Karachi Posts

Sarvat Hasin, “This Wide Night”

They lived across the road from me for fifteen years without us ever having a conversation, something that seems impossible to me now. I’d built up the Malik sisters in my head before I really knew them. The combination of being at a boys’ school and Dada’s dislike for other people meant that these were the only real girls I ever saw. From the window in my bedroom, you could look through the trees and into their garden. I learned valuable things about the girls: how Maria played cards every evening with her mother, or that Ayesha always read and Bina sewed, and that the littlest, Leila liked to draw.

Jimmy lives with his paternal grandfather who is a prosperous export businessman. He is alone and spends a lot of his time watching the Malik house. The Malik family consists of four sisters- Maria, Bina, Leila and Ayesha/Ash . Their father is “a navy captain, whose name was on the silver plaque outside their gate, spent most of his time away from home”.  Their mother Mehrunissa supervises the home and by all accounts is quite lenient in her daughters’ upbringing. It is never spelled out by Sarvat Hasin in her debut novel The Wide Night but there is a shift in dynamics from the freedoms available in a women-only home as compared to one in which there is a man’s presence. For instance when the Captain returns from the war – it is a challenging period of adjustment for both sexes:

How could her father come home to a place that did not feel like it belonged to him? The switch of energy during his visits, the house worked into a dark frenzy. It could only work in small bursts, the spikes of energy of reordered lives. There was no space for him in the larger sweep of their lives – how long could Ash keep wearing her dupatta over one shoulder and pinning back the tufts of her hair that escaped from their short nest. How many nights could Leila hold her tongue at the dinner table and bite it against her usual chatter of boys and money and pretty things. In her father’s presence she was washed out, a paler version of herself, hands folded in her lap and her voice only murmuring to ask for more roti, a glass of water. Even Bina was required to modify herself: fewer hours spent volunteering, and no more bringing her stitching into the living room to sit cross-legged on the carpet by her mother’s feet, listening to her stories with the soft brush of her hand against her hair. The sitting room would become a man’s world.

Mehrunissa is primarily responsible for the family and allows her daughters freedom such as reading.  whenever and whatever they desired. She does not subscribe to the belief that books and ideas were harmful for girls and that daughters were meant to be groomed for marriage. Jimmy describes the Malik home with fascination: “It was the first house I had ever been in with books in every room. Even in a room with no shelves, there were books under cups or hidden behind pots; Barbara Cartland novels tucked in the slots of the swings. Books in other houses were rare, precious thing, tucked out of reach or behind walls of glass, leather-bound and glossy. These tangible tattered things with dog-eared pages and tea stains were remarkable. I shifted my cup of tea on its coaster, knocking over a mystery novel that Mehrunissa kept beside her sewing.” Mehrunissa’s determined stand against social norms and even in the presence of her husband, in an overtly patriarchal society, is exemplified by refusing to slaughter goats for Eid: “Mehrunissa and her daughters were particularly sensitive about the slaughters. They never participated, had not done so even on the rare holidays when Captain Malik was home. On Eid, theirs was the only house with no goats or cows lined up outside—another thing among many that set them apart from everyone else he knew, another thing about them that people thought was strange.”

People called the Maliks “strange” because of it being primarily a female household living alone, happily, unheard of in an otherwise overtly patriarchal society. It was also odd that the father “permitted” the women to have their say as in the case of doing away with the practise of getting a sacrificial goat as it was an inhumane act.  But love runs deep as testified by the Captain while recounting to Jimmy the kindly advice he had received about the challenges his marriage may pose: “These things are meant to work better when the differences aren’t so big, your families should come from the same place, you should speak the same languages and pray the same way – you’ll have heard all this, I know. They’d even chosen a girl for me. I never told Mehrunissa that. Baat pake se pehle—I saw her. And that was it.”

