Windows into Pakistan: Four debut novels

It is frequently described as the most dangerous place in the world. With suicide bombings and shootings, terrorists camping on its territory, high and entrenched levels of fundamentalism and anti-Western sentiment, rampant social, ethnic and sectarian tensions, a government seemingly with no authority over its powerful military and intelligence organs, Pakistan could well deserve the label.

This is what the world sees, but is it the full story?

There are many ways to find out, but literature is a fairly accurate mirror. How do Pakistani authors, even if they represent quite a minute and relatively privileged section of the populace, depict what is happening around them?

The answer - seemingly obvious and scarcely unexpected - is that they focus on people carrying on with their lives, and the violence - terrorist or otherwise - is tangential to their lives until it directly affects them or those close to them.

Let's see how fiction from Pakistan deals with life and society, through the prism of four debut novels - most of them recent releases - set in Karachi.

First impressions are generally the lasting ones, and several Pakistani authors have had scintillating debuts that amply displayed their literary potential - Mohammad Hanif's "A Case of Exploding Mangoes" and Daniyal Mueenuddin's "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders" are good examples.

Likewise, the initial offerings of Shazaf Haider Fatima, Omar Shahid Hamid, Saba Imtiaz and Maha Khan Phillips leave a mark and even if these are the only books they end up writing - god forbid - it will cement their status as incisive and witty observers of their milieu.

Hamid's "The Prisoner" (published November 2013) is a no-holds-barred account of policing in Karachi and weaves in quite a bit of recent history - suitably camouflaged - in the taut narrative, peopled by bent police officers, crooked politicians, manipulative secret agents and, yes, the jihadis.

An American journalist is kidnapped in Karachi and his jihadi captors threaten to execute him on camera - like Daniel Pearl. With the US president's visit slated soon, the desperate authorities are forced to seek help of a jailed police officer - left implicated in a high-profile killing (quite similiar to that of Murtaza Bhutto) - to ensure the journalist's safe release.

Hamid, a former head of Karachi CID, scores with having a Christian police officer as the pivotal character, thus providing a narrator with the persistent sense of being an outsider and seeming to offer a detached view. Other characters are also well-delineated, especially the police high-ups like "Hanuman" and "Dr. Death" and the spies whose agencies are just referred by their locations - Bleak House and Kaaley Gate (though the identities are obvious).

"Karachi, You're Killing Me!" (published February 2014) is another view of the city but through the eyes of a journalist juggling between a stressful job, a complicated love life and a home where the pet cat sometimes receives more affection.

A journalist-turned-author, Imtiaz writes with verve and panache of the travails of the 20s-something Ayesha, whose work takes her to the site of suicide bombings, the Bhutto family mausoleum in interior Sindh, an over-the-top fashion show (where the boss' inebriated wife walks the ramp) - and even to interview a couture cupcake designer (the boss' niece) or verify the reports of an escaped lion on the beach.

The treatment is humorous - the depictions of the fashion show and the literature fest (where two men quarrel over their 'contributions' to Faiz's poetry) are among the funniest.

Phillip's "Beautiful from the Angle" is slightly older (2010). It initially seems like chick-lit with its beach parties full of people - like the principal protagonist Amynah - consuming liquor and drugs but soon disproves the impression.

Amynah, a society columnist, gets embroiled with her friends Henna and Mumtaz in trying to rescue a battered woman, even as a friend organises a celebrity reality show "Who Wants to be a Terrorist?" Politics, terrorism, social repression, and media (manipulation) combine in an explosive finale when Benazir Bhutto returns home.

"How it Happened" (November 2013) is different, belonging to that misunderstood genre - the comedy of manners - which is also difficult to pull off, but Haider does it with rare aplomb.

It is the tale of a middle-class family, ruled by an iron-willed grandmother, seeking suitable matrimonial matches for a son and a daughter. But though Haroon is easily persuaded, the feisty Zeba is another matter altogether. Told from the viewpoint of the youngest sibling, the teenaged Saleha, the story could too easily have degenerated into melodrama were it not for the author's deft and light touch.

These works may be a small, subjective selection but they demonstrate that Pakistan's troubles haven't extinguished creativity. It may well be a difficult, dangerous country but its writers are capable of candid but witty portrayals of the conditions.

(23-03-2014-Vikas Datta is a Senior Assistant Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at