LETTER FROM KARACHI - JULY 2013: A PICK OF PAKISTANI ENGLISH NOVELS
 
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- by muneeza shamsie
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The last year has seen several rather exciting new novels by Pakistani English writers including the first medical thriller in Pakistani English fiction. But before I write about the ones that I have particularly enjoyed, I am going to digress slightly and start on a note of sheer nepotism. I was really thrilled to find that in April, Kamila was included in Granta magazine's 2013 list of the 20 Best of Young British Novelists. My sense of excitement was not merely maternal pride, but also because I have been aware ofGranta and its top 20 issue since the 1980's.

 

In those days, Granta had been newly revamped from a university magazine to an international journal for 'new writing': it introduced me to many writers and was my window to contemporary fiction unavailable in Karachi bookshops at the time. I bought that first 1983 Granta issue of the 20 Best of Young British Novelists though I cannot find it on my bookshelf (!). Certainly I thought the definition of 'under 40' as 'young' was very odd: I thought 40 was rather a ripe old age. Granta has brought out its Best Young British lists every ten years since. The 1983 and 1993 lists each included a writer of South Asian origin I had interviewed in Karachi: Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi respectively. There were lots of other very fine novelists who rank among my favorites: Sebastian Faulks, Ian McEwan, Louis de Bernieres, Kazuo Ishiguro, Pat Barker.

 

And so, in a regular case of mothers and daughters, it never occurred to me the little person pottering around my house, writing stories that the family read with great delight, would, one day in a distant, unimaginable, science fiction date (2013!) be on that list too. She is there with a number of terrific writers in an issue which represents writing by all of them. They include Tahmima Anam, Ned Beauman, Adam Foulds, Helen Oyeyemi, Zadie Smith and Evie Wyld.

 

In my December letter, I had written about Musharraf Ali Farooqi's novel Between Clay and Dust which I liked a lot and the readings I went to in London of Nadeem Aslam's new novel The Blind Man's Garden. I read Aslam's book on my return to Karachi and greatly enjoyed it. In a way, the novel is an offshoot of Aslam's earlier novel, The Wasted Vigil, which is set in Afghanistan and explores the ravages of war and its reverberations on the border areas of Pakistan. Some of the characters from Vigil, such as the CIA agent David Town, re-emerge as small cameo portraits in The Blind Man's Garden.

 

Aslam's plot describes in harrowing poetic detail the brutalization of Pakistan. He intertwines the ongoing, unending war on its western border, growing lawlessness, American soldiers and spies, Pakistani warlords, al-Qaeda operatives, ISI agents and religious militants. Some of these characters are mere mercenaries; others motivated by patriotism or faith. All of them are essentially marauders who prey upon the hapless and powerless.

 

Against this backdrop, Aslam creates a family of the deeply religious and kindly Rohan. He lives in Heer, a small, apparently peaceful town in Punjab. There, together with his late wife Sofia, an artist, he has co-founded a school - The Ardent Spirit. He is eased out by extremists who teach the children a militant creed that he cannot accept. The subsequent loss of his sight becomes a metaphor for the personal issues he faces as well as contradictory forces at play at that epicenter of today's geopolitics: Pakistan.

 

Religion is central in Aslam's writing, particularly the conflict between the older, humane perceptions of faith and the new politicized beliefs of brutal militants. Rohan's newly married son, Jeo, a third year medical student, is deeply affected by the American bombing of Afghanistan. He resolves to slip away, with the altruistic aim of helping the maimed and wounded. He is accompanied by his best friend, Mikaal, the orphaned son of Rohan's communist friend, that Rohan adopted and brought up as his own.

 

Rohan and Mikaal do not reach the Pakistan-Afghan border. They are caught up in events beyond their control. They are separated and Mikaal sets out on a quest to find Jeo. Mikaal is imprisoned by a warlord. He is mistaken for a potential terrorist by the Americans and later befriended by a boy who turns out to be al-Qaeda. In this world of endless suspicion and violence, each time Mikaal escapes, he finds himself caught in yet another trap. Throughout, Mikaal never loses his innate sense of humanity and decency; and the one image that haunts him throughout, is that of Naheed, the girl he has always loved, and who married Jeo, his best friend. That too becomes a minefield that he must negotiate with honour and survive. The novel is also replete with stunning descriptions of Pakistan's natural life, as well the antiquity and history from Alexander to 1857 Mutiny and World War II to the present day.