 Their mother’s strong personality had a deep influence on the four daughters. They grew up with distinct identities. Maria who as a teacher’s assistant in the school mesmerised the boys: “The trick was not in her words, but the way she spoke them. She was not lightning but slow honey, womanliness pouring into the classroom, making us all sit up a little straighter.” Ayesha, the voracious reader who fantasised about her European trip with her aunt was the most level headed and practical of the sisters. For example, her unsentimental detached views on death is revelatory, “Death isn’t this big drama everybody makes it out to be… It’s – a person being there one minute, and not the next. It’s the passing of a second.” The laidback Bina’s “wishes were never for herself”. And finally Leila, who, “built her houses in gold. She wanted a rich husband, a studio of her own. I want a wardrobe the size of Marie Antoinette’s, she would say. Decadence was the only thing she took away from history lessons. She was a tiny Cleopatra, Nur Jehan, a queen in a miniature.” After Maria’s wedding “the house shrank without her, tightening around the family. There are some people who leave the room and you stop thinking about them right away. None of the Malik sisters were like that. Their absence took up room, a seat at the table.”

This Wide Night although a novel is structured like a three-act play with a shift in the voice from first person of Jimmy to the third of the authorial narrator in the second section and back to Jimmy. It is a curious literary technique to employ for it is not fully exploited by the author providing little insight such as in the sisters suicide pact.  Usually the narrator brings in a perspective giving the reader a little more information than the characters are aware of but nothing of that sort happens here.

Renowned writer and critic Muneeza Shamsie says in Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English ( OUP, Pakistan, 2017, p 601)  that in today’s globalised world the new generation of Pakistani writers have either “lived, or been educated in, Pakistan and the West, and often divided their time between the two. … As a result, the distinction between diaspora and non-diaspora began to blur too.” This underlying desire to be accepted globally as a new South Asian writer who is extremely familiar with Western canons of literature is evident in This Wide Night too for its adaptation of Little Women albeit in a desi setting. Pakistan-born now living in UK Sarvat Hasin wrote This Wide Night after enrolling in a creative writing workshop project wherein she transplanted the characters created in nineteenth century America into modern-day Karachi. So Amir, Maria’s husband, is a mujahir who lost his parents during Partition but he comes across as a flat character who, “seemed to just appear, a sum of all the stories people told about him” with little else being said about him. Whereas if a little bit of the socio-historical background was woven into the novel it would have made a significant difference to the quality of storytelling. This is illustrated further in the sanitised “literary” description of the 1971 War, a conflict zone: The way tensions rose in our house and in the city, the way the whole country seemed to teem with a dull thickening heat – the days before monsoon storms. By the time war broke out, we were almost relieved. It gave the feeling a name; something that couldn’t be quantified when it was just curfews and military men stationed outside schools or people sent back past the border. Contrast this with contemporary literature worldwide which creates a rich texture filled with details taking care to not culturally alienate the reader too much but at the same time retaining a strong regional character — acceptable traits of a global novel.

Sarvat Hasin is a writer with promise. This Wide Night is a commendable first effort.

 Sarvat Hasin This Wide Night Hamish Hamilton/ Penguin Random House India, 2016, 312 pp., Rs 499 (HB) 

 

Anis Shivani’s “Karachi Raj”

Karachi RajAnis Shivani has been a writer for many years. He is known as a short story writer and a poet. Karachi Raj is his debut novel. It was nearly ten years in the making. It is about a group of people across social classes who meet. Their lives get intertwined in a manner that is not easily expected in a very class conscious society existing in Pakistan today. Anis Shivani is a critic too. An example of his literary criticism is this splendid three-part essay he wrote for Huffington Post on contemporary American Literature. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anis-shivani/we-are-all-neoliberals-no_b_7546606.html?ir=India&adsSiteOverride=in ;
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anis-shivani/part-ii-the-new-genre-of-_b_7577230.html?ir=India&adsSiteOverride=in ; and
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anis-shivani/part-iii-the-new-genre-of_b_7606310.html?ir=India&adsSiteOverride=in.

After reading Karachi Raj, Anis and I exchanged a few emails discussing his novel and craftsmanship. With his consent, I am publishing a small portion of the correspondence.

 

Dear Anis,

Somewhere I get the impression your novel is a response to the “plastic realism” you speak of in contemporary American literature. If that is the case I like it. Karachi Raj without being voyeuristic about poverty or making one cringe with morals, arrives at that fine balance of moving cleverly across socio-economic classes in Karachi. The scenarios represented are plausible making the novel seem “realistic”.

