January Issue 2015

By | Books | People | Profile | Published 4 years ago

It was a warm spring day in Karachi when I first met Omar Shahid Hamid at his residence. Dressed in weather-appropriate T-shirt, shorts and flip flops, I was led to a beautiful study decorated with Persian carpets, plush leather armchairs, floor to ceiling bookshelves and a wall adorned with numerous plaques of awards and honorary degrees.

Omar Shahid burst onto the Pakistani literary scene in 2014 with his debut novel, The Prisoner, a gritty and unpretentious crime thriller that pulls back the curtain on one of the most reviled and also misunderstood national institutions: the police.

The son of former KESC chairman, Malik Shahid Hamid — who was murdered allegedly by the MQM in the late ’90s — Omar was no stranger to dealing with the police, but his reason for joining the police was far more nuanced.

“Institutions are generally weak in Pakistan,” he says. “But the potential good in it is that in the absence of institutions, individuals tend to matter. I felt that the police was one particular department where if you choose to do things to help people, the impact that you can have is very easily quantifiable.”

During his career as a police officer, Omar worked in some of the most dangerous areas of Karachi, including SITE, Orangi, Saudabad, Lyari, and Civil Lines, and worked closely with the late Chaudhry Aslam in the Crime Investigation Department (CID).

With 12 years in the police, Omar has a unique insight into the inner workings of the police and the inherent contradictions that belie some of our assumptions yet also confirm our suspicions.

The Prisoner was the result of a cathartic exercise says Omar. Due to increasing security threats because of his work in the CID, he decided to leave the country on a sabbatical from the police. With time on his hands, Omar’s attempt at catharsis “snowballed” into something more substantial.

Drawing from real-life events such as the Daniel Pearl kidnapping, Murtaza Bhutto’s assassination and his day-to-day experiences in the police, Omar crafted a fast-paced thriller that delves into Karachi’s dark underbelly and gives us a glimpse of the complex world of battling gangsters and militants, demanding politicking bosses and powerful intelligence agencies and endemic corruption in the rank and file.

The story is told through the eyes of a Christian SP of a Karachi jail. An American journalist has been kidnapped and the authorities’ attempts to recover are leading to dead ends. Adding to the stakes is a scheduled visit by the US President, and failure to recover the journalist could damage Pakistan’s relations with the Americans, whose aid we rely on.

Their only hope resides with one man, a former policeman who is a prisoner languishing in jail for his unconventional methods.

Since the publication of The Prisoner, Omar has been lauded for his matter-of-fact, take-no-prisoners approach to storytelling. Despite his personal association with the police, he depicts the police, warts  et al, and shows Karachi in all its gritty and grimy glory.

In November, Omar was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature along with notable novelists such as Khaled Hosseini, Kamila Shamsie and Bilal Tanweer.

Omar has recently finished work on his second novel, another crime-thriller by the name of The Spinner’s Tale, which is expected to hit the bookstores by March or April 2015 and tackles the subject of extremism. If it’s anything like The Prisoner, 2015 bodes well for Pakistani literature.

Rumour has it that the movie rights to The Prisoner have been sold to Azaan Sami Khan, who recently produced O21.  Audiences are hoping that the film will have the ‘item number’ by Kareena Kapoor that Omar jokingly promised at last year’s Karachi Literature Festival.

This profile was originally published in Newsline’s Annual 2015 issue.

The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.