 

Pakistan's involvement in geopolitics and its reverberations on the daily lives of ordinary people also runs through Uzma Aslam Khan's poignant novel Thinner Than Skin, set against the spectacular mountain landscapes of northern Pakistan: Gilgit, Hunza and Kaghan. Here a timeless way of life is interwoven with spectacular folklore and creation tales including the story of the princess Badrul Jamal who lived on the shores of the mountain Malka Parbat and fell in love with the handsome prince Saiful Mulk-and there exists a spectacular lake of that name. The novel also describes how these mountains and lakes - places of scenic beauty for visitors - are regarded as living beings by the local inhabitants. The nomad Maryam observes:

 

"...the taller mountain Nanga Parbat could not be seen from here so much as felt, and only on particular days when he was drawing closer to Malika Parbat. She understood that the mountains were not fixed as so many believed. She knew too that when undressed the taller mountain had as many angles as a buffalo hip."

 

The novel describes the slow encroachment of modernity into this timeless landscape. Aslam Khan also expands her canvas to portray lands beyond Pakistan's northern borders: Kashgar, Samarkand, Almaty and other cities and regions in the Central Asian Republics which are pivotal to today's battle for pipelines, geopolitics and an anti-US haven for extremists. The plot alternates between three people, the nomad Maryam; Ghafoor, the trader she loves but who disappears for years on end to neighbouring China and Central Asia; and Nadir, an unsuccessful expatriate photographer in the United States.

 

The narratives of Maryam and Ghafoor are told in the third person and provide an architecture around Nadir's central first-person narrative. In the United States, an American friend tells him of 'a nice little Pakistani girl', Farhana. She turns out to be unlike anyone Nadir had expected. She is a free, fiercely independent young woman, who plays nude volleyball and plans to go to Pakistan with Wes, her colleague, to research Pakistan's glaciers which Nadir wants to photograph. Nadir and Farhana soon become lovers. In America Nadir is also introduced to Farhana's father-and erstwhile musician who scandalized Karachi by running off with a married German woman. They never went back.

 

Farhana knows little about Pakistan. She becomes critical of Nadir and his responses to Karachi, his family and the city's endemic violence, soon after she arrives in Karachi with him and Wes. She is even more irritated that Nadir's childhood friend, Irfan, proceeds to accompany them to the northern areas and also decides their route. As Farhana's resentment against Irfan grows, Nadir becomes suspicious of Farhana's relationship with Wes. Despite Irfan's protests, Farhana insists on befriending Maryam's little daughter, Kiran and dismisses Kiran's silence as a sign of female oppression in Pakistan. Her failure to understand Maryam, Kiran and nomad customs leads to an appalling tragedy.

 

Aslam Khan provides a very fine and sensitive portrait of grief, guilt and imploding tensions. The lives of Farhana, Nadir and their companions become inextricably entwined with that of Mariam and Ghafoor. At the same time, the police and related authorities bear down on this scenic paradise in their hunt for a notorious terrorist. The nomads are told they can no longer pasture in the region, as they have done for centuries.

 

Recently I went off to see Mira Nair's film version of The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. I did wonder how they would adapt such an intricate, multi-layered novel which consists of a monologue between the Princeton-educated Pakistani narrator and an American stranger in a Lahore teashop. But I thought that the changes they had made were really well done and though large chunks of the movie were very different to the novel, it remains faithful to its essence and ambiguity. Shortly after this, I saw newThe Great Gatsby, a film that some like, some hate and which I thought was okay but not brilliant. At all events, it reminded me that Fitzgerald's classic finds a passing reference in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a novel which looks at the myth of 'The Great American Dream', as Fitzgerald does, but extends to 'The Great Pakistani-Dream-of-America'.