I would love to know how you plot and create your fiction.

JAYA

***

Dear Jaya,Anis Shivani

Upon further thought, I think the way you put it in the email below is the best way to express it, better than I did.

You noticed that the book doesn’t give the impression of voyeurism about poverty or make one cringe. The challenge from the beginning was not to write a novel that was sensational or melodramatic or gave you the feeling of unwanted intrusion. Also to avoid the trap of unrelenting misery. It is the dailiness, the ordinariness, the everydaynes of poverty that is the most shocking thing, if you think about it, one doesn’t need to exaggerate or melodramatize it. In early drafts I did have a bit of a problem with melodrama, but I got over it quickly. To do that I had to be honest with myself as to what the characters were all about; if I could be true to them, then I could avoid melodrama and sensationalism. Even the poorest people don’t unrelentingly face violence and tyranny all the time, most of life is drudgery and going on with one’s business as best as one can. And humor is a big part of how one handles problems for which there is no easy solution, certainly I do that, and so humor is a critical part of the novel. In all these ways, the novel begins to feel plausible.

I should also give a lot of credit to my editor at HarperCollins, Manasi Subramaniam, who labored hard to help me get rid of all the exposition that was getting in the way of the fluid telling of the story. That made a huge difference. You need to be under a dream spell when you read a novel and whatever interferes with that–such as any unnecessary exposition–is going to disrupt the spell and take you out of the story and make it less believable, so we worked ruthlessly on that.

You asked about how I plot and create fiction. I would say that there are certain fundamental issues that have bothered me my whole life and continue to do so, and that’s the deep wellspring of my fiction. Once I’m exercised enough about a problem, then I start localizing it in a time and place, and then finally the characters emerge, which is the trigger point for the story and it takes off from there. For Karachi Raj, there was no particular point where I said to myself, Oh, I’m going to write a novel about the Basti, so let me research everything about that, then when I’ve got the research done, I’ll write the novel. It doesn’t work like that.

What I can say is that the idea that hundreds of millions of people should live in dire poverty in the Indian subcontinent seems like the ultimately unforgivable issue to me. Part of it is that people believe in ideologies that go against their self-interest, certainly their economic self-interest. That’s the case with Pakistan, and when it comes to the so-called Pakistan Ideology, it’s in the background of the novel, though I’m not didactic about it. In the West too people are always electing political parties that go against their self-interest, the working class keeps voting in conservative, even fascist, parties. People everywhere seem very keen to give up freedom, and the thing that motivates me more than anything is unrestrained freedom, without any rules, any rituals, any constraints on freedom of action. And the problem of poverty also goes back in large part to the problem of freedom.

Anyway, once I have a general interest like this then there has to be a setting that needs to become very clear to me, as the realm in which to explore the general problem, and once I have the setting down–in this case I had to imagine the Basti in very concrete terms–then the characters come, and once I have the characters then the plot is the final element. If I’ve conceptualized the characters well, then the plot will just flow; to the extent that there’s trouble executing the plot, it means there’s a problem with characterization, so I have to go back to that and fix it.

Anis

Anis Shivani Karachi Raj HarperCollins Publishers, Fourth Estate, New Delhi, 2015. Hb. pp. 410 Rs.699

Who will win the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature? (13 January 2015)

DSC shortlistAccording to the vision statement, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature celebrates the rich and varied world of literature of the South Asian region. Authors could belong to this region through birth or be of any ethnicity but the writing should pertain to the South Asian region in terms of content and theme. The prize brings South Asian writing to a new global audience through a celebration of the achievements of South Asian writers, and aims to raise awareness of South Asian culture around the world. This year the award will be announced on 22 January 2015, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Diggi Palace, Jaipur.

The DSC Prize for South Asian Shortlist 2015 consists of:

1. Bilal Tanweer: The Scatter Here is Too Great (Vintage Books/Random House, India)
2 Jhumpa Lahiri: The Lowland (Vintage Books/Random House, India)
3. Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone (Bloomsbury, India)
4. Romesh Gunesekera: Noontide Toll (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, India)
5. Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: The Mirror of Beauty (Penguin Books, India)

( http://dscprize.com/global/updates/five-novels-make-shortlist-dsc-prize-2015.html )

The jury consists of Keki Daruwala (Chairperson), John Freeman, Maithree Wickramasinghe, Michael Worton and Razi Ahmed.

