Hurtling towards and ending

If you want to experience Shah Rukh Khan’s entire romantic film career in print, look no further than Sara Naveed’s second publication, Our Story Ends Here, which has recently been released by Penguin Random House, India. The only problem? It isn’t a biography of the Indian film superstar, but a love story set in Pakistan, between a terrorist and an army general’s daughter.
You read that right.
“Extremists are not born to love,” says Sarmad, while in the heart of a terrorist camp based in Kabul, where he talks about travelling to Lahore for his next suicide mission. He is not alone, as he stands bare-chested in front of Nafisa, his fellow ‘colleague’ (read jihadi). But this message is lost on Nafisa as she is clearly deeply smitten with him and insists on touching him one last time before he leaves — maybe forever.
A novel that sacrifices nuance, diction and character development in its attempts to craft a cinema-worthy story
On the other end of the spectrum is Mehar, the beloved daughter of retired army general Haissam. Mehar wishes to travel to Swat with her friends, but is afraid her overprotective parents will not allow her. After she manages to gather her courage and ask for permission, they surprisingly agree. However, just as Mehar is about to rejoice, her mother pipes up, “as soon as you return from this trip, we’ll get you engaged to your Phuppo’s elder son, Hamza.” Flashback to Bollywood flick DilwaleDulhania Le Jayenge when young Simran wishes go on one last trip across Europe to celebrate her freedom, before being married against her will to her cousin. At this point, one becomes certain that Raj — sorry, Sarmad — will make an appearance soon and most certainly in a heroic and dramatic way.
The first look between the two evokes feeling of nostalgia and familiarity within them, with Mehar’s heartbeat “coming to a sudden halt”, and Sarmad admitting to himself that “no face had caught my attention the way this girl’s did. I had never felt attracted to any woman in my life before. … I had forgotten the world around me.” And clearly forgotten his impending suicide bombing mission.
The way Sarmad and Mehar’s paths collide moments later is very much reminiscent of Veer Zaara, another Shah Rukh Khan blockbuster. In the film, Zaara Hayat Khan is saved by Indian air force pilot Veer Pratap Singh when her bus is involved in an accident. In Our Story Ends Here, Sarmad saves Mehar’s life in a similar situation when the bus on which she is riding to Swat overturns and she is hurt. Disregarding his own safety, he jumps to save her and she is rescued, all well albeit a few minor injuries.
Even though Sarmad has been tipped off that the authorities have been alerted to the extremists’ mission and are on the lookout for suicide bombers, he puts everything aside to save Mehar. They then find refuge in a nearby household where everyone assumes them to be a married couple and the two play along. For several days.
The novel does not make the reader’s job easy. Many questions come up as the narrative explodes towards a climax worthy of the Bollywood 100-crore club, where suspension of disbelief is necessary and eye-rolling eventually becoming physically exhausting. Why hasn’t Mehar tried to contact her clearly influential family to help her out of this situation? She doesn’t know anything about Sarmad, yet still proceeds to fall in love with him, never asking him who he is and why he remains silent about his past. There are too many glaring holes in the narrative, and coupled with the lack of character development, it feels as though Naveed is not bothered about such minor details.
However, the more worrisome and uncomfortable realisation one comes away with is that perhaps the book is romanticising a suicide bomber and trivialising the seriousness of the crimes Sarmad could have committed. Agreed, fiction allows a lot of room for the writer to exercise creative discretion. Characters do not need to be moral and upright. But when such a controversial topic is tackled, it needs sensitivity and nuance in its treatment, which Our Story Ends Here lacks.
The geopolitical backdrop of the story is an interesting element that sheds light on why Sarmad has taken this path, but Naveed sacrifices it in the face of a fast-paced narrative. Yet, it is in those very brief chapters, when we belatedly find out why Sarmad chose to become a terrorist, that the novel offers a more personalised insight into the inner machinations of how radicalisation is a product of foreign policy lapses. More than ideology, it is the need for revenge for the loss of loved ones that seems to drive these individuals. Had this element been the main focus, or even explored in more detail, the overall narrative would have greatly benefitted.
Sadly, if the premise of the novel doesn’t appeal, neither does its diction. The story is badly written and badly edited. A linear narrative, with scant exploration of its characters, which is merely focused on hurtling towards a neat ending: this sums up the experience of reading Our Story Ends Here and when the story does end, a sigh of relief is audible.
Our Story Ends Here
By Sara Naveed
Penguin Random
House, India
ISBN: 978-0143428176
288pp.

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