Thank you Hira M. Ahmed for the review copy.
Published in Daily Times / 6 March 2010
REVIEWED by: Afrah Jamal
The theme is simple. The setting could be anywhere. In this book, it is Islamabad seen through the eyes of one music aficionado, Asad, a newbie at his university and an outsider in his group. The story follows the lives of an unremarkable foursome, busy confronting their everyday demons with characteristic angst. There are no marks for guessing what a bunch of college going kids brood about. No, it is not world peace.
In the story, an emotionally fragile front man takes centre stage, his friends arrive on cue and assume positions as best friend, hostile competition, unattainable partner, the player, the one and so on and so forth — not necessarily in that order. Our hero will spend 325 pages pining away for the one. The one will evade capture for the remainder of the story. The readers will spend half that time trying to place the university and the other half trying to recognise the characters. With a little digging, they might even get there in this superficial world occupied by avatars, who are playing themselves very convincingly, trapped as they are in a quirky reality. This whimsical tale of love and loss is a first person narrative and has been populated with recognisable characters, familiar themes and forgettable moments. A desi version of ‘90210’ (old and new), sans fast cars, where the club scene has been replaced by dance offs courtesy of local vanity fairs (weddings), the glitz and the glamour has been toned down and the impetuous youth sport a more sedate appearance, belying their true proclivities. Nevertheless, some situations will raise conservative eyebrows. Just how accurate is this depiction of liberal minded young Pakistanis? Pretty accurate says a former student, much to the dismay of listening adults.
While parts of the book veer off to explore the inner mechanics of a student’s life — most of it comes across as a Roman clef slash diary slash exposé of a lovelorn young man — subsequently, it is rough around the edges, leaving a trail of false notes in its wake. The plot picks up from one of many patterns lying around in our lives — patterns that are recurring, patterns that will resonate with the young and the restless, patterns that are frequently recycled to have a contemporary feel. One comes across permutations of such patterns every day without committing them to paper.
The problem with some first time novelists is that they tend to ‘paint by numbers’. It may be a ploy to give that authentic look and feel. It can also be terribly restrictive, leaving a range of complex emotions unexplored when a steadily flowing stream of words struggle to reach shore. What If is the author’s first attempt, and it is brimming with the inexperience of youth. And some will think that is okay. Writers must start somewhere. What is not okay is that the book has been compared to JD Salinger’s internationally acclaimed Catcher In The Rye (1952), a book that, according to the New York Times, caused a sensation upon publication, “with its very first sentence, it introduced a brand-new voice in American writing and it quickly became a cult book, a rite of passage for the brainy and disaffected”. Given Catcher’s impact and the fact that it earned a place in TIMES 100 best English language novels, it is understandable if, somewhere, a recently deceased Salinger rolled over in his grave.
Apparently, this comparison was based on style (both books play with monologue/slang) and not substance. Putting What If next to Catcher in the Rye is sure to backfire and, instead of the right publicity, will invite a lot of unnecessary and harsh commentary. Like this one.
The writer may or may not have been subconsciously channelling Salinger. Who knows? Salinger resisted with all his might. So let us just call it what it is. A celebratory look at the heady lives of young Pakistanis, that might reach across campuses to speak to a milieu of conflicted men and women — which appears to be the intended audience. Does it have commercial appeal? Perhaps. Can it prevent more Asad clones from springing up all over campus grounds? No. And finally, should debut novels be put through the ringer before they hit the market? Most definitely, yes. For now, What If, K Yousaf’s first book can be ordered from Amazon.com and will be available in Pakistan soon. The writer can be contacted on his Facebook fan page, and a kinder review will be found at the back of the book.