After 19 years Shahbaz returns to Karachi from Paris where his father had sought refuge following the revelation of his role in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy of 1951. And with his return, author Shehryar Fazli takes us to the Pakistani port city of 1970 in his debut novel, Invitation.
It was the time when people of Pakistan were focussed on the future, anticipating the political fallout of the discontent among the people in the then East Pakistan with their leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman challenging the autocratic administration in West Pakistan. There are other historical characters too; a charismatic Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto; Ayub Khan and the rest. So are the fictional characters who Shahbaz comes across as he envisages to know the city and settle a dispute with his aunt, Mona Phuppi, over a 36-acre mango orchard where there are squatters. The orchard, to me, seems to be an allegory of Pakistan itself that was then at the crossroads. So is the Agra Hotel, one of the main settings in the novel; it is like a small replica of Pakistan with bureaucrats, officials and the elites frequenting the place, and discussing the politics and life, in general.
In Fazli’s novel, Karachi comes across as a politically-motivated city. But more than that, the darker hues — sleaze, opium and aspirations — play a major role in the novel as Shahbaz tries to claim a position of pride in Karachi’s high society. But that endeavour requires the patronage of a retired brigadier — an equation which remains a matter of concern for Shahbaz. The city gets its shades through the characters. There’s the friendly Bengalee driver, Ghulam Hussain, who narrates to Shahbaz about the riots in Dhaka against the Urdu-speaking Pakistanis; and there is Malika, the Egyptian cabaret dancer in a hotel with whom Shahbaz gets intimate; and most of all, Shahbaz himself stays at the centre of it all as he curiously enough indulges into opium binges and sex, despite his not-so-worldly-wise outlooks. “As a child in Paris, I didn’t so much yearn for a secret life... Now in Karachi I seemed to be stuck only in its darker part...” Shahbaz says at one point. And so gradually he gets stuck in a mire: he bribes the police officer; and he meets the members of the Jamaat-i-Islami, a hardline group that opposed Bhutto’s secular ways and called for an Islamic Pakistan. With their help and that of the brigadier, Shahbaz gets rid of the squatters in the orchard. In return, he is asked to betray driver Ghulam Hussain for his suspected support to Mukti Bahini — the freedom fighters in East Pakistan, thus leaving Shahbaz feeling guilty towards the end when his conscience wakes up. He carries that feeling of being connected with whatever happened — the violence and the betrayals — with him even when he returns to Paris. This then is also a story of loss of innocence: that of Shahbaz and that of Pakistan which gradually veered towards turbulence as its eastern wing fell apart to become an independent nation, Bangladesh.
Fazli’s writing is not lacklustre. There is enough action. But the book will not qualify as a page-turner; the narration seems to be dragging unnecessarily, at times. Despite the interesting characters and their eccentricities, what is missing is a sense of urbanity; the city life doesn’t come alive that much. What one gets is a basic idea of the place and maybe a slice of life in a charged atmosphere.
Still, one must give credit to Fazli for his ability to retain the reader’s interest, especially because of the historical backdrop against which the story is told. Where Fazli succeeds is in giving the reader a sense of lost opportunities to hold back Pakistan from becoming an intolerant, regressive nation that today exports terrorism. And it leaves me wondering what if Pakistan had learnt a lesson from its defeat in 1971 and rectified its mistakes.
By: Shehryar Fazli
Price: Rs 495