Tag Archives: Pakistan

Book Review: Invitation by Shehryar Fazli

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There is no good reason why Shehryar Fazli’s Invitation should be so very boring. It is, for a start, supposedly the book that introduces the “Karachi Noir” genre, and the literary equivalent of being born with a silver spoon for any author is to make his debut already named paladin of a city, trustee of its milieu and mythos. Its protagonist is theoretically ideal: the sort of world-weary, multifarious man who doesn’t think twice before downing a glass in a cabaret dancer’s quarters and doesn’t flinch upon being told it has been spiked with opium, who wanders through its darker districts considering the novel’s single good line, “So much of a city’s value depends on what it offers the lonely”. Even its cover, if one can be so facile, is tantalizing: curving hips corseted in rhinestones, the novel’s title posed alluringly where the belly ends.

The narrator, Shahbaz, returns to Pakistan after two decades in Paris, an emissary on his father’s behalf to negotiate a family dispute over a large orchard. His aunt, the tempestuous, mentally unstable Mona Phuppi, wants to sell it. Shahbaz’s father, in exile at a distance, refuses. Shahbaz first sets up shop at the Khyber Hotel, then moves to the home of his father’s old friend, a well-connected brigadier. He becomes involved with Malika, a dancer from Cairo who calls him “darleeng” and both talks and behaves like a caricature. These are the ‘70’s, and Pakistan is still a nation divided into East and West, and Karachi’s cultural life is not just politically-motivated, but also something out of Bollywood: seedy, sleazy, and a little over-the-top.

Yet, it’s a challenge to keep turning Invitation’s pages. Even as far as halfway into the story, it fails to seize the reader’s attention. Shahbaz does not contain, in spite of a very few revelatory moments that suggest he might, enough in himself to moor the work. There is only one incident that carries in it the tensions this novel aspires to recreate, and that is a memory, a comparison between the dangers of Pakistan and France: caught unawares doing lines of coke in an unlocked bathroom stall in Paris, Shahbaz gives up the Ayatul Kursi he wears to the stranger who insinuates that there will be trouble otherwise. He follows the stranger. He does not know what to do, feels locked out of the city’s ciphers, contemplates his own helplessness. This consciousness of urbanity, human weakness and peril, ostensibly what the novel is all about, emerges nowhere else.

Fazli fares worst when it comes to evoking the urgency and intrigue of the times he is writing about. The weight and charge of history never fuels the plot in a convincing or exciting way. Karachi itself, as a figment of fiction, takes on no distinctive dimensions: it could be the underbelly of any city, anywhere, give or take a few locational markers and references. Even still, this underbelly lacks shape in some ways – it is dutifully sordid, but ultimately not thrilling or gritty.

The novel moves at a curious, uninspiring pace: not eloquent enough to be literary fiction, not snappy enough to be pulp fiction, and certainly not sexy or ambient enough to be noir. There is, through the narrative, what can only be described as a sense of laziness – as if the author threw in a little sex, a little violence, a dusting of old school family saga charm, set it all against the backdrop of historical incidents, then sat back and expected a full-fledged book, confident in the formula.

One wishes this was a bad book. That it uses language poorly, gives in to easy emotional manipulation, or takes leaps of logic and license. It would, in that case, either have been entertaining in some cynical way or at least ingratiating enough to write at length about. Instead, it is the worst thing a book can be: lackluster and forgettable. So much so that even skimming its pages during a perfunctory second reading, a search for a single quotable paragraph that might illustrate its sorry state yields nothing. The entire novel is composed of paragraphs so perfectly colorless that none stands out as more so than any other.

This, then, is perhaps simply the curious case of the kind of book that emerges at a certain lucrative moment, when the eyes of the world have been trained on works in a similar category (in this instance, the current explosion in Pakistani fiction, propelled by the likes of Daniyal Mueenuddin and a definitive Granta anthology), and moves along buoyed by a tide not of its own origination. Little else explains its lack of imagination.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.

Book Review: Rock and Roll Jihad by Salman Ahmad

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Salman Ahmad was born into a fairly charmed life: the son of a manager at Pakistan International Airlines, he travelled all over the world as a child, and migrated with his family to Tappan, New York, at the age of 12, where he discovered the world of concerts, liberal values, cross-cultural camaraderie and his own passion for music-making. So when he was sent back to Lahore in 1982 to pursue medical studies, the shock of dislocation was compounded by the shock of censorship and conservatism in an increasingly insular society. When the young Ahmad’s precious guitar is broken by a member of the self-proclaimed moral police, his destiny is sealed. He too becomes radicalized, but instead of retreating into bigotry and hatred, he accepts as his personal jihad the spreading of love and understanding, through the power of music.

