A Beautiful Lie by Irfan Master. Albert Whitman & Company, 2012. 304 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 13 and up. ISBN: 9780807505977.
In A Beautiful Life Bilal tells the story of his small market town in India in the early summer of 1947. Bilal’s father is dying. Bilal’s father loves India. He loves all of India, and all the people of India; Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus alike. Bilal knows that India is about to be partitioned into three separate countries: East and West Pakistan for the Muslims and what’s left of India for the Hindus. He’s concerned that knowledge of the Partition will break his father’s heart and he doesn’t want his father’s last days to be filled with heartache. In order to keep the knowledge from his father he fabricates a lie. Bilal and his friends then conspire to keep everyone away from the house where his father lays dying so that no one will tell his father the truth.
The book is rich in the sights, sounds and scents of India. There’s a beautiful description of one of Bilal’s friends slicing and opening a pomegranate. The market is full of wonderful food. Banyan trees figure prominently. On the night of the Partition Bilal and one of his friends sneak into a building where a dance is being performed. Bilal describes the sitar music, tabla music, and a dancer with ghungroos around her ankles. He realizes she is dancing the story of India: the birds and the fish and the rivers and the monsoon rains.
The book is also heavy with violence. As the time for the Partition comes closer, Muslim and Hindu groups escalate from skirmishing with each other to burning each other by tipping over barrels of oil and setting them on fire. The village is no longer safe for Bilal, but he will not leave without his father and he will not take his father out of the town that has been his home.
The lie itself and the conspiracy surrounding it seems a bit like a construct used to tell the story. Perhaps the real story here is the lie, but it seems to me that the real story is India and the way in which the ancient country is being ripped apart. The reader never gets a complete picture of the politics involved in the Partition, probably because Bilal himself doesn’t have such a picture. We know only that a beautiful and rich country and culture are being painfully divided as a result of political decisions.