The debut novel of the young writer Shehryar Fazli is set in his home country, Pakistan, in 1970, in the politically fraught months leading up to civil war and the formation of Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan.
He has childhood memories, a legacy of inherited bitterness from his father, and a deep desire to belong. Shahbaz, with the arrogance of the young, also has a distinct sense of entitlement. He feels that he should be part of the inner social circle of the city whose language he can barely speak, and whose unspoken rules he has to learn. He sets out to belong.
Back in Pakistan to try and sort out a long-standing family property dispute, the orchard in Mirpurkhas assumes a central place in Shahbaz’s memory and motivation. From cherished idyllic childhood memories shattered by the ugly reality of land now squatted upon, to the realities involved in reclaiming the orchard, Shahbaz has much to learn. The orchard, with its lingering childhood aura of romance, becomes the stage upon which Shahbaz tries out his new persona and learns how to view his new world, a world of greed and corruption, the world awaiting him in Pakistan.
He grudgingly admires his feisty aunt Mona, who has single-handedly wrested the land back from the government, even though she now wishes to sell it. He is appalled by the squalor of the squatters, while feeling affection for 2 little boys whom he often invokes when trying to decide what to do with the orchard. By the time the squatters are finally evicted, Shahbaz’s education in the realities of life in poor, dusty Mirpukhas is almost complete.
The novel is densely packed with detail, details of food and people and sex and politics and smells and noise and language and drugs – all the strands that form the whole that is Karachi. This mass of sensual details successfully bring to life the converging worlds of sleazy cabarets, corrupt officials, ambitious politicians, fanatic Islamists and genteel patrician Karachi. The larger-than-life figure of Brigadier Alamgir straddles all these diverse worlds, and he is one of the novel’s pivotal characters, an altogether more fully-dimensional (and likeable) figure than the young narrator.
The novel moves slowly and in great detail through Shahbaz’s months in Pakistan. He struggles with Urdu, and so is often cast linguistically adrift. He falls in love with a cabaret dancer, whose lazy sluttishness is laced through with religion. He witness his aunt Mona’s moments of madness mixed in with acerbic sanity. He spends much time with a driver from East Pakistan, a Bengali called Ghulam Hussain who is kind, enterprising, friendly, and who will assume a tragic dimension in Shahbaz’s progress towards understanding the harsh realities of Pakistani life.
One of the book’s most memorable characters has little more than a walk-on role. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whom we meet briefly at a cocktail party at the Brigadier’s home, is so sharply drawn that he lingers in the reader’s mind long after his car has driven him out of the elegant garden, and into the pages of history.
A finely researched novel, that successfully brings to life a world and way of life of 40 years ago, the author is, however, let down in one small way.
Shahbaz speaks fluent French.
Mr. Fazli’s editors clearly don’t.
“Invitation” is published by Tranquebar and the hardback sells in India for Rs 495.
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