ILF 2017: Will HM Naqvi’s ‘The Selected Works of Abdullah (the Cossack)’ be the Big Karachi Novel?

New York City’s Bomb Magazine, which publishes new literature, has HM Naqvi tagged as an “experimental” writer*.

Naqvi’s panel at the 2017 Islamabad Literature Festival (ILF) wasn’t the most well-attended of the lot, probably because he had Syed Nusrat Ali’s one-man mimicry mushaira and Arfa Sayeda Zehra’s panel on Pakistan’s history to compete with. I went, however: one, because Home Boy was great, and I’d wondered where he had disappeared to for the past eight years, and two, because his session was titled “The Big Karachi Novel”. I’m a Karachi expat. The name draws me like a moth to a flame.

 
Up on stage with Fasi Zaka as moderator, Naqvi truly did give off the sort of vibe of someone who would be tagged “experimental” by Bomb Magazine. For starters, his shirt buttons were undone half way—which, contextualized in Islamabad, with daarhi-waalas in the audience, seemed like a comical parody of the writer trope than something more intentional. Secondly, when he spoke, he said things like “I work at night. I work from midnight till about 6 am. At night, the noises in the city and the noises in my head are quiet.” Thirdly, when he began reading, he did so with a specific cadence, half growl, half poetry, slow, methodic, but musical. You could tell he would be the sort of writer to narrate ordinary things in strange, novel ways.

For example, this description of Ramadan from his forthcoming novel The Selected Works of Abdullah (the Cossack) as it appears in an excerpt on the Bomb magazine website:

“…I feel unstable, unhinged, and in good company: everyone turns lunatic in the Holy Month. We become mean, testy, preachy, sanctimonious. The only time one feels the presence of God during this disconsolate period is when one happens to find oneself on the empty streets at the break of fast. The city seems uninhabited then, and in the resonant silence, there are Intimations of Divine Order.”

I haven’t read the book yet, but I already know this book will put me in a dream, take me to a different sort of Karachi, where poverty is jostled aside (roughly, in true Karachi style) for poetry.

The session was to promote Naqvi’s upcoming novel (an audience member asked: “So when do we get to read it?” He answered: “Think of it like nihari. It takes some time to cook. Have some patience.”). Cossack will be an epic that spans the history of the city through the protagonist Abdullah, a 300lb man who, much like all of us, is weaving his way through love, life, and his place in the world—and is characterized as a metaphor for Karachi itself.

Naqvi explained how he has spent the past few years researching the city’s intricacies and depth in meticulous detail, painting Karachi in light of the modern predicament that plagues all sprawling cities such as Lagos, Jakarta, or Bombay. As a native Karachiite, this is all very exciting: I personally cannot wait for this book.


An audience member asked: “So when do we get to read it?” Naqvi answered: “Think of it like nihari. It takes some time to cook. Have some patience.”

It’s fantastic that this relatively nascent culture of literary festivals has spread across the major cities of Pakistan. How else would one be hyped up about something that’s not even published yet? This, in addition to the myriad sessions the ILF presented on the history of Pakistan, the sociopolitics of gender and the media, literature both in English and Urdu, jam-packed mushairas, and performances on Ismat Chughtai amongst others, made for a wonderful bubble of activity in Islamabad.

Here’s to many more!

 

*They also have him tagged under “Indian literature”. Let’s calm the quivering rage: They meant well, I’m sure.


Ifra Asad is a poetry editor at Papercuts magazine.

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