Bilal Tanweer successfully captures the loom and gloom surrounding the city under siege in his debut novel through powerful and emotional fragments.
Karachi is not your ordinary city.It remained the Capital of the country until 1958.It hosts a huge population of more than 23.5 million.The population is made of people from all parts of Pakistan who moved in order to find a better place for living.You may expect these people to live in harmony with each other but unfortunately that has not been the case.On the contrary it has become a ethnic battlefield where mafia of all types have sprung up.
Bilal Tanweer is a writer and translator. He was one of Granta‘s ‘New Voices‘ and a recipient of the PEN Translation Fund Grant for his translation of Muhammad Khalid Akhtar’s Chakiwara Mein Visaal (forthcoming). He has also translated two novels by Ibn-e Safi, The House of Fear (Random House India, 2010) being one of them. He is an Honorary Fellow of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
The novel being reviewed won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2014 and was a finalist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2015 and The Chautauqua Prize 2015.
The stories are set in Karachi.To capture the outlook of the people of the metropolitan the author has chosen a quite different writing style.One cannot classify the stories as simply short stories rather they are fragments.Short descriptions of lives of people, otherwise very separate ,yet later affected by the same incident that is the Cantt Station Bomb Blast.The fragments shed light on the events leading to the blast and the aftermath that follows.Sometimes these characters are linked to each other while otherwise they have their own storylines.
I think that the question that why did the author chose such a distinct form of narrative begs to be answered.I believe that to convey the city’s tale would not have been possible with the story of one main character so with the characters ranging from a bully to a newspaper editor to a store owner,the writer enables us to see the city through different eyes and minds.
Another strange thing about the stories is that in spite of being incomplete in some sense they have a halo of closure about them.It appears that we do not need to know what happens next;that it’s enough what we have read.
The stories deal with different themes like love,family tensions,financial troubles and learning and trying to belong in the world.Together the stories paint a picture that is not about politics rather it is about the people.Their troubles,fears,ambitions,griefs,joys and hopes.
(Spoiler warning)For example,one piece deals with a Communist poet Sukhansaz who has recently been let out of jail after doing time for his ideological beliefs.He is on a bus to meet his family with whom he has had a troubled relationship all his life.During the commute he faces a mocking attitude from the passengers who laugh at his name and some call him chicken-saz just for the fun of it.It is at this point that we are told how the dictator regime of Zia-ul-Haq jailed Communists of the era;poets,philosophers and intellectuals because of their ideology and how it under pressure from US put down the Communists to rest so that they may not ally with Russia.But the story does not end there for the stop where Sukhansaz leaves the bus is Cantt Station and we leave the poet we just came to know there,for he does not survive the blast,never able to meet his family.
The book is not quite long (197 pages).It’s a good and enjoyable read.I liked it and hope that you will too.Try to read between the lines for that is where the hidden meaning is.The last line “You are listening” says so.We need to understand the pain and emotions of the characters if we want to know the purpose of the whole book.
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