Today, Salman Ahmad is known as Pakistan’s first real rock star, a musician who brought a message of hope to a politically complex part of the world with the bands Vital Signs and Junoon, and an ambassador for cultural relations whose work has dealt with repairing the divides between Islam and the West, and Pakistan and India. Rock and Roll Jihad, his memoir of his personal journey so far, is an inspiring account by a compassionate messenger of peace.

The book starts out a little awkwardly, peppered with too many parenthetical explanations – take this single line for an example, “Salman mian [young man], you want to become a mirasi [low-class musician]? Your parents have high expectations of you and you want to waste the rest of your life playing this tuntunna [gizmo]?” But as the greater ambition of this memoir – to be a reconciliatory and celebratory bridge between divides – becomes clear, this is forgiven for how helpful it might be for a young, international audience. Told in an easygoing style, brushes with glamour – like taking Mick Jagger to see dancing girls – and brushes with politics – like being banned by the government, and losing band members to ego clashes and religious fanaticism – sit comfortably with an abidingly deep spirituality.

Rock and Roll Jihad is recommended regardless of whether one is a fan of Salman Ahmad’s music – although the accompanying 12-track CD offers a bonus to anyone who is. Best suited for teenage readers, who might see in Ahmad a wonderful example of how rebellion and anger can be galvanized to heal, this simply-worded, tactfully passionate memoir is a stirring read.

Ahmad’s jihad is a beautiful one – inspired by the poets of the past and the peacemakers of the present, he sees himself and his work as a necessary voice in the greater struggle against forces of ignorance, prejudice and restriction. This book, peacefully narrated and with no hint of the ugly anger that colours the work of many activists, succeeds in spreading a message both in support of greater global harmony, and in encouraging the young to take heart as they pursue their dreams. Like all truly enlightened people, Ahmad leads by example.

An edited version appeared last week in EDEX, The New Indian Express.

Book Review: Aamer Hussein’s Insomnia

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There is only one problem with “Nine Postcards from Sanlucar de Barrameda”, the exquisite introductory story of Aamer Hussein’s collection on dislocation, travel and binding ties. In snippets of monologue rendered with the subtle elegance of watercolours, a Pakistani man in Andalucía revisits the thought of an erstwhile beloved, seeing their ghost in every glass and fragrance. The perfect pitch, devoid of overt sentimentality, of his lingering ache sets the bar for the rest of Insomnia high – too high.

That precision never again quite surfaces in the book. Although several of the remaining pieces in this slim collection of seven stories have their own pleasing qualities, nothing as memorable or as stirring occurs again. The story that immediately follows “Nine Postcards from Sanlucar de Barrameda” suffers especially. The sophomoric romance of “Crane Girl”, about a student in London who falls for a moody Japanese girl, dulls in comparison to the richness of the preceding piece. But this is also because the adolescent voice is not the author’s strong point, as “The Lark”, about a student Nawabzada from Karachi (exoticised in Britain as “the Black Prince”) who is about to set sail back to an undivided India, confirms. There is something under-developed about Hussein’s younger characters, and it is not because they themselves have yet to mature. Throughout the book, all of his protagonists come from a certain elite cosmopolitan background, but where his adults are skillfully rendered in their accumulated worldliness, jadedness and emotional complexities, their younger versions come across as shallow, their motivations uninteresting.

Nowhere is this clearer than when “Crane Girl”’s protagonist, Murad, makes a reappearance in the eponymous story, now a globetrotting intellectual, that character niche at which Hussein is most skilled in his rendering. In this instance, as with all his melancholy adult artists and scholars, the story is executed with charm and believability. When the adult Murad, speaking to an Indonesian poetess in Italy, summons the memory of trespassing a peach orchard at age twenty, it’s hard to believe that this is the same character who had proved so facile in “Crane Girl”.

Writers are frequent protagonists in this collection, most notably in the excellent “The Angelic Disposition”, in which the subversive author S.S. Farouqi grieves the loss of a contemporary, whose friendship had sustained her spirits and her work. This is the book’s other standout tale – it is scaffolded by its historical context of Partition and military censorship yet avoids becoming overwhelmed by it. Similarly in “Hibiscus Days”, in which a translator contemplates his deceased friend, colleague and rival, and the time a small group of Pakistani academics shared in the 1980’s, commuting between continents together and apart. The world of Hussein’s strongest characters is a finely-etched one: dynamic with journeys, conversations and layered emotion. Besides these three stories, “The Book of Maryam”, about a feminist poet – another friend of Murad’s – reading poorly-received political work to an audience in the West, is an almost sly interlude, almost a statement on Hussein’s own mellow touch. It is not the strident characters who remain with us as we leave the book.

Insomnia is, at its best, a wistful meditation on what it means to be of a certain class of global citizens – of a diaspora that may well find the term itself outdated – and it stands out at a time when the postcolonial hangover still hasn’t quite retired its hold on the subcontinent’s literary output. Its more successful characters, by and large, are past that. It is not cultural angst that plagues them, but something more timeless and delicate, profoundly intimate yet recognizably universal.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.