Asfand Waqar is a Lecturer in the Department of Physics at CIIT, Islamabad. He holds a Master of Science in Materials Science and Engineering from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has lived in Karachi, actually a few hundred meters from the site of the blast fictionalized in Tanweer's and Imtiaz’s novels.
A Study in Scarlet – Violence and the Karachi Novel
“She is dead. She was captured by a terrorist cell in Karachi two months ago, and beheaded,” Mycroft Holmes informs John Watson. Irene Adler’s fate, in BBC’s drama series Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia, has taken a turn for the worse.
Moments later, we see the dark Karachi of the director’s imagination. A flashback shows Irene Adler kneeling, covered in a black chador. A man armed with an AK47 stands next to her; another man swings a wide blade scimitar. This second man is Sherlock Holmes himself, miraculously present to save Adler. The scene is dramatically illuminated by the headlights of a dusty Toyota pickup truck in the background. This is where, for the first time in the entire series (and hopefully the last), we hear the name Karachi.
This peculiar contemporary twist on Arthur Conan Doyle’s original story A Scandal in Bohemia resulted in copious speculation about the choice of location. As a fan of Sherlock and for someone who has lived in Karachi, this contemporary adaptation was a tacit acknowledgement of the city’s mystique: this urban jungle, the third largest city in the world by population, has an aura of metropolitan mystery just perfect for Sherlock. But those forty seconds of flashback are crucial, not only as a spectacular ending to the episode, but also in terms of understanding how Karachi is perceived in popular imagination. More than 10 million viewers saw this episode in the UK alone, witnessing a dark, mysterious, and almost terrifying image of the sprawling metropolis.
While such portrayal of Karachi on TV can be considered a recent phenomenon, its charm for novelists is nothing new. Rushdie’s Karachi in Midnight’s Children was a “rainless city… the hidden desert [that] retained its ancient powers of apparition-mongering, with the result that Karachiites had only the slipperiest of grasps on reality.” Shamsie, writing two decades later in Kartography, lamented the frequent power outages that were an essential part of any Karachiite’s experience: “Bijli fails in the dead of night / Won’t help to call “I need a light” / You’re in Karachi now / Oh, oh you’re in Karachi now. / Night is falling and you just cant see / Is this illusion or KESC / You’re in Karachi now.” But years have passed since these novels; and given the fast pace of urban life, Karachi and Karachiites too have changed since then. One would imagine their portrayal in contemporary novels would have responded to these changes too.
Over the last decade especially, the reality reflected in contemporary novels set in Karachi is one of violence. The Prisoner by Omar Shahid Hamid, Karachi You’re Killing Me by Saba Imtiaz, and The Scatter Here Is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer, all deal with the harsh realities of daily violence in present-day Karachi; and while they have employed different narrative techniques and styles, all three show a comprehension of that violence that could only come from having witnessed it or being closely affected by it. Hamid and Imtiaz, a police officer and a journalist, respectively, have kept their stories particularly close to home, choosing to place their protagonists within the same professions. Hamid’s novel, The Prisoner, is a crime thriller and has been described as “an insightful work on the police” by The News on Sunday. Imtiaz’s novel, Karachi You’re Killing Me, is structured as a young, struggling journalist’s diary. The strength of these novels comes not only from being as unflinching in their stark portrayal of Karachi violence as Sherlock was, but in attempting (unlike Sherlock) to understand the circumstances of Karachi’s violence in a nuanced, realistic manner.
Tanweer’s novel, The Scatter Here is Too Great, offers diverse and beautiful perspectives intricately weaved together to form a web of common experience. At the Islamabad Literature Festival, Tanweer revealed that his “larger project was to imagine Karachi” and to “create a narrative about Karachi” itself. His novel very consciously aims for that goal of imagining Karachi, by employing a structure that has been dubbed “a novel in five stories” by Claire Chambers. As no simple linear structure could have done justice to the task of portraying the messy reality of life in Karachi, we get scattered stories connected to each other by a single incident. Tanweer’s choice of narrative structure implies that no one voice or one perspective can achieve the task of imagining Karachi.
The three books portray various instances of violence, but interestingly, both Tanweer and Imtiaz fictionalize the same historical incident as a part of their stories. This is the Karachi Cantt Station blast that shows up as a motif in Tanweer’s novel, tying together all his characters and their stories, and is mentioned as the Central Railway Station blast in Imtiaz’s novel. Both novels take us back to the same spot, but with different contexts. Their fiction unearths the event’s various layers, and so an incident that was rendered flat across our television screens once again pops up and becomes three dimensional in our imagination. As a result, those unfortunate victims of the blast who were reduced to mere statistics on news reports, find themselves translated into characters one can identify with. This is true especially in Tanweer’s novel, which orbits around the incident and approaches it from the vantage point of different characters, sometimes obliquely. Imtiaz, on the other hand, presents Ayesha’s perspective of the blast’s aftermath: a behind-the-scenes retelling of the news story.
