March Issue 2014
Book Review: The Prisoner
Karachi is many things. A megacity, a sprawling metropolis, a melange of bloody-thirsty criminals, unbridled corruption, selfless heroism, abject poverty and drug-fuelled decadence. It’s a city that feels real. It assaults your senses and cannot truly be experienced without getting your hands dirty. All of which makes ripe territory for a crime novel.
When you read The Prisoner by Omar Shahid Hamid, you wonder why one hasn’t been written before.
The Prisoner explores a subject that we all assume we know much about but in truth know little: The Karachi police.
Whatever you think of the police, whether it’s their tenuous relationship with morality, or their unrewarded bravery as untold numbers of policemen are killed in the line of duty, the truth, as they say, is much stranger than the fictions we conjure up in our minds.
And who better to take us inside this murky world than Omar, a man who has walked and lived inside this world. After losing his own father, the then KESC chief, Malik Shahid Hamid, in an alleged targeted killing in 1998, he joined the Karachi Police and served for 12 years, becoming a target of various terrorist groups and organisations and being wounded in the line of duty in 2010.
The Prisoner, told through the lens of a Christian SP of a Karachi jail, Constantine D’Souza, begins in a cold December in Karachi.
An American journalist, John Friedland, has been kidnapped and the authorities are at their wits’ end as attempts to recover him have so far led 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 world’s only superpower.
Their only hope resides with one man, a former policeman Akbar Khan, who is a prisoner languishing in jail for his unconventional methods. But the only person capable of convincing him is his aforementioned friend and former colleague, Constantine.
Thus begins a fast-paced and refreshingly unpretentious sneak peek into a world that mostly resides in the dark. Moving back and forth between the past and present, the novel delineates the contrasting but intersecting careers of these two men.
While telling their story, Omar brilliantly captures Karachi’s inherent contradictions and the power dynamics at play between the police, the agencies and the state apparatus.
Having the narrative driven by a Christian is a master stroke by Omar, as not only does he give voice to a minority, he illustrates the petty prejudices that many of our minorities face on a day-to-day basis. It lets readers empathise with the character as somewhat of an outsider, seeing things from the inside.
As the story unfolds, Omar’s depictions belie our assumptions about the police yet also confirm some of our suspicions.
It’s a world where a person can be “perhaps the best police officer in the Karachi police” yet also make no bones about committing cold-blooded extra-judicial murders.
It’s vividly apparent from the get-go that Omar has borrowed from his real-life experiences to craft the series of events and characters that are portrayed in The Prisoner. That Akbar Ahmed has been moulded on Chaudhry Aslam is no surprise given what we have read and heard about him since his killing in January.
But the best thing about Omar’s writing is that he doesn’t pull any punches. He portrays Karachi in all its gritty and grimy glory. The language is colourful, there’s sex and violence. But never does it feel gratuitous.
Neither does he make excuses for the police. It’s undeniable that the police are corrupt. But that’s not all they are and neither is everybody in the police corrupt, a truism that we neglect to keep in mind all too often.
The police is a world where contradictions are a way of life. Someone might truly be motivated by his intentions to rid the city of crime while another is motivated purely by self-interest and the cynicism that apathy gives rise to.
What we get is a fast-paced thriller that tells a riveting story, while also shedding light on a variety of issues that
don’t really get their just attention in our literature. Using a kind of everyman humour and a knack for vibrant details, Omar illustrates a landscape full of the moral ambiguities that are familiar to us and those that aren’t.
This review was published in Newsline’s March 2014 issue.
The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.