Karachi’s Seamy Underbelly

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Invitation by  Shehryar Fazli, book reviewNoir – the word conjures up images of blazing guns or sleazy ladies of the night clutching swathes of blue velvet – pace David Lynch. Fast paced action and mean streets. If that is the definition of noir then Shehryar Fazli’s debut novel has ample noir and more than enough to spare. And what makes it even darker is the fact that it is a sneak peek into a Karachi that no one knows. For Indians there is a voyeuristic thrill about this raising of the curtains, Karachi with its dirty linen totally on show and a Karachi that few are aware even existed.

According to Fazli, who researched the subject amongst his father’s friends, this was how Karachi used to be before prohibition was enforced and the city’s famous bars and cabarets shut down. His story starts with Shahbaz who has returned to Karachi from Paris after 19 years to keep an eye on his aunt who has started legal action to see whether the family orchard which was taken away during Ayub Khan’s government can be returned. The book begins with a description of the old Indian boats captured in Pakistan waters, which have been piled up at Karachi’s Yacht Club. Shabaz is walking past them with the very eccentric and feisty Mona Phuppi who has fat white ankles, talking about orchards and the future. Despite the fact that his aunt may defraud them of their orchard entirely, Shabaz rather admires her for her determination. But then as a protagonist, he is entirely dislikeable because his inclination is towards brothels, cocaine and all the forbidden pleasures he can possibly glean.

Shabaz is restless combing the depths of Karachi. He begins by staying at the Khyber hotel which is actually a brothel, but runs into a Brigadier at the Afghan Hotel who, after an unpromising beginning, realises that he knows Shabaz’s father. The Brigadier invites Shabaz to stay in his house and Shabaz embarks on an affair with Malika, an Egyptian cabaret artist. The brigadier is also a friend of Bhutto and as a result moves in the corridors of power and entertains all kinds of people.

Against the noir depths of Karachi is the steady political undercurrent of conspiracy and change. Students of history say that this is one of the most interesting periods in the history of Pakistan – the military government thrown out and Bhutto voted into power, while there is turbulence in East Pakistan which eventually leads to the formation of Bangladesh. Shabaz comes into contact with a young Bengali taxi driver, Ghulam, who cooks omelettes for him when Shabaz refuses to eat in the Brigadier’s home and takes him to listen to a fevered session of qawwali. Ghulam however wants to return to East Pakistan and lets some unwary comments drop about militants he knows back home. Shabaz for no particular reason except for a desire to show that he is a person of importance and curry favour with the Brigadier lets broad hints drop about the things that Ghulam has been saying.

What one would expect of this book is a kind of lean, mean pace, Fazli’s prose however tends to slow the pace down with its explorations of Shabaz’s crooked thoughts, until the last few chapters of the book when Bangladesh is a done deal and Shabaz is back in Paris winning his father’s praise for getting his share of the property – though he does this through the help of two fundamentalists who evoke traditional religious law.

The return of the property Mona Phuppi compares to a man whose wife returns after several rounds of adultery – she feels it shouldn’t be kept. Shabaz however is determined to hang on to what he has managed to retrieve for his father. In a sense there is a parallel between what happens to the orchard and the fate of Pakistan, though Fazli does not labour the point.

What is interesting about Invitation is the fact that it offers a peek into underbelly of Karachi and its politics and exposes a side very different from the current restrictions and bombings – the violence there is the violence of politics and corruption, the violence of a time that despite everything was relatively more innocent in its vices and more predictable in its brutality.

Invitation by Shehryar Fazli
Published by Tranquebar India, 2011

Buy book online
Buy book online
by Shehryar Fazli

One Comment on "Karachi’s Seamy Underbelly"

  1. John
    01/02/2011 at 16:33 Permalink

    Can’t wait to get my hand on this and read it , when is it out in north america ?

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Written by Anjana Basu
Anjana Basu

Anjana Basu works as an advertising consultant in Calcutta. In 2003, Harper Collins India brought out her novel Curses In Ivory. In 2004, she was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland where she worked on her second novel, Black Tongue, published by Roli in 2007. In February 2010. her children's novel Chinku and the Wolfboy was brought out by Roli. She writes features for travel magazines and reviews for Indian newspapers.

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