By structuring her novel as a diary, Imtiaz imposes an interesting perspective on the way the bomb blast is depicted. Her portrayal of the deadly event lacks the urgency of a breaking news item, an urgency that most Pakistanis are conditioned to, thanks to the various 24-hour news channels. Her narration, instead, is littered with frequent distractions. One can assume that the narrative – the novel’s text posing as diary entries – is from Ayesha’s memory of the incident, and that distractions in the story’s telling have seeped in from the act of recording it after the fact. It is precisely in this distracted journal-like narration that the charm of Imtiaz’s storytelling lies, as we get first-hand insight into how the people of Karachi might actually be dealing with such violence. As Ayesha herself notices, “You can barely get the Karachiites to raise an eyebrow at disaster any longer.”
It is worth mentioning at this point that perhaps the most commendable aspect of Karachi You’re Killing Me is the way it treats a woman and her life not as an object but rather as the subject of the story, imparting an agency to Ayesha that is often missing in Pakistani novels. From a journalistic point of view, the reader is compelled to confront her professional struggles – an equally tragic part of the real news stories we consume, yet a part we almost never get to see. Ayesha learns about the blast through a text message from Kamran (the editor and owner of the newspaper she works for), which reads, “Blast at train station.” But which train station is it? There are three of them in Karachi. And what does this text even mean; is she supposed to go and cover the incident? As it happens, she is the first reporter there, and while she sees “a pool of blood on the pavement” and glass scattered all around, the rest of the scene describes how her efforts as a print journalist are marginalized by the presence of TV reporters (one male reporter in particular) and their camera crews. Once again our focus as readers is shifted from the doleful site of the blast to Ayesha’s professional tribulations.
A comparison of Tanweer’s and Imtiaz’s treatment of the railway station bomb blast reveals one striking commonality. Karachi You’re Killing Me refers to “two 10-year-old kids who are collecting pieces of twisted metal and glass” in the aftermath of the explosion, thus mirroring Tanweer’s mysterious portrayal of “two men in long pink robes” who were witnessed by Akbar (an ambulance driver and a first responder) right after the same blast in his story. Moreover, Tanweer’s character Akbar, who was traumatized by the aftermath of the blast, also reports that “no one – not the police, press or anyone else present – was paying attention to” these men. It is as if Imtiaz is relaying through Ayesha’s perspective that someone was paying attention, and that these were just two kids picking up junk, a fact that Tanweer’s story eventually confirms.
In The Scatter Here is Too Great, there are at least three instances where the Cantt. blast is portrayed from a close proximity. In the chapter ‘Lying Low’, the reader is placed in the immediate aftermath of the blast, as you lie there on the floor of your apartment, after being knocked out by the blast’s force. The blast has taken place just outside the apartment, across the street. This powerful scene is made more potent by its use of the second person voice. The protagonist – mentioned in second person, as you – in this story is Comrade Sukhansaz’s son, a father himself whose own son is estranged from him. His own father, the communist poet Sukhansaz, had “decided to separate himself from his family to commit himself to the revolutionary cause”, and had disappeared leaving behind his family.
Placing the protagonist just in the immediate aftermath of the blast, Tanweer writes, “You know it’s not over – that you are in the middle of something; that something worse is sure to follow. You don’t know what, but you can already taste its fear.” Tanweer exploits the scene masterfully as an investigation of fear, by revealing the protagonist’s thoughts in a purposefully disjointed trance-like narration, which suits the aftermath of a blast. As the protagonist “is resting on the cold floor”, he has a flashback of a near-death experience: while swimming in the sea, many years ago, he almost drowned. His thoughts revolve around the specter of fear that is common between both these near death experiences. And yet we find ourselves questioning the nature of this fear he feels. Is it a fear of death? Is fear of death always the same? Perhaps not. This fear that the protagonist feels now, that he finally recognizes, is not the same fear he felt earlier, when he was about to drown as a kid. This fear now, as Tanweer writes, “feels more like a fear for something outside of yourself.” So this fear is not of death itself, but for something else. “This terror you feel now is of being cut out of something. You desperately wish to see your son [whom you have not talked to in two years] and tell him you are fine.” Is it a fear of separation, then? Perhaps not, because separation has already taken place. This is a fear, rather, of not being able to tell one’s story. In the case of the protagonist – Sukhsansaz’s son – he fears not being able to tell his story to his own son; he fears not being able to give him the book, a book he has been writing only for him, a book that has made him realize that perhaps his own father had not entirely abandoned him. So now, as he lays here on the floor, he discovers that he fears losing his own chance at redemption. The blast is no longer only an event of physical destruction, but also a moment of revelation.
