“‘Aliya, you have to understand love’.
Oh, that again.”
Salt and Saffron by Kamila Shamsie is a story built upon stories of companionship and acquired tastes, of the history of an empire of a family from the times of Timur Lang till present day, following our protagonist Aliya as she returns home to Karachi after college in America to discover herself and rediscover her family, simultaneously understanding love along the way.
The Dard-e-Dils are an ensemble of rich characters portrayed by Shamsie’s fantastic writing and are both larger-than-life personalities with their ever amusing lifestyles – christened even more absurd nicknames by Aliya and her cousins Samina and Saeed, while being active fragments of your local uncle, aunty and burha, bacha.
Thus, Shamsie introduces us to realistic characters that just hit home. The story is set predominantly in high society Karachi, peddling closely by the rest of the city on car rides to and from home and the airport, which makes the Dard-e-Dils stand out as reflections of their once aristocratic rich past, but with well-intentioned awareness of privilege from Aliya and the rest of her family.
The discussion on class differences present both in the past through the mystery of the midwife Taj decades before Partition, the ever-straining effects of Mariam Apa’s past and the events of her absence on the family name, and Aliya’s own attraction to Khaleel or Cal, makes for interesting conversation both in terms of character development, and for bringing the discussion on prejudice around not just as ownership of opinion, but rather a fear bubbling up towards superstitious anarchy. This ownership of certain prejudices exists throughout the book, leading characters apart both in history and in Aliya’s life, only to realize later the grief brought up from loss as proven stronger than individual petty thought.
It is such prejudice towards and a superstitious “well-intentioned” avoidance of the not-quite-twins that has attached itself to the Dard-e-Dil family like a host, and it is this possible entropy that Shamsie narrates to us. This chaos is explored through stories recited through Aliya’s Daddi on the triplets of the past – Akbar (Aliya’s Dadda), Sulaiman and Taimur (Mariam Apa’s father), and the not-quite twins of the present – Mariam Apa and Aliya herself.
Thus, the central plot is the enigma of the not-quites and the chaos they carry with them. The triplets of the past that divided the family before and around Partition into Indians, Pakistanis and elsewhere, scattering them rather than bringing them together – the family’s opinion, and the love they carry with their names and in memory – the opinion of those who lived with them; this being Aliya’s grandmother, Abida, and her sister Meher Daddi.
Meanwhile, the havoc on the family name from the other non-quites is seemingly taken care of by Mariam Apa and the family awaits as Aliya discovers the truth behind Mariam Apa’s disappearance to reenact the effect and bring some shame of her own to the family.
The not-quites however as Aliya herself puts it are not something incomplete, but “more than twins… or better still, fallible like you; capable of error, like you; given to passion, like you”. Hence, it is through this likeness of personalities portrayed by Shamsie that the reader sits with pen in hand to annotate and drink the book in with its flawed characters and beautiful prose.
Salt and Saffron is a story led by retellings of the past, where Aliya and the reader discover the walks of life together. It is through the retelling and rediscovery of stories that Aliya understands herself, but most importantly she understands those around her and those that have left.
It is through these stories that she learns and unlearns prejudice, that which “all families are possessed of… that alternative name for fear”, and in the unlearning, she understands her Daddi and Mariam Apa and the love that exists not just in bursting presence, but the love that absence carries with it.
The love that exists in “the textures of silence, the timbres of it, and sometimes even the taste” that Mariam Apa taught her both in her being and not-being.
The love that existed in the fleeing from and acceptance of the monsoon rains where the grief of loss once avoided was accepted as the sky rained down with all its fury.
The love that is regained when Naz returns.
The love of the aching heart (Dard-e-Dil) that bleeds of loss, framed as a reminder in Ghalib’s shair on Mariam Apa’s bedroom wall.
The reincarnated love that is discovered as the once familiar side of the coin is flipped facing down.
And the love reflected in the importance of salt.
It is a story about stories, where “when we tell our stories our stories tell on us; they reveal what is and what is not explicable in our lives”, and what it tells is this – it is a love letter; an opening of the heart to let hurt in simultaneously with the joy. It is a love letter to food and all the different intricacies of excellent Pakistani cuisine explored through the expertise of Masood’s cooking. And it is a love letter to family, those of the past, that of the present, and the possible new additions of the future.