june issue 2011
Strangers When We Meet
Shehryar Fazli’s Invitation is a sort of period piece, set in the Karachi of the ’70s. The setting itself is a bold departure and must have been a difficult scene to set for the author who has never lived in Karachi, even in contemporary times.
Fazli grew up in France, but has obviously done his homework quite well. A number of small details bring the Karachi of the ’70s to life, from the cabarets and bars of a more open era to the voice of DJ Eddie Carrapiet on Radio Pakistan.
The novel begins with young Shahbaz landing in Karachi on a mission to rid a family property of encroachers. The property is an orchard in rural Sindh, a place that has sentimental associations for the family. His aunt, Mona Phuppi, is bent upon selling the orchard and Shahbaz has been despatched on a mission to save it.
His father, Ghazanfar, apparently left the country under a cloud and there are allusions to the Rawalpindi conspiracy case with which he was allegedly involved. Now, living in a distant land, he is determined to salvage this fond vestige of the past.
The aunt, Mona Phuppi, is a delightful eccentric, a forceful woman, not always in her right mind. She introduces Shahbaz to Brigadier Alamgir, an old friend of his father’s who runs the Agra Hotel, an old-time Karachi hotel complete with cabaret and bar.
Somewhere along the way, Shahbaz meets and befriends Ghulam Hussain, a Bengali taxi driver. Along with the brigadier’s elderly sister, Apa, and the Egyptian belly dancer Malika, these are the characters that people the book, although we do meet corrupt policemen, squatters and a motley crew of politicians along the way.
The book has its lighter moments, but eventually turns into a tale of deception and betrayal. Shahbaz sets out with good intentions, but is soon sucked into the mire of his surroundings. Bribery, corruption and skulduggery are the order of the day and when he gets in too deep for his own good, Shahbaz takes the easy way out.
Fazli steps into uncharted territory with fairly explicit descriptions of the sexual relationship that develops between Shahbaz and Malika, the belly dancer employed by the brigadier to entertain his guests. Adrift in strange surroundings, Shahbaz becomes increasingly dependent on Malika, who provides a sense of connection. This unlikely love story is to come to its own denouement.
That the personal is very much intertwined with the political in this debut novel should not come as a surprise given that Fazli is a political science major who went on to study and teach creative writing.
Politics does provide a backdrop within which the human story evolves, but at the same time the story itself is an allegory, not just for the decade of the ’70s but for much that has transpired before and since in the land of the pure.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto makes a cameo appearance, “a man of average height with a globe of receding grey and black hair and a grey suit,” a man much feted and sought after in the upper-class circles that make up the cast at Brigadier Alamgir’s dinner parties.
The tragedy of Bangladesh, the role played by power-hungry politicians, the intrigue, manoeuvering and sheer brutality of those in power provide a counterpoint in the novel to the culture of denial that pervades ordinary lives. This tragedy intersects Shahbaz’s life with great force as he is forced to come face to face with the sordid undercurrents running through the apparently privileged lives of Brigadier Alamgir and company.
Fazli writes with verve and enthusiasm and develops his plot with a sure touch. Particularly vividly drawn is his portrait of a young man who comes home from an adopted land to find that he is not a stranger at all, and yet is forced to struggle with a constant sense of alienation. The characterisation is deft enough to make one wonder if there really was a Mona Phuppi or Brigadier Alamgir in his own life.
The book is a welcome addition to the genre of “Pakistani writing in English,” although it may not be quite fair to restrict it to just that.