Birds Without Wings (novel)

Book Cover Description:

Set against the backdrop of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, the Gallipoli campaign and the subsequent bitter struggle between Greeks and Turks, Birds Without Wings traces the fortunes of one small community in south-west Anatolia – a town in which Christian and Muslim lives and traditions have co-existed peacefully for centuries.

When war is declared and the outside world intrudes, the twin scourges of religion and nationalism lead to forced marches and massacres, and the peaceful fabric of life is destroyed. Birds Without Wings is a novel about the personal and political costs of war, and about love: between men and women; between friends; between those who are driven to be enemies; and between Philothei, a Christian girl of legendary beauty, and Ibrahim the Goatherd, who has courted her since infancy. Epic in sweep, intoxicating in its sensual detail, it is an enchanting masterpiece.

My Thoughts on the Book:

What motivated me to pick this book was the title, apart from a very tempting bargain price it was on. I was quite intrigued by it.Picked it up.

When I was done with the book, I must say I just sat with my mind still lost in contemplating the questions that the author asked in the book, quite subtly.

What exactly is religion? Is it really worth all the killings and the separations? Does religion really ask its followers to discriminate against those who follow other religion? Are the people who are of different faith, but have grown up together, really “different” from each other?

All these questions are subtly weaved in the plot.

I finished this book quite a while back, but it was so good that I needed time for it t actually sink in and needed time to reflect on it before posting a review. That is what good books do to you.

The book has a different style, which took some time to get acclimatised to. It is divided into many chapters which vary from one paragraph to several pages long. Each chapter is in the words of different characters which helps us understand the inner workings of the minds of various people. Also it highlighted that though they believed that they are different as they are quite the same (If that makes any sense!)

The book starts with a description about Ibrahim, The Mad, as told by Iskander, The Potter, who claims he knows why Ibrahim became Mad. And thus starts the narration.

Based in a small fictional town in modern Turkey, called Eskibahçe, the start of the story starts with Iskander, the potter, missing his Christian neighbours. He remembered the good times they had shared before the Christians were forcefully evicted. He remarked that even though “their” Christians have been replaced by Muslims who were evicted from the other land, somehow do not feel as similar to them as the Christians had felt. These “New” muslims had different way of life.

The story then goes to the past, when the muslims and Christians were living happily. Even though the make jest of each other, they are friends. The Muslims sometimes asks Christians to light a candle in church while Christians often take help of the local imam. Intercaste marriages are accepted, though it is understood that a woman may have to change her religion publicly, while she may continue practicing her own religion privately.  So open was the society at this time that all types of people and their personalities were accepted. People even welcomed “The Dog”, and other mad men to stay. But this changed with the war. Where once intercaste marriages were welcomed, we now see a father forcing his younger son to kill his daughter for having relation with a man from other religion.

This is highlighted by the relation between Ibrahim and Philothei, who were bethrod since childhood. They are inseparable since they were children, but suddenly Ibrahim goes off to war, and they are forced to be separated. Then Philothei, as she is Christian, is given orders to deport.

Another romance that is woven in the story is that of the local town aga, Rustem Bey and his mistress Leyla Hamim, whom he buys from abroad, after his wife is unfaithful. Leyla pretends to be a Circassian Muslim, while actually she is a Greek Christian. Although she manages to keep this a secret, she is often seen lamenting the fact that Christians have forgotten Greek and are speaking Turkish. Even those who know a little Greek, can write it only in Turkish.

There are several major themes that affect the story line like religious tolerance, politics, nationalism etc. It is interesting to note how people’s opinions are changed by those in Power. As Iskander, the potter said:

 it was never explained to us why they had chosen to come and bring us hardship, starvation, bloodshed and lamentation, why they played with us and martyred our tranquility.

Iskander’s Son Abdul, more commonly known as Karatavuk is friends with a christian boy named Nicos, also known as Mehmetçik. Both are again inseparable. As war arrives both sign up to fight for their country. But, Nicos’ application is rejected as he is a Christian and this is a Holy war for Muslims. And suddenly in their separation they realise, they do not want to let go of their friendship for religion.

On this topic, Leonardes, a man who is a proud nationalist is told by his father:

“I’ll tell you something, my son. I’d have more respect for Alexander and you and your friends if you were bright enough to understand that it’s money and enterprise and brains that make the world turn around. All these military campaigns, and revolutions, and conspiracies, and talk about racial this and racial that…What do they bring? Bloodshed and disaster. If you want to be any use in the world, put money in your pocket.”

This is not a “OMG,i-just-can-not-put-this-book-down, but a book, that moves at its own sweet pace and forces you to put it down once in a while and THINK. But definitely worth the time spent in reading it!

A beautiful, wonderful book!

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