Saba Imtiaz’s debut novel does not try to rise above the contrived chick-lit clichés it binds itself to, though these are offset to a small degree by the author’s snarky wit and colourful Karachi anecdotes.
Publisher’s Blurb: Ayesha is a twenty-something reporter in one of the world’s most dangerous cities. Her assignments range from showing up at bomb sites and picking her way through scattered body parts to interviewing her boss’s niece, the couture-cupcake designer. In between dicing with death and absurdity, Ayesha despairs over the likelihood of ever meeting a nice guy, someone like her old friend Saad, whose shoulder she cries on after every romantic misadventure. Her choices seem limited to narcissistic, adrenaline-chasing reporters who’ll do anything to get their next story, to the spoilt offspring of the Karachi elite who’ll do anything to cure their boredom. Her most pressing problem, however, is how to straighten her hair during the chronic power outages. Karachi, You’re Killing Me! is Bridget Jones’s Diary meets the Diary of a Social Butterfly, a comedy of manners in a city with none.
Paperback, 272 pages
Published Feb 24th 2014 by Random House India
The most striking thing about Saba Imtiaz’s debut novel, Karachi, You’re Killing Me!, is the unshakeable feeling of what it might have been had it not made such an effort to pigeonhole itself into a genre. Amidst the superlative praise that has been heaped on the book, there are other more critical voices that have dismissed the book as “fluff”; to be clear, I wouldn’t count that as grounds for dismissal – because, well, if you read the blurb on the back of the book, it’s your own damn fault you expected anything else. But the tragedy of KYKM is that it is so caught up deliberately trying to avoid substance and slather itself in an opaque veneer of formula chick-lit that – unlike good chick-lit (such as the Bridget Jones novels Imtiaz drew inspiration from) – it does not allow itself to be either very entertaining or moving.
I should say at this point that KYKM is by no means devoid of wit. In fact, there were moments in the novel that made me laugh out loud. Imtiaz has an eye for the absurd, something I am certain comes in handy when you’re a working girl in a city like Karachi – and she is truly funny when she speaks in her wry Karachi voice, instead of attempting Helen Fielding style humour (which, alas, is the apparent template for the novel). Besides her humorous observations on life in her home city, she even tosses in a few caustic (but sometimes spot-on) jabs at “Islamabad types” who are happy to be in Karachi primarily because they get to meet people other than the ones they meet at breakfast, lunch and dinner every day in the capital – usually at Mocca Café. It’s snark like this that makes you wish Imtiaz’s novel as a whole had the heart, spirit and originality to back it up.
In his review of KYKM for the Friday Times, Mohsin Siddiqui defends the book’s “fluff” at great length. “Everything doesn’t have to be cleverer-than-thou or so serious that you need to pop industrial quantities of Xanax and Prozac just to make it through the first few chapters,” he writes. I couldn’t agree more. The problem with KYKM is not that it isn’t “serious” enough or Man Booker-worthy enough. It is that it does not even try to rise above all the clichés it binds itself to, nor does it capitalize on the apparent talent and experiences of the accomplished young journalist who authored it. The characters are one-dimensional stereotypes, the plot is predictable, the relationships contrived and unconvincing. While these flaws are offset to some degree by Imtiaz’s colourful anecdotes about Karachi, the anecdotes alone cannot save the novel from itself.
The promise that I do see in the book is in the rare moments of interestingness when it offers insights into the goings-on of Karachi and Sindh from the point of view of someone who’s clearly seen every parallel world therein. An example is Ayesha’s observation that the public hospitals her elitist friends wouldn’t be caught dead in are actually more humane than most fancy, private hospitals. Or when Ayesha goes to Larkana to cover a by-election, and offers gritty, dusty descriptions of the journey, the city and the hotel she stays in – even a brief car chase (okay, Qingqi chase). Similarly memorable is Ayesha’s narration of hiding out on a rooftop during a shootout in Karachi, or her interactions with a politician from a religious party.
Alas, the novel’s concerted effort to invest in its shallower plot devices keeps diverting us away from Imtiaz’s reservoir of exciting journo stories. When Ayesha interviews a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, for example, her only thoughts that we are made aware of are about how the story will catapult her to journalistic stardom. And sure, she says she has gang leaders on speed dial and that she has spent more time cultivating her relationships with them than she has in her personal life – but these relationships and their cultivation are pretty much absent from the narrative, much as I would have loved to read about them. I should mention that Imtiaz’s Beacon page actually does offer an interesting and personal blog post on the subject of reporters making underworld connections in Karachi, with specific reference to her own exchanges with the late Zafar Baloch, leader of the People’s Aman Committee (who also makes a brief appearance in KYKM). Reading that post – as well as Imtiaz’s other pieces online – makes you wish she had infused her novel with more of this kind of insider knowledge of the city’s social and political tapestry, rather than merely skimming the surface of her protagonist’s professional life. What I’m looking forward to is reading more of the real stories Imtiaz has to tell, unconstrained by the shackles of needless rom-com tropes.
Fatima Shakeel is a regular contributor to DWL and her work has also been featured in Papercuts. You can read more of her writing on her blog.