Sometimes the story of a book's publication can be as exciting as the thing itself. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that the Maunsel edition of James Joyce's Dubliners was disposed of by guillotine. Whether or not censors were so affronted as to slice the offending manuscript in half, Ulysses was absolutely shredded, smuggled, and seized. Similarly, Zarrar Said's Pureland (Global Collective Publishers), recently released in the U.S. and U.K., met with opposition on its original publication in 2018, by HarperCollins, in India and Pakistan.
"The book itself has similarly gone through what the protagonist goes through, a kind of cultural shunning," says Zarrar Said, the novel's well-traveled author, who was born in Pakistan, grew up in Dubai, and now makes his home in New York. "It's been banned by most retailers in India. It's been taken off the shelves in Pakistan. ... My books have been taken off the shelves in India for no reason other than I was born across the border."
- Zarrar Said
Said, a quantitative mathematician who has written for science publications, was inspired to write his first novel when he came across the story of Pakistan's only Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Abdus Salam, who was also the first Muslim to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. "Salam was a very enigmatic character," Said says, explaining why his proposed nonfiction biography of Salam became a work of fiction. Salam's life, Said says, was prophesied by a saint — and that's just the beginning. "He was born in a small town that didn't have electricity. He actually never saw a lightbulb until the age of 15, but he went on to revolutionize the way we look at energy.
"He faced extreme racism," Said continues. "But the irony is he loved his country so much, so I turned it into a love story. It was just too magical otherwise."
And Pureland is magical — it has the prophecy, for starters, though this time delivered by a levitating saint. Narrated by the assassin who kills Salim Agha, the protagonist based on Salam, the novel follows Agha from his birth in a feudal village in the fictional nation of Pureland through political upheaval, unlucky love, exile, and scientific success. All the while, Agha is motivated by love — his love for the beautiful Laila and for Pureland, the country that refuses to accept him.
For a novel completed before 2016 and initially published in 2018, it's remarkable how much Pureland resonates today. From the Hindu supremacy movement in India to the resurgence of white supremacy in America, the dangers Said warns of in Pureland are as menacing as ever in 2020. "I didn't know that we would be facing these kinds of hatred-driven movements that we are experiencing right now," Said says.
"My objective is to tell the story that societies will suffer from the prejudices they keep," Said explains. "Look at the Nazi party, who rose through the ballot box and [went] on to destroy the very institutions that put it in power.
"You cannot be culturally monogamous," Said continues. Such a uniformity of culture punishes the persecutors along with the persecuted. It costs Pureland the genius of Salim Agha — just as surely as it denies Agha the sanctuary of his beloved homeland.
But for all the time spent in the fictional Pureland, Said's debut is also set in its protagonist's adopted land of the United States, in New York. "At the end of the day, this is an American novel," Said says. "We come from everywhere in this country, and we bring with us the luggage of our past."
That thought makes some of the narrator's parting words all the more foreboding. "The people here, too, have begun to accentuate the elements that make us different from one another," Pureland's narrator warns. "There's a destructive branding underway."