September Issue 2015

By | Books | Published 9 years ago

“The strongest man on the job fell and hurt his back and ended up in the hospital for weeks, abandoning a lovely young wife to temptation and scandal. Things were never the same again for Hafiz, not at the godown, not anywhere else.”

This starting paragraph sets in motion the meandering, multi-layered story that is Karachi Raj. It is a somewhat quirky introduction to a complicated city, complex politics, and a cast of characters, some of them based on real, larger-than-life personae in their own rights, set in a basti, which is clearly identifiable to anyone familiar with the city.

Hafiz and Seema are siblings living in the basti, based on the real life Orangi  Pilot Project (OPP), along with their parents, both of whom work in a garment factory. Seema, the younger of the two, is intelligent and ambitious and has just won a scholarship from the basti to attend Karachi University (KU). She is the pride of  the neigbourhood. Hafiz, conversely, has not been successful in school. He chooses to start working in the godown of his school friend, Majid, who, while starting out from the same economic background, has somehow become immensely wealthy. There is never any precise mention of his source of sudden wealth. Perhaps that is among the many ambiguities the city spawns.

Anis  Shivani, the author, is a fiction writer, poet and critic living in Houston, Texas,  and Karachi Raj is his debut novel. He has taken on the huge, diverse canvas that is Karachi, and, like an abstract painter, splattered colour at will in different patches and to different depths.  According to the information available about him online, he was born into a Memoni Muslim family. His parents had migrated from Porbander in India to Karachi after Partition, and while he was still a youngster, his family moved again to southern California in the United States. Since the 1990s,  Shivani has revisited Karachi several times as an adult. As a fiction writer, basing his book on the city, he probably had the best of both worlds — the advantage of firsthand knowledge of the place and personalities, while retaining the detachment of an outsider looking in.  It helps, as he says, that “my memories of Pakistan, particularly as a child, provide the foundation from which I extract all the good you see in the novel; all of the innocence and optimism and vitality, rather than the daily terror that seems to be the logical way to comprehend Pakistan at the moment.”

Seema’s infatuation and pursuit of the much older, debonair KU History Professor Ashiq whose “intensity (of his good looks) had only grown after he turned 40,” and who, she felt, offered her a window into another world and saved her from “the hell of anonymity” of the basti and Hafiz’s love for, and then betrayal by, the beautiful wife of his injured colleague and his subsequent trials and tribulations in getting — and keeping — a job, form the backbone of the story. And then there is Claire — the anthropology professor from Boston University, who is committed to spending a year living in the basti, to study and interview the residents and try and find out what it is that gives heart to the basti, what makes it tick.

Claire is considered a hero even by her local colleagues at the basti office, who cannot comprehend why a white, blonde woman (she dyes her hair to blend in and wears a headscarf) would willingly subject herself to wanton privation.  She speaks the language, hopes to dream in it, works in the basti and realises early on (when trying to explain to the basti residents what it is she is trying to accomplish and why people outside are interested in their lives) that “only a fool tries to explain things rationally in Pakistan.”

It is also evident early on, that Shivani is an admirer of the OPP and its founder, Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan, an Indian Civil Service (ICS) officer, who resigned, as a young man, from his career path after witnessing first-hand the 1940s Bengal famine in India, and its mismanagement, to become a social scientist and development practitioner. His particular contribution was the establishment of a comprehensive project for rural development — the Comilla Model in East Pakistan in the late 1950s. After shifting to West Pakistan post-1971 and Bangladesh, he set up the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) in  1980, following the enormous influx of migrants from East Pakistan to Orangi, which swelled the settlement to over a million. Started as a Bottom Up development initiative, it went on to become an internationally accepted model of participatory development.

By the time Claire arrives to take up residence in the basti, anyone not a matriculate is considered illiterate. And as she, in her role as anthropologist points out, the basti defies the stereotypes. There are no mounds of trash; things actually work. “Latrines work. Drainage works. The (standard, whitewashed) schools work, the clinics work. There are countless factories (she works for a while in one of them) of all sizes…there’s hope wherever you look.”

Shivani wanted the emphasis to be on the basti “as an overarching fact and reality, the physical environment that shapes characters’ destinies.” He began  Karachi Raj in 2009 and finished writing it in 2010.

As I wandered through the book, through the lanes of the basti, and through the lives of its characters — Claire, Helga, Molly (the outsiders who don’t feel at home anywhere else), Karim,  Abdullah, Qudsia and, perhaps, most important in Claire’s life, the “handsomest Pakistani (Tipu, Pakistan’s leading art and fashion photographer, who turns up on her doorstep and shows her Karachi through his lens),” one fact emerged quite clearly.

While someone familiar with Karachi and the locale the novel is based in and the two main characters who are fairly closely modelled on real people — Sheikh Sahib, who is mostly spoken of reverentially, and Tipu — will be looking for the dividing line between truth and fiction. In the latter case, specially, one wonders how close — or not – the philosophy and attitude the novel’s character spouts is to the real life persona it is based on. Perhaps this book will be more objectively appreciated by someone with no knowledge or preconceived notions or biases about the city or its people.

The achingly familiar Gandhi Garden — the zoo — and the tramline in Saddar, which disappeared decades ago, evoke nostalgia. The novel manages that rare thing — it takes the reader on a journey through nearly five decades in a city that has become increasingly turbulent and heavily populated, with nearly every nationality and ethnicity represented. And it does so without becoming heavy.  Yes, the violence is present; an unspoken menace that always looms, but does not impinge on the telling.

Life continues: Hafiz, after several detours, eventually ends up again working for Majid, this time as personal assistant to his beautiful actor wife, Hina. Through his various career paths, we see Hafiz change like a chameleon — much like the city itself — to survive. Seema’s infatuation with Professor Ashiq, which draws in his extended, eccentric family, peters out as the professor gets cold feet. Unfazed, Seema joins an English newspaper as reporter. Escape from the basti — and anonymity?

There are no heavy scenes, no explosive endings. Albeit, just a very heavily flooded out one, as the basti, despite its drainage system, becomes prey to nature’s fury and is overwhelmed by a non-stop deluge for several days that cuts out light, water, food and mobility, just as Claire is getting ready to leave and all her notes are washed away. Nonetheless, she is gripped by grief at the thought of leaving, “the dragon-painted buses with people hanging on to dear life by their fingers, the nullahs which were dhobi ghats and bathing spots and toxic waste disposal sites all at once…the thought of leaving all this agitated her… She had to find a way to return.”

Shivani chose how he wished to return, to view Karachi. He said he intended the book to be a “counter narrative to the journalistic myths and conventional notions about Pakistan.” He goes on to say that he was absolutely determined to “write a funny, light hearted, fast-paced book, a book of optimism and energy, even though it took into account the dark side of Pakistani life.” So although the novel focuses on only a microcosm of life in a small area of Karachi, it somehow manages to sum up the city — a mix that makes no sense and yet somehow survives and thrives. So, yes, kudos for Karachi Raj, a compassionate book that has bravely avoided cynicism while touching on many aspects of living in this chaotic, schizophrenic, once splendorous city of lights by the sea.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s September 2015 issue.