Bilal Tanweer depicts a Karachi in fragments in his debut novel
“Ever seen a bullet-smashed windscreen?” the novel begins, in the first of three introductions demarcating its tripartite structure. “The hole at the centre throws a sharp clean web around itself and becomes crowded with tiny crystals. That’s the metaphor for my world, this city: broken, beautiful, and born of tremendous violence.” Within this, though, there exist five separate narratives – so distinct, in fact, that they read almost like five short stories – that twist and turn around and across each other, some reaching back into the past, some into the near future, but all ultimately converging at the same point: the moment a bomb explodes outside the city’s Cantt Station, sending varying degrees of shock waves through the assorted characters’ lives.
There’s a young man taking a young girl on a forbidden date; a wealthy middle-aged man visiting his mother; Comrade Sukhansaz, an old communist poet; Sadeq, a young man whose job it is to repossess the cars of those who have defaulted on their loans; Sadeq’s girlfriend’s young brother, unwitting observer of his sister’s blossoming romance; a man looking for the two strangers that his traumatised brother observed picking through the debris with a look of glee on their faces; and the writer-turned-newspaper sub-editor, already grieving for his father when the bomb hits, who holds Tanweer’s story together, shoring up these fragmented extracts in order to make something whole.
If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is; but there is a method to Tanweer’s madness and what begins as a cacophony of voices steadily tunes itself into a melodious choir that successfully captures the teeming vibrancy of the city (although it’s perhaps worth noting that none of Tanweer’s narrators are women; his female characters are seen only through the eyes of the men in their lives).
In the introduction to the second section, for example, the bullet hole in the smashed windscreen is described as an eye: “You see less through it but you gain focus, sharpness.” And by the third section, the smashed glass itself has taken on new meaning: “It cracks new paths, new boundaries. These are maps of an uncharted city. They tell different stories.”
After the incident the writer worries that the bomb will “become the story of this city”, blasting into rubble what the inhabitants know of where they live, rendering them “strangers in a place we knew, in a place we ought to have known”. But then he realises that a conurbation like Karachi is built on ever-shifting sands, its ongoing transformation charted by those like his father who walked its streets, “tracing paths from his memory to the present – from what this place had been to what it had become”.
Stories, we learn, are what hold this city and those who live in it together. As a child, the writer is read and told stories by his father (a man who works in an office that prints children’s books), who teaches his son about the “blackboard” in his mind; there’s Sukhansaz’s poetry and the fairy tales Sadeq’s girlfriend distracts her brother with; the tales of the two scavengers roaming the bomb site after the blast, bald, with sharply pointed tongues and wearing pink robes, rumoured to be Gog and Magog, “the harbingers of the Day of Judgement”; and the “Bird of Death” the writer meets on the street who tells him the story of his brother’s disfigurement, then in turn warmly recalls the stories the writer’s own father told, after he lost his job and took to street performance.
“I learnt about stories from him,” the Bird of Death says, “and that’s what I do myself now. Once you tell somebody a story, you are all in the same world and you can speak to each other about the same things and understand the same things.” The writer’s revelation that “we needed stories in order to imagine the mad world we live in,” echoes throughout Tanweer’s novel, throwing light on the author’s relationship with his text and the beloved city he’s writing about.
Lucy Scholes is a regular contributor to The Review.
Published: August 7, 2014 04:00 AM