Love and friendship are the stuff of novels. Though love is a more common theme in fiction, friendship is every bit as complex, with both treachery and loyalty lurking in its hidden depths, as Kamila Shamsie shows in her latest novel, Best of Friends.
Best of Friends
Bloomsbury Publishing India Pvt. Ltd
Maryam and Zahra have been best friends since their nursery days at Karachi’s most prestigious school. When the story starts in 1988, the two have reached Class X. To the naked eye, their differences are negligible—both are from well-to-do Pakistani families, destined for British or American universities, and enjoy singing the latest Whitney Houston songs. But smart, sharp-tongued, and mildly rebellious Maryam has parents who are seriously rich, own a large, well-staffed bungalow, and spend their annual holidays in London. Zahra, academic, responsible, and clearly future head-girl material, is from a professional family that lives in a block of flats with only one domestic help to their credit.
This is a serious disqualification in the eyes of their status-sensitive Karachi school’s cool set, who feel Maryam should stick to her own kind—the moneyed lot who “swim at the same private members’ club”. But the friendship is unwavering, staunch even when Maryam takes a liking to her thuggish class fellow, Hammad, who inveigles her into a scrape. This is, on the face of it, a minor, predictable incident, but it also draws in Zahra and Hammad’s sinister older friend, Jimmy.
The event casts long shadows. Maryam’s grandfather, the family patriarch, is displeased and decides against training her to be the heir of his leather goods empire. She is bundled off to a boarding school in England where she longs for Karachi, where “her subtexts and her shadows” were known. Her friendship with Zahra survives not just the separation but also the fact that Maryam accepts all the blame for the scrape, never revealing she had tried to draw back from going out with the boys but went because Zahra wanted to (unbeknownst to Maryam, Zahra had a crush on Hammad). So in the public eye, Maryam got all the odium for being reckless and Zahra all the kudos for not abandoning her friend to the unsavoury duo.
Fast forward three decades and the two are living in London. Zahra is a high-profile civil liberties lawyer, heading her own NGO, frequently on television; Maryam is a successful entrepreneur, funding start-ups, dining with prime ministers, and hiring private boxes at Lord’s cricket ground. Maryam’s partner, Layla, is a sculptor introduced to her by Zahra, and they have a little girl, Zola, to whom Zahra is very close. Shamsie paints a picture of a warm, safe world of solid relationships, success, and fulfilment, lived in spacious London houses and flats. The rich Pakistani diaspora float in and out—including ex-schoolmates from Karachi who are either bankers and lawyers, or wives of the same, all discussing the politics of Rawalpindi and London.
And the best friends are still close, despite Zahra’s unconcealed disapproval of Maryam’s business-friendly, right-wing ideologies and Maryam’s exasperation with Zahra’s self-righteous, moral-high-ground liberalism. Maryam revels in her new hugely profitable facial recognition software start-up; Zahra successfully defends countless refugees from deportation. After a civilised divorce from her English law professor husband, Zahra prefers to be alone except for occasional rough encounters with unknown men in nightclubs or other places—an inclination impossible to reconcile with her intellectual, fastidious facade. She calls this one-night preference for louche, thuggish men—like her secret adolescent crush on Hammad—her “proclivities”, and finds it both convenient and thrilling. Into this satisfactory universe, Hammad and Jimmy suddenly reappear, and Zahra and Maryam’s different responses to this development force them to confront all the unresolved issues of their past.
What is especially interesting about this novel is its emphasis on relationships, its exploration of characters and motives, and how it places under a microscope what grand words like betrayal, loyalty, or friendship mean at the personal level, the soul-to-soul point. This is rare in South Asian fiction in English, much of which upfronts the political or historic. For various reasons, there is a widespread impulse to explain “society” in much Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi fiction in English.
However, Shamsie’s novels, right from her first, In the City by the Sea (1998), foreground relationships while history and politics are the backgrounds against which these play out. Which is not to say that Shamsie does not access the subcontinent’s history: Kartography (2002), for instance, explores the fraught relationship between the pre-1971 East and West wings of Pakistan through the lens of a marriage; Salt and Saffron (2000) spotlights how class determines every single relationship in the subcontinent. And her previous book, the highly acclaimed, award-winning Home Fire (2017) , is a clear-sighted look at the compulsions of faith, loyalty, and family in a contemporary retelling of Antigone. Best of Friends follows this trend.
It is not that political events are missing. The death of General Zia in a plane crash has a significant impact on Zahra’s family. Zahra’s father, the anchor of a popular television programme on cricket, had risked Zia’s displeasure when he refused to mention the General’s love for the game even though a special emissary from the leader had personally come to “request” it. Similarly, Benazir Bhutto’s election as Prime Minister inspired Maryam, the Karachi schoolgirl, profoundly—after all they both wanted to run their family businesses and Benazir was an effective counter to all those Pakistani men who were agents of a system that denuded women of power. Even as an adult, disillusioned by Benazir’s years in government, Maryam is still devastated when she hears of her assassination.
Benazir was a beacon of hope to the young girl who had been shaken to the core by her encounter with Jimmy and Hammad. Because Maryam, entitled, rich, with the unquestioning self-confidence of privilege, had for the first time, felt rage, terror, and helplessness as the two boys had trapped her and Zahra in a fast-moving car. She never forgot that moment and spent the rest of her life ensuring she would never feel powerless again. Once she felt sufficiently successful, she waited for the opportunity to get her revenge.
The problem is that her revenge on Jimmy and Hammad involve using information that Zahra gave her, and the fallout from that action takes the best friends to terrains where all the resentment, suppressed for years, surges out. “Sometimes it was as though 40 years of friendship between them was just a lesson in the unknowability of other people,” writes Shamsie.
While that is true, the two friends also know each other inside out. Zahra always disapproved of Maryam’s willingness to associate with sleazy politicians and others on the basis of her entitled assumption that it is all right for her to bend rules to get what she wanted. On the other side, Maryam found Zahra’s smug appropriation of the moral high ground infuriating, especially since it was Zahra who got into the car with Jimmy and Hammad, despite Maryam’s attempts to refuse. But until that moment, the strength of the friendship could override these feelings.
In Best of Friends, Shamsie is asking, how much can we forgive? Do all sins have long shadows? Can friendship be selectively blind, and what happens when it is not? This is an intense, almost forensic, look at the anatomy of friendship: its expectations; its ability to be, in equal parts, generous and destructive because each knows the chinks in the other’s armour and can aim at “the softness of the belly beneath”. Beautifully written and clinically observed, Best of Friends is Shamsie’s best book yet.
Ranjana Sengupta is an editor and author of Delhi Metropolitan: The Making of an Unlikely City.
- Maryam and Zahra have been best friends since their nursery days at Karachi’s most prestigious school.
- Their friendship endures all the ups-and-downs to stay strong even when their interests diverge in their adult lives.
- The two friends work in London. Shamsie paints a picture of a warm, safe world of solid relationships, success, and fulfilment, lived in spacious London houses and flats.
- Into this satisfactory universe, an unsavoury duo of men from their teenage years suddenly reappear, and Zahra and Maryam’s different responses to this development force them to confront all the unresolved issues of their past.
- In Best of Friends, Shamsie is asking, how much can we forgive? Do all sins have long shadows?