 

In a very different way, echoes of Fitzgerald's tale of upward mobility and the heady, new found riches in a free-wheeling and dealing United States, finds clear resonances in Hamid's third novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, set in contemporary Pakistan. Hamid's rags-to-riches story is constructed in the form of a self-help book. Hamid's novel lampoons the genre, but also uses it very cleverly to construct a story around a nameless protagonist 'You' in a nameless city similar to Lahore. The use of a second person narrator was influenced by Jay McInerney's novel Bright Lights, Big City (McInerney's recent interview of Hamid in the United States must have been fascinating to watch).

 

In How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, in vivid, descriptive prose, each chapter defines the protagonist and propels his career upwards. As he and his family migrate from illness, poverty and hunger in rural Pakistan his first impressions of the city are encapsulated with the words:

 

"Atop your inky-spewing, starboard-listing conveyance you survey the changes with awe. Dirt streets gives way to paved ones, potholes soon all but disappear, and the kamikaze rush of traffic vanishes. To be replaced by the enforced peace of the dual carriageway."

 

The illusion of peace gives way to life in an overcrowded urban slum. At school, to his cost, he turns out be brighter and more quick witted than his teacher, who hates his job and his pupils. The canny protagonist survives his teacher's ire, joins university and becomes a member of a powerful, bearded, right-wing vigilante gang.

 

Soon, another reality dawns on him: there are more upwardly mobile opportunities in the city for the clean shaven. He joins an illicit business concern, patronized by the super-rich with their perpetual need for commodities such as pirated DVDs and smuggled luxuries. Soon he discovers that to escape from typhoid, waterborne infections and other diseases carried in the city's polluted water supply, the rich like to drink bottled water. The book comments: "You have used the contacts with retailers you forged during your years as a non-expired-labeled expired-goods salesman to enter into the bottled-water trade." The fake mineral water supplies that he sells (always making sure the water is boiled) begins as a small operation in his two-room home. Soon, business grows and expands, acquires an accountant and other staff, but guarding the turf from competitors, predators and others also entails violence, bribery and corruption.

 

Throughout the novel, the beautiful girl he loves- always referred to as 'the pretty girl' continues to elude him. She is equally determined to escape poverty and penury and as their paths cross intermittently, revealing an informality and ease they share with no one else, she moves on from beauty assistant to a model, a TV personality and a star.

 

I have always enjoyed thrillers and good detective stories and it was particularly exciting for me to see the debut novel by Saad Shafqat, Breath of Death, because it is the first medical thriller in Pak English lit. The author works as a doctor at The Aga Khan University & Hospital in Karachi, where he was once a medical student. For a while he lived in the United States too where he specialized in neuroscience and neurology at Duke University and the Massachusetts General Hospital. He draws on this professional background and his experience of Pakistan and the United States to create effect in his novel which links Pakistan and America - and captures an essence of the times in which we live.

 

In a modern, well-run Karachi hospital, Asad, a neurologist, is greatly disturbed by an unusual case of encephalitis. There are several inconsistent details in the patient's medical history which keep nagging away at him. Asad is fortunate enough to have an exceptionally bright young student, Nadia. She becomes as obsessed with the problem as he is. She becomes an invaluable ally. While Asad and Nadia grapple with medical problems and consider the history of the disease and its mutations, the novel tells of the victims - a young tailor, a housewife, and a pir - and also a sinister character called Malik, who belongs to an extremist terror cell.

 

The book brings Karachi to life as a city that we all know and inhabit - with all its contradictions and economic disparities; the lawlessness and disorder which co-exist alongside professionalism and excellence in places such as the hospital where Asad works. It also describes the Pakistani hostility to American policies as well as the American suspicion of Pakistan. This sense of 'The Alien Other" in both countries impels the plot. At the same time the novel portrays people in both countries who are able to cross that divide. Above all, it has the first prerequisite of any good thriller: it keeps you hanging from the very first page.

 

Shafqat is also a well-known sports writer in Pakistan. In 2003, he co-wrote Javed Miandad's autobiography Cutting Edge and regularly writes cricket features for the game's most popular website, Cricinfo. He wrote a fortnightly cricket column for Dawn'sSunday magazine supplement "Images" until recently.

 
 
was published in November 2016
 
 
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