All the novels shortlisted for the award are unique. They put the spotlight on South Asian writing talent. From debut novelist ( Bilal Tanweer) to seasoned writers ( Jhumpa Lahiri, Romesh Gunesekera and Kamila Shamsie) and one in translation – Shamsur Rahman Faruqui, the shortlist is a good representation of the spectrum of contemporary South Asian literature in English. Three of the five novelists– Jhumpa Lahiri, Romesh Gunesekera and Kamila Shamsie–reside abroad, representing South Asian diaspora yet infusing their stories with a “foreign perspective”, a fascinating aspect of this shortlist. It probably hails the arrival of South Asian fiction on an international literary map. The three novels — The Lowland, Noontide Toll and A God in Every Stone are firmly set in South Asia but with the style and sophistication evident in international fiction, i.e. detailing a story in a very specific region and time, culturally distinct, yet making it familiar to the contemporary reader by dwelling upon subjects that are of immediate socio-political concern. For instance, The Lowland is ostensibly about the Naxalite movement in West Bengal, India and the displacement it causes in families; A God in Every Stone is about an archaeological dig in Peshawar in the period around World War I and Noontide Toll is about the violent civil unrest between the Sinhala and Tamils in Sri Lanka. Yet all three novels are infused with the writers’ preoccupation with war, the immediate impact it has on a society and the transformation it brings about over time. The literary techniques they use to discuss the ideas that dominate such conversations — a straightforward novel (The Lowland), a bunch of interlinked short stories narrated by a driver ( who is at ease in the Tamil and Sinhala quarters, although his identity is never revealed) and the yoking of historical fiction with creation of a myth as evident in Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone. All three novelists wear their research lightly, yet these novels fall into the category of eminently readable fiction, where every time the story is read something new is discovered.

Bilal Tanweer who won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2014 for his wonderful novel, The Scatter Here is Too Great. Set in Karachi, it is about the violence faced on a daily basis. (Obviously there is much more to the story too!) Whereas Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s novel The Mirror of Beauty, translated by him from Urdu into English is primarily about Begum Wazir Khanam with many other scrumptious details about lifestyles, craftspeople, and different parts of India. It is written in a slow, meandering style of old-fashioned historical fiction. The writer has tried to translocate the Urdu style of writing into the English version and he even “transcreated” the story for his English readers—all fascinating experiments in literary technique, so worth being mentioned on a prestigious literary prize shortlist.

Of all the five novels shortlisted for this award, my bet is on Kamila Shamsie winning the prize. Her novel has set the story in Peshawar in the early twentieth century. The preoccupations of the story are also those of present day AfPak, the commemoration of World War I, but also with the status of Muslims, the idea of war, with accurate historical details such as the presence of Indian soldiers in the Brighton hospital, the non-violent struggle for freedom in Peshawar and the massacre at Qissa Khwani Bazaar. But the true coup de grace is the original creation of Myth of Scylax — to be original in creating a myth, but placing it so effectively in the region to make it seem as if it is an age-old myth, passed on from generation to generation.

13 January 2015

 

Saba Imtiaz “Karachi you’re killing me!”

Saba Imtiaz “Karachi you’re killing me!”

Saba Imtiaz“The literature festival is one of Karachi’s biggest cultural events, so everyone turns up. It’s free, there’s the chance to meet authors, listen to poetry, discuss books and get into long, passionate arguments that aren’t fuelled by alcohol. If only it wasn’t for the blasted diplomants who turn up in droves: every year, the organizers of the festival schedule at least two — or five — sessions on Afghanistan or Kashmir so it becomes ‘newsy’. And the diplomats always up a chunk of money, which means we have to sit through their unending speeches at the opening ceremony, which usually feature a variation of this quote: ‘Reading and books are how we will defy the extremists who want to destroy our way of life.’ 

( p. 48 Karachi you’re killing me!)

