India’s Andaman Islands, closer to Burma than India itself, share with Britain’s Channel Islands, closer to France than Britain itself, the (perhaps dubious) distinction of being the rare if not only parts of the larger polity to have been occupied by Axis forces during the Second World War. Japan invaded the Andamans in March 1942, which fell (much like the Channel Islands) with hardly a shot fired. Unlike the Channel Islands, however, the Andamans, home to a notorious prison for political prisoners, largely poverty-stricken and under a particularly oppressive colonial administration, was not a happy place before occupation.
And it is in the Andamans where Uzma Aslam Khan has set The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali, which centers on the lives of three adolescents—the eponymous Nomi, her brother Zee, and the ethnically Burmese Aye—for the decade from the mid-1930s until the immediate aftermath of the War. This lyrical novel was first published in 2019 by an imprint of Amazon’s erstwhile publishing arm in India; it (somewhat inexplicably) took until this Spring for the book to be published “internationally”, in an edition by Deep Vellum, the independent US literary publisher.
The novel opens with Nomi’s beloved brother Zee being taken away by the Japanese soon after their arrival. Zee had appropriated a gun from his (now disappeared) British school teacher; he had shot in the air during a melee involving Japanese soldiers who were taking chickens from the local population, including Nomi’s own Priya, as much a cherished pet as a source of eggs.
The writing is on the wall, and Aye’s best efforts at aiding an escape notwithstanding, Zee is captured, brutally tortured and, pour encourager les autres, executed in the town square.
This episode in 1942 forms a hinge between a grim colonial occupation—the novel details the life of political prisoners, many of whom, like Nomi’s father Haider Ali, remain in the Andamans, broken in spirit and body, after their terms are nominally up—and an even grimmer Japanese military occupation. Threading through the novel is the blossoming, despite everything, of a relationship between Nomi and Aye.
The novel, at least this edition, is missing the traditional disclaimer that “any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental”. Zee and his fate, however fictionalized, are a retelling of the 1942 execution of Zulfiqar Ali, a young man who fired an air gun at Japanese soldiers in search of chickens. Other historical incidents, albeit not so central to the plot, find their way into this well-researched novel (research that was none too easy since most of the records of both the British and the Japanese were destroyed).
In India, where it was first published, the novel seems to have struck a chord by shining a light on a somewhat obscure corner of colonial history. The Japanese passed nominal control of the Andamans to Subhas Chandra Bose and his Azad Hind government in December 1943. Here as elsewhere, the past isn’t ever dead and politics with distinct contemporary echoes suffuses the novel which begins with an argument between Zee and his father about the coming of the Japanese.
“They are Asian, like us,” said the father of Nomi and Zee … “The British have left. We are free.”
“We are not free. We are under the Japanese.”
The wider anglophone readership is perhaps more likely to be struck by Khan’s often lyrical prose, vivid descriptions of both the beauty of nature and man’s inhumanity:
If Nomi shut her eyes and listened closely, she could hear a rhythmic rumbling all around her. The islands were breathing. The whole universe seemed to sing. The sea was so many greens and blues, all glassy and glittering. The surf rolled sweetly along the white beaches, though she had never known a beach to be white, a surf to be sweet. The sky was absolutely clear, and there was just enough of a breeze to kiss the sweat from her arms, but not the terrible kind that said a storm was coming and they would be wet for days …
From this height, the other islands were just dots, and now Zee was pointing to the one where there had been a sawmill and elephants to clear the forests. When the Japanese bombed it, the cry of elephants could be heard even over the sirens, and some people reported seeing monstrous globes of fire charging into the sea.
Also striking is the richness of her characters: political prisoners, their jailers, so-called “Local Borns”, indigenous Andaman islanders, British administrators, Japanese spies. Khan has a lot to say and this cast of characters, almost Tolstoyan in scope, can at times seem better suited for an extended television series than a novel. One senses in two in particular—the unnamed “Prisoner 218 D”, who (one supposes) which might have been the novel’s original raison-d’être, and Shakuntala, the Eurasian wife of a now deceased British civil servant—protagonists of subplots that might have been separate novels.
While The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali contains elements of much successful Asia-set historical fiction, it has the additional virtue of being written by a South Asian author who tells the story mostly through the eyes of ordinary people, especially in her focus on entirely powerless adolescents, rather than their political and social masters. It is also a story of how hope and even dreams can adapt to just about anything.