Now only in Paris would all this new beauty take its true form.
If Daniyal Mueenuddin's depiction of the master-servant relationship is through compassion and romance, Aravind Adiga through mistrust and injustice that finds ways to crack at the surface, then Shehryar Fazli's "Invitation," can be described as transactional and tense, yet unchanging.
I like the part of the book that it is Karachi Noir. I like the descriptions of cabarets, the love stories of its dancers, the constant hash and opium references, the solid doses of 1970 seedy club culture and the velvety parties thrown by the Brigadier, the protagonist's experience of the cult of Zulfiqar Bhutto. This is the ghost of the Karachi we inherited, and in researching and writing about it, Fazli has given it shape. He has pieced together the many bits we were carrying -- sensual leg shows in pictures from prohibited drawers and old magazines, in images of the casino near the current McDonalds at Seaview.
But, what I didn't like was that Fazli leaves the political too epic to be tampered with. His main character, Shahbaz, operates apolitically as if in a trance, without taking a firm stance on anything. From the start, we are told Shahbaz did not join in the political protests in France of May 1968. His father is a film-maker who participated in the botched Rawalpindi conspiracy. The protagonist thinks and feels, but does not believe in street power. He has his father's conviction-less exile to back it up. His father was in it for the love of Faiz's (his co-conspirator) art. Shahbaz comes to Karachi from Paris to reclaim on orchard in Sindh that his Mona Phuppi is threatening to sell -- already a dispiriting tale of an ex-revolutionary. A group of Haris are squatting on the land. Shahbaz is conflicted. While on the one had he feels that they have a right to stay and should even kill him as he is the one trespassing, he does something quite the opposite. He bribes a police officer, and later elicits help from two Jamaatis, and has the Haris forcibly removed. Doesn't matter that he has a supposed fondness for two Hari boys who live in the orchard, one of whom he nicknamed Little Chief -- Shahbaz has drawing room politics and cabaret hall guilt, and its never enough to challenge power or relinquish it.
In the backdrop of this personal dilemma are the events leading up to the debacle of 1971 in East Pakistan. Shahbaz comes to rely upon his Bengali driver, Ghulam Hussain, who provides him liquor made from the bark of the acacia tree. While the Pakistani army and Jamaat-i-Islami commit atrocities in the soon to be Bangladesh, Shahbaz unintentionally sets in motion a series of events which culminate in his driver's arrest and torture on charges of selling an illegal substance. The real reason is that he is suspected to be a member of the Mukti Bahini, and Shahbaz's real motive maybe an attempt, albeit treacherous, to show loyalty to the Brigadier for his hospitality. Shahbaz entices him with immigration to Paris when he knows its impossible - a deceit that plagues his mind, almost too exaggeratedly. Later when he finds Ghulam's beaten-up frame in the back of a lock-up, he has to release all his anger; Shahbaz beats up and nearly kills the Brigadier's servant who may have unwittingly said something. This is how gentleman fight their battles. And aptly, years later when Shahbaz sees the brigadier in Paris he hands him a never used bottle of whisky with the Chief-of-army-Staff label (stolen from Ghulam Hussain.)
In this book we see a bleak prediction of Pakistan as a military hegemony, as a state that crushes the rights of the poor. And it came true. While the author through his main character condemns the army actions of 1971, and oppressive land ownership, there is also a definite acceptance of destiny, hierarchy, and decadence. The narrator, forever, fails to take any positive action and thus never really becomes likable or even human. All his dilemmas are mental. In contrast, the brutality that unfolds is real and violent -- the evictions in Mirpurkhas, and the killings in Dacca which are described flippantly as "birth pangs" by his Brigadier host. The main character's actions are a betrayal to his own (sterile) morality - just as people constantly hum "Hum Dekhain Gai," without really meaning for it to evolve to revolution -- and never ever being close to social change, Shahbaz, too, retreats from personal growth. He sees qawalis at the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi and then moves on to never find his long lost childhood abode in Old Clifton.
As a reviewer points out, "Fazli fares worst when it comes to evoking the urgency and intrigue of the times he is writing about. The weight and charge of history never fuels the plot in a convincing or exciting way."
He dreams: "Of myself deep in the orchard, and the grounds feel crunch, brittle shells under my feet that like skulls that send a hill through me every time I hear them rupture. From somewhere there is the sound of singing, of women or little boys. And when the Pir's men come, with guns and machettes and blood in their eyes, the squatters scramble immediately for safety or exit as if they knew this was coming, they'd waited for it for years."
Tell that to the Okara peasants.
He ultimately and inevitably sides with his class interests as a landlord. And because of this he must conspire with the police, the army, and lower class people capable of fast thuggery, enjoy the double land shares the Islamic law accords him This alliance is what the communists would call the "ruling elite." But what keeps the book going - is the author's description of Shahbaz's descent to status-quo, of how he seeks refuge in power. I remember a game, Grim Fandango, with the same film noir mood -- a man in the land of the dead where recently dead people journey to the ninth underworld. Here is the protagonist's second experience of bribery:
The first time feels supreme, above the law, on the inside where the wheels of government spin, the honoured access of the crook. The second time one realizes that one is neck-deep in a charade, weak, low on the ladder, still far from catching up to that man who took one's Ayatal-kursi in a Parisian toilet years ago. The second time, an empty act, bribery losing its splendour and becoming corruption for its own sake. This one hurt the soul.
Fazli may have gone a bit too strong on the sexy, but it seemed important enough for the mood. At one point, Malika, the Egyptian cabaret dancer who performs at the Brigadier's hotel on contract, attracts an older woman who touches her lower back. She prays before sleeping with Shahbaz who finds it exhibitionist. You'd hate for a fundoo to stumble on that part. She considers sex to be a "serious affair." "Her towels, her clothes, her sheets smelled and she left things crudely exposed...It was possible that this exposure, this indecency, was a project in itself, a statement of principle."
You never know whether it is more perversion or feminism that inspires him.
Since Shahbaz can't offer Malika a more glamorous future, like in films, he backs off. He can't be with a woman who is poly-amorous. When she isn't forthright about her relationship with Brigadier Alamgir, Shahbaz leaves. "She was energized, smiling, open-mouthed like a school girl. She'd fuck with my head all night if I let her. I stopped the game there and left her."
A nicely written book for some Karachi-ites and even if it is not revolutionary, it is exciting in parts. It makes you feel righteous about a getting back massage in Karachi, without worrying too much about how ridiculous it really is. But the project would have been more worthwhile if it had more city history for the addicted-- and was more than pretty white boys with problems.