This is Tanweer’s portrayal of the blast, where the bomb blast itself is secondary. The characters and their stories are primary. At the book’s launch, Tanweer said, “For me it was not so much about the blast, but actually how people deal with it.” In a way, this novel is representative of how Tanweer deals with it himself, employing his literary prowess. In Monet’s famous painting ‘Impression, Sunrise’ the sun disappears if one only considers its luminance (brightness) instead of noticing its color, because despite the difference in colors, the sun is painted just as bright as the sky in the background. Similarly in Tanweer’s novel if one could hypothetically measure and compare the intensity of all painful instances from various characters’ lives, the intensity of the bomb blast itself would diminish, if not become entirely invisible. The blast then, is merely a shade different, and maybe neither more nor less in intensity, from the overall pain Tanweer’s characters have experienced in their lives.
In the same chapter, we meet Noor Begum. She is old and homeless, as her own kids have abandoned her. As the story unfolds, the senile and withered Noor Begum falls unconscious just a few minutes before the explosion. She misses the actual bomb blast. In comparison to Monet’s painting, this is how the blast disappears from the canvas of Noor Begum’s life as drawn by Tanweer. It is as if Tanweer implies that life itself is painful and difficult, even without incidents of explicit violence.
No big metropolis is without its success stories, which is why Hamid’s The Prisoner catches our attention. It has a “genuine Karachi success story” of a “street-smart fraudster” who transforms himself into a religious figure and adopts the title of sheikh, becoming Sheikh Noman from Nomi. This deceptive transformation leads to the solution of the mystery that the plot revolves around, as the protagonist Akbar Khan, an incarcerated police officer and Sheikh Noman’s friend, mimics it while in jail, to gain access to information on Jihadis. Much like everything else in Hamid’s and also in Imtiaz’s work, this is truly representative of Karachi: a coastal metropolis of contradictions, where life thrives in all its shapes, forms and sizes. From the slum-dwelling poor to the ultra-rich, from fraudster to sheikh, this Karachi of our imagination has much to offer.
The Prisoner is a unique debut for another reason: there aren’t many English crime thrillers written in Pakistan. The novel’s captivating plot revolves around the life of an incarcerated police officer who is the Karachi authorities’ only hope for recovering a kidnapped American journalist. This bold and unashamed narrative represents Karachi in all its ugly complexity, especially from an administrative or political point of view. The novel is an especially courageous attempt at storytelling, because it fictionalizes the real Karachi in a minimalist fashion without so much as a veneer of cosmetic prose.
In the middle of the story, the protagonist Constantine D’Souza, while talking to Major Rommel, starkly explains why he joined the police force: “Life can be very difficult in this city,” he says, elaborating that some sort of access to power is crucial for survival. In response, the Army major – who is new to Karachi – remarks, “You paint a very bleak picture of life.” Constantine is quick to reply, “Sahib, it is not bleak. It is realistic. This is what life is for us.” The same goes for the novel, which, despite its occasional flamboyant dialogue, retains its grasp on reality by depicting a Karachi that is almost as horrifying and dangerous as the news it generates.
Most readers aware of Karachi’s political history will easily be able to match the story’s elements to their real life counterparts. For example, the novel’s formidable UF is a clear reference to MQM. This is perhaps not the safest thing to do, but as Hamid said in an interview on radio, “If I was really concerned about being safe, I probably won’t have joined the police.” While there are many police officers though, not many write novels. This is what makes writing and telling stories such brave acts of resistance on personal, political and even social levels. It is also the reason why The Prisoner stands along the other two brave voices charting Karachi’s murky depths.
All three novels cover a range of areas and experiences from Karachi as their characters move around, at times on foot, often in rickshaws, or in rickety, shaky vehicles. They flesh out the city as a dual-faced reincarnation of Janus. Karachi becomes, simultaneously, a scary monster of death, and a city thriving with possibilities. These are stories of survival, as storytelling itself becomes a way to survive. Despite Imtiaz’s title, and as much as Ayesha complains about Karachi “killing her”, it is still in Karachi she finds the love of her life. Hamid’s protagonist finds himself back in the game as a powerful player in the city that never sleeps.
At one point in Tanweer’s novel, a character observes, “We were all trapped in the middle of a story we did not know, and had no control over.” He may as well be referring to his and everyone else’s life in Karachi in general. But among all of the various voices in Tanweer’s Karachi, the most distinct is the voice of the writer—the writer who brings back the lost story of the Cantt Station blast, controlling it masterfully. He is aware that the blast is going to become “the story of this city.” He knows that this is “how we lose the city… when what we know is blasted into rubble and what is created in its place bears no resemblance to what there was and we are left strangers in a place we knew, in a place we ought to have known.” But he wins back his vision of Karachi by telling the tale as Tanweer’s narrator – his tale – he gathers the scatter, much like Tanweer himself, and so the story of Karachi is not only a story of violence and bomb blasts; it is also Ayesha’s story, and that of Constantine and Akbar Khan, and of the all the other scattered voices trying to find their place in the city, and in the process, discovering Karachi.