Guest post by Anwesha Ray Chaudhuri
Complete title: “The Bargain from the Bazaar: A Family’s Day of Reckoning in Lahore”
Publisher: Public Affairs, New York, 2014
Price: INR 499/$16.99
Haroon K. Ullah’s The Bargain from the Bazaar takes its readers on a journey into the oldest market of the Indian subcontinent – Anarkali Bazaar, Lahore – to narrate the fascinating story of a Kashmiri migrant family that settled there after Partition.
Through the Reza family’s story, set against the turbulent historical and political backdrop of a new nation, Ullah attempts to tackle a set of typical Pakistani concerns today: lawlessness, terrorism, radicalisation, sectarianism, economic instability, class mobility, education and America’s war on terror.
Essential to the entire book is the emphasis that Ullah has given to middle-class families in Pakistan, which (he states from the outset) has not been given due voice or visibility in the plethora of existing literature on the country. The Rezas are one of those families. The patriarch of the unit, Awais, is a veteran-turned-trader who fought in the 1971 war. Shez, his wife, is a nurse since that war. She is dour and highly intuitive, preferring to remain in the background. Their three sons are Salman, Daniyal and Kamran. Salman is a school dropout – an opium addict who helps out his father with his business. Daniyal attends a madrassa where he is being radicalised and trained to become a terrorist. The youngest, Kamran, is studying on a scholarship to become a lawyer. It is through Daniyal and Kamran that Ullah portrays the dichotomy of Pakistani society at present: the struggle between radical and the liberal.
As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this is not just an ordinary tale of middle-class aspirations or the mundane struggle of everyday life. It is what Ullah has called “the kind of story investigative journalists fight over”. But Ullah himself is not a journalist. He is a senior Pakistani-American diplomat, with a deep understanding of South Asia, especially Pakistan. As he states, this book is a result of eight years of extensive field research in South Asia and is based on his relationship with a Pakistani family. He has also conducted several face-to-face interviews with Taliban commanders to shape this book. However, the combination of journalism, anthropology, politics and storytelling leaves the readers wondering if it is a work of fiction or nonfiction. This is where gaps in the writing emerge. The author’s empathy for the protagonists is visible, but at times it borders on the didactical and they begin to appear as mere mouthpieces for his own beliefs and ideas. Ullah also takes liberties with timelines, oscillating between the East Pakistan liberation war (1970’s) and the recent attack on a revered Sufi tomb in Lahore (2000’s) in the same breath. Instances like this tend to create confusion regarding the timeline of the work in minds of the readers.
The work has its moments of intense thrill where it becomes impossible to put down, while at times the plot is too predictable. The penultimate moment of the book, its climax, is a case in point as this reader found it far too simplistic and removed from the reality of life, and perhaps particularly life in Pakistan.
What is commendable is that Ullah has dealt with Pakistan in a new light where the focus group has been the middle class, a deviation from the usual elite-civil-military-terrorist nexus. He has touched on the history and politics of the country without being preachy or bogging readers down with extraneous information.
Overall, the book is a great read for those interested in learning about life in Pakistan today, written in a lucid and uncomplicated style, with vivid details and knowledge of life and struggle behind the headlines the world reads about Pakistan today.
Anwesha Ray Chaudhuri has a Masters in International Studies and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She operates as a freelance researcher out of Delhi and Kolkata and has worked with different think tanks on India-Pakistan relations in Delhi.