Originally published in Us Magazine, The News.
Bilal Tanweer’s debut novel, a ‘blood-soaked love-letter to Karachi’ as Mohammed Hanif puts it, seems to have created quite some ripples in the literary world. With critics hailing the writer and the book drawing rave reviews from all around, I got myself a copy to see what the fuss was about. They tell you not to a judge a book by its cover. In this case, though, the cover and the title go a long way to cement your predictions about the content of the book: it’s precisely about scatter. Too much of it!
The format of the book is a bit unusual – there are five main segments, each with its own chapters. The short stories are inter-linked bleakly; one blink and you may forget what the connection was. Playing along the vision of a bullet-smashed windscreen (“that’s the metaphor for my world, this city: broken, beautiful and born of tremendous violence”) the novel takes us through a journey of different characters, centred on the main event: a bomb blast outside the Cantt Station. The stories are linear snapshots from the characters’ lives – the bomb blast not being the major theme there. The book sheds light on the modes the people of the city have now devised to ‘go on’ in the face of extreme violence. Since “grieving is possible only when you know you have come to an end, when there’s nothing more to follow. This city was full of bottled-up grief”.
The narration of the novel is utterly confusing. Told entirely in the first person, it becomes difficult to point out the narrator despite Tanweer’s attempts at giving a distinct voice to each. And the use of pronouns over nouns isn’t the sole issue here, the shift in stories is also something that accounts for a difficult read – you have to work out to figure whose story is in fact in progress. It’s only towards the conclusion that things get clearer and the narration does a full circle.
Barring two or three characters, the rest are very forgettable. But this could have been deliberate on the writer’s part, since the main character of the novel is supposed to be the city of Karachi. Speaking of which, Karachiites might relate to the book on a different level altogether, but for me the city didn’t come across as vividly as I assumed a place of such overwhelming madness would. However, it’s the perspectives of the characters on their city; their attempts at making sense out of this completely senseless place that constitute the heart-beat of the novel. The dynamics of the relationships of the characters, with each other and with their city, are as refreshing as they’re touching. There’s no closure in most of the stories, yet some account for some stunning reading. The last story, specifically, is the best part of the book.
For most part, Tanweer keeps the language of the novel simple and basic – to lend authenticity to the narration, given the standing of the characters. But at times it gets extremely poetic and philosophical – some of the passages are so beautiful you cannot help reading them again. On the down-side, the translation of ‘street-language’ in the book just doesn’t come across right. Beware of the F word, it’s comes in every size, mood and almost on every page. (Or maybe expletives, too, are South Asian writing’s clichés.)
The book doesn’t delve into extensive accounts of the characters’ lives. It only picks up fragments from their lives – practical, spiritual and romantic endeavours. It presents cross-sections of lives in pre-conceived time-limits, blurring the rest into oblivion; in a very parallel-cinema kind of way. The scarce portions of light-headed humour come across effortlessly (the ordeal of getting on and off Karachi buses is a superb example of that). And since it often is like that, it’s ultimately beautiful rhetoric that comes to the rescue of the characters’ turmoil and the novel’s plot. Some mind-blowing lines there!
The foundations of the book are strong as steel. It’s just the building that could’ve been moulded into something better, and bigger. But maybe it’s because of the novel’s length (hardly 200 pages!) or that it’s the writer’s first novel (he’s definitely going to go places!). Or maybe, it’s simply because the novel is on Karachi – and nothing about Karachi can be easy or satisfying. The shatter in the city is reflected well in the pages of the book. And that’s precisely what gets to your head too: the great shatter!