Ayesha is a reporter with Daily News where she “reports on everything from cupcake bakeries to clashes between warring gangs”. Kamran is her boss and owner of the newspaper; not exactly a brilliant pay master. Ayesha has a tight circle of friends which includes Zara, a reporter with Morning News TV and Saad an old friend, confidante and companion. Karachi you’re killing me! is told from Ayesha’s perspective, written in the diary format but not exactly so. The time span is less than five months. It moves at a trot, without ever getting tedious or fluffy. Karachi you’re killing me! may be loosely modeled on Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones but the similarity ends with a young workaholic heroine who is pining for her young Lochinvar. Saba Imtiaz has written a delightful story — it makes you chuckle and gurgle with its descriptions and tongue-in-cheek remarks.  The ease with which Ayesha flits in and out of different parts of Karachi society, the social and political milieu while trudging through the streets and in government hospitals, in search of stories is a constant reminder not only of the tough life a young reporter has, but also of the volatile mix of violence, politics, conservatism co-exist with an extremely hep, sophisticated younger generation. Ayesha, Zara, Saad and even Kamran negotiate these spaces deftly on a daily basis with some funny and some sobering tales to share.

A gorgeous debut. 

Saba Imtiaz Karachi you’re killing me! Random House India, Delhi, 2014. Pb. pp. 270. Rs. 299. Ebook available.

“The Scatter Here is Too Great” Bilal Tanweer

“The Scatter Here is Too Great” Bilal Tanweer

THe scatter here is too greatMy father was particularly fond of stories from the long epic fantasy, Tilism Hoshruba. In these stories about evil sorcerers and good tricksters, when a sorcerer was killed, his head would split open and a bird sprung out announcing the sorcerer’s name and the murderer’s name one by one. ‘In this city, a part of us dies each day, and a bird springs out of our open skulls each day announcing our death and the addresses of our murderers,’ he said to me once while were taking a walk on the beach, ‘but nobody listens. The air is thick with the chorus of these birds of death. Listen.’ 

My father imagined the world and each object as part of continuous stories. In his stories the universe answered his questions, the past was visible and the future illuminated. Things had reasons and they all connected. 

But unlike my father, when I looked back into the past, all I saw was pitch black darkness and heard unnamed voices trying to override each other in their attempts to reach me–and I felt indifferent to all of them. That’s when I concluded that my father’s way of imagining the universe was naive, simplistic, and wrong, just plain wrong. He was wrong about the world. The world and its stories did not continue or cohere. We were all just broken parts and so were our stories. True stories are fragments. Anything longer is a lie, a fabrication. 

Bilal TanweerBilal Tanweer’s debut novel, The Scatter Here is Too Great, is set in Karachi, Pakistan. It is a string of perspectives about a bomb blast at a station in the heart of the city. A situation not unfamiliar to this seaside town. It is the telling that is so special. The English used is so sophisticated and yet, remarkably, it seems to captures the cadences of Urdu, the language  that is spoken locally. While reading the novel you can hear it, without it disrupting or distracting the reader from the story. The details in the story, the gentle but powerful manner in which the characters are created, slowly and steadily, they leave a lasting impression. Notably the description of the breakdown nineteen-year-old Akbar is moving. He is the younger brother of the narrator, three days away from his wedding but was the ambulance driver at the scene of the bomb blast and was horrified by what he saw. The story comes together despite the chaos — in the city and in the lives that are turned topsy-turvy. It is as if the author is writing about the events in Karachi as an insider with an outsider’s perspective. He is an insider since he writes sensitively, with empathy, a bit of emotion and an understanding but has the detachment to write it as an outsider. No wonder it took him eight years to write this slim novel.

A novel worth reading.

Bilal Tanweer The Scatter Here is Too Great Random House India, Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 204 Rs. 350

 

“How It Happened” Shazaf Fatima Haider

“How It Happened” Shazaf Fatima Haider


Written from the perspective of a fifteen-year-old Saleha Bandian, How It Happened is about the marriages of elder two siblings, Haroon and Zeba. It is not as simple as it sounds. This is about a conservative Shia Bandian family. The matriarch of the family, Dadi ( or paternal grandmother), is a key player in looking for suitable partners for her grandchildren. The novel has all the masala of any traditional matchmaking, the competitiveness within families to net a good match, especially for the “ripe” girls. It has the drama of the matriarch fainting at the slightest hitch, when events are not going according to her plan, she claims to be “mordren” like the younger generation but is intolerant of marriages across sects, or even a love marriage. She cannot stomach the fact that her beloved grandson wants to get married without taking any dowry.

