinkling of verses through the text; something that points at the rich repertoire of the author’s knowledge.
Overall, nostalgia writ large.