March Issue 2014

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 10 years ago

It is exciting that the scope of Pakistani fiction in English has widened in recent years to include not just highbrow, politically-engaged literary fiction but also more fast-paced and lighter genre fiction. This includes crime thrillers (the recently published The Prisoner by Omar Shahid Hamid), and now with the arrival of Karachi, You’re Killing Me! by Saba Imtiaz, a smart, well-written chick lit.

Although the term ‘chick lit’ is problematic and more than a little demeaning, the genre itself, which focuses on the relationships and career woes of the modern woman in a light-hearted and humorous way, has been flourishing in English fiction since the 1990s. Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary is considered the first quintessential chick lit novel, so it is only fitting that Imtiaz quotes a passage from it as an epigraph to her book, setting the stage for what is definitely one of the better novels of the genre out there.

Karachi, You’re Killing Me!recounts the life and adventures of Ayesha, a 20-year-old trying to juggle love, friendships and partying with her career as a journalist, reporting on the many absurd and tragic things happening in Karachi on a daily basis. Surrounding Ayesha are many colourful characters: her crazy, unreasonable editor Kamran, her feisty friend and fellow journalist Zara and her best friend, Saad, a playboy with a heart of gold. Ayesha’s job entails reporting on everything, from a Sipah-e-Sahaba protest rally, where young men shout slogans like ‘Death to Shias!’ yet refuse to meet Ayesha’s eyes because she’s a woman, to Pakistan Fashion Week, where male models trot out dressed as suicide bombers to standing ovations and general applause. Ayesha’s crazy life is further complicated by the arrival of Jamie, an attractive gora correspondent for CNN with whom she feels an immediate connection.

The problem with this genre is that the funny and light tone of many of these books can easily veer off into the silly and the irritating. Thankfully, Karachi, You’re Killing Me! manages to remain witty and entertaining throughout, mainly because Imtiaz has made in Ayesha an immediately likeable character; smart and genuinely funny in her observations. Humour is the greatest strength of the novel. Ayesha’s disdain for the inanity that surrounds her comes through in her irreverent and snarky narration and it is easy to root for her in her quest to rise above her dead-end job by finding an exciting scoop of a story, or in her attempts to find love in a place “where it’s easier to hire an assassin than meet an attractive, intelligent, normal man.” Ayesha’s journalistic escapades — presumably taken from Imtiaz’s own career as a journalist — are hilarious, as are her barbs aimed towards everything from the pseudo-intellectual talk that is commonly heard at the Karachi Literature Festival (“If there is ever anything you can count on at Pakistani cultural events, it’s that Zia — dead for longer than most people can remember — can still be blamed for everything.”) to the long queues of expensive cars lining up at petrol pumps for gas after CNG strikes (“I’m quite convinced in five years I’ll meet a kid who was either conceived in one of these queues or whose parents first set eyes on each other while sitting in adjoining cars at a gas station.”)

The book does have some flaws, however. Most of the events in the first half of the book are largely episodic and only loosely connected, and even after the story eventually picks up, there is no real sense of a narrative structure. The characters, too (apart from Ayesha), are not fleshed-out at all, with some — such as Ali, the smarmy, narcissistic TV reporter and Ayesha’s nemesis — bordering on caricatural. It would also have been better, if the humour and light-heartedness was occasionally off-set by grounded, real moments. Even when such moments appeared, they were quickly brushed aside in comedy before they could leave any sort of emotional impact.

There is also the question of Ayesha’s excessive drinking and waking up most mornings with a hangover, and her casual approach to one-night stands and the morning-after pill, but I’m not sure whether that’s a flaw of the novel. On the one hand, it seems a little too derivative of the western chick lit Imtiaz clearly had in mind while writing this novel. But on the other hand, it may be an indication that much like Pakistani fiction in English becoming more inclusive of different forms and genres of literature, it is also becoming open to more varied representations of Pakistanis. Ayesha may well be an apt representation of young, hip, upper-middle class women that populate our big cities, and it doesn’t really matter that a lot of Pakistanis might not be familiar with her kind of life, because Karachi, You’re Killing Me! doesn’t concern itself with such questions of representation.

At the end of the day, despite its flaws, Karachi, You’re Killing Me! succeeds in what it sets out to do — to entertain you and make you laugh at the many absurdities of life in Karachi.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s March 2014 issue under the heading “Sunny Side Up.”

Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.