Shazaf Fatima Haider has sharply and wittily etched the life within Pakistani families (holds true for the Indian sub-continent!), obsessed with looking for a suitable match. She has got the tension between the older and younger generation beautifully, she manages to create empathy with the characters, without really intruding into the space. I truly enjoyed the way she had got the women characters representing diverse viewpoints but how they are confidently and surely managing to strike a balance between the stifling conservative traditions that they are expected to conform to with a newer mindset. It has been a long time since I read a book that made me chuckle and giggle, at times even laugh out aloud. I loved it!

( PS A small editorial oversight. While Zeba waits in Karachi to meet prospective suitor, Gullan from Islamabad, at first it is mentioned as three weeks, but later as three months.)

Shazaf Fatima Haider How It Happened Penguin Books India, 2013. Hb. pg. 316. Rs. 399

Irshad Abdul Kadir, “Clifton Bridge”

Irshad Abdul Kadir, “Clifton Bridge”

I have just finished reading Clifton Bridge by Irshad Abdul Kadir. I loved it! I suspect it is years of engagement as a lawyer, observing people, listening to stories, imbibing them that have been used in writing these stories. The words are just enough, not more, not less. Even the social climbing, ambitious Punjabi mother, Shabnam is only heard on a couple of occasions, but the Punjabi-English intonation is perfect. ( ‘Tariq, you’re talking about, he’s having tuition for final paper,’ Shabana explained….) And later when she is screeching hysterically, “yes, yes” on behalf of her daughter, Farah, at the nikah, her crudity, her desperation at improving her social status by marrying her daughter into the governor’s family (even though her husband is obscenely rich) are exposed so well.

Obviously listening to many stories over the years as a lawyer, also being a civil rights activist and a theatre critic have helped coalesce many skills into writing these eleven stories. There is a sharpness in the etching, there is a sensitivity in telling the tale from the point of view of the main characters and yet, always the shocking realisation that reality is cruel, life and its circumstances are ephemeral. It does not matter if it the family is the poorest of the poor like that of Jumma, Rano and Peeru in the title story, “Clifton Bridge” or that of the feudal lord, Malik Aslam and his Begum, the steps that the men take “all necessary steps to preserve order”. For Jumma it is selling off Bilal to a known paedophile, lusting after and nearly raping his “daughter” Noori ( “a dusky, dark-haired childwoman ripening early in the season”) and having no qualms about selling of the youngest child, Zeebu’s kidney for a decent pile of money. Similarly, Malik Aslam allows his Begum to keep Chumpa, an orphan in their home, as a companion-cum-housekeeper to assist her “in the tedious functions expected of jagirdanis”. Also the Begum genuinely believes her husband when he “promised my father, we would continue living like your liberal ancestors in the Raj…and…and…give a wide berth to the sick segregated lifestyle being foisted on us.” So she is horrified many years later when he summarily dismisses Chumpa from their service for no fault of her own, save that he did not want their household name sullied by rumours of an attempted rape by his prospective son-in-law. Malik Aslam’s explanation for the dismissal of Chumpa — “For being in the wrong place at the wrong time…for disturbing the order of our lives.”

This is a collection of stories that shows the rich and poor in unexpected hues–sure the feudal lords exist, just as the corrupt bureaucrats are a reality too. So is the fact that a mujahid has a child by a Christian lover and a globetrotting professor tries to cope with cultural and ideological barriers. I liked the powerful women characters. It could be the co-wives of Daud, a man with a roving eye; Chumpa the maid of the “big house”, Meher, widow, who opts to live alone with three daughters or even Sultana who becomes a world renowned singer, after her marriage. I enjoyed reading these stories. They present Pakistan as more than just the typical image of the country—seen as a hotbed of civil unrest, corruption and conservative mindsets. I hope Irshad Abdul Kadir does well.

13 April 2013

Irshad Abdul Kadir Clifton Bridge HarperCollins India Original, Pb. Rs. 299.