Sunday, February 20, 2011

Karachi Noir

This appeared in today's DNA.

INVITATION Shehryar Fazli

Some say there are only a limited number of basic plots and subjects, and writers of fiction have to constantly re-invent these to suit their needs. One such template is that of a stranger coming to town, and one such theme is that of loss of innocence. In his debut novel, Pakistani author Shehryar Fazli employs just these models.

Invitation is based in the Karachi of 1970, a setting that also animated Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography. It’s a place and time where almost all conversations revolve around Bhutto, Yahya, Mujib, the role of the army, and the elections in what was then known as East Pakistan. As such, Fazli joins company with the current crop of writers from Pakistan – with the notable exception of Daniyal Mueennuddin – whose work stresses upon linking the personal with the political.

Into this milieu arrives Shahbaz, Invitation’s narrator, returning after 19 years in Paris. We soon learn that Shahbaz’s father fled Pakistan because of his involvement in the infamous Rawalpindi Conspiracy of 1951, and has now sent his son back to resolve a dispute with his aunt over shared family property, a 36-acre mango orchard.

Shahbaz, unschooled in the ways of his native city, has to negotiate class differences and an inadequate knowledge of Urdu to achieve his aim. As the days pass, he listens to the stories of the people he meets while trying to construct one of his own. One of the novel’s clear strengths is its evocation of the personalities he gets close to, from Ghulam Hussain, his Bengali chauffeur, to Mona Phuppi, his aunt, to Brigadier Alamgir, an old contact of his father’s who now runs the Agra Hotel, to Malika, a cabaret dancer from Cairo who performs nightly at the Agra. The character of Shahbaz himself is a curious mix: on the one hand, a self-questioning innocent who’s far from worldly-wise, and on the other, one who seeks out drugs and whores with equal avidity.

The Agra Hotel, one of the novel’s main settings, can be seen as a microcosm of the nation’s corridors of power –  a place frequented by diplomats, police officers, fundamentalists and politicians – just as the dispute over the mango orchard mirrors the quarrel over the future of an incipient Bangladesh.

When he isn’t visiting the orchard and wondering how to win over his aunt as well as evict the squatters there, Shahbaz dallies with prostitutes and lies about in a drug-induced haze. After becoming the brigadier’s guest at the Agra, he enters into a liaison with Malika, and then compromises himself by paying petty bribes to a local police officer and, more importantly, by meeting members of the Jamaat-i-Islami who also engage in mysterious closed-door discussions with the brigadier.

The loss of innocence and betrayal that transpires applies equally to Shahbaz as well as Pakistan. Late in the novel, the brigadier remonstrates: "You don't realise, you don't see the bigger picture. You think shifts in power are brought about by ballots and polls and primaries and what-have-you. Here, they're not. It's still the twelfth century. Birth, death, marriages, wars, they're the things that move politics”.

As ought to be clear by now, Invitation isn’t short of colour and incident. Fazli’s prose is stylishly confident, detailing actions and interactions with verve, be it an opium-soaked qawwali performance or the animated conversations at the shack of Ghulam Hussain. As the novel progresses, the connections between the personal and the political do become belaboured, but the overall narrative energy makes Invitation, for the most part, an assured and readable debut. 

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