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BOOK REVIEW: Invitation

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, May 14, 2011

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Author: Shehryar Fazli

“Cabarets, conspiracies and a couple of crazies.” It is the early 1970s and Pakistan is in transition. The air crackles with energy; the land sizzles with intrigue. The significance of this time will not be lost upon readers. Islamists were still searching for a foothold; democracy beckoned; and Pakistan was about to lose its East Wing.

Anyone casually trawling through the streets of Karachi now will find little trace of its once vibrant nightlife. Back then it was not a ‘safe haven’ — just a haven.

Shehryar Fazli’s generation may have missed the excitement but his protagonist will return to his native country — and land atop a pit of vipers. It will be a fraught homecoming.

The author thinks the nation has yet to get over what happened in December 1971. He feels connected to this juncture in time as a moment when Pakistan could have gone a different way — and that they let this opportunity slip away.

Here are the building blocks of an epic. Here are the makings of a tragedy.

His protagonist, a newcomer to the city, is flawed and unsympathetic, the secondary players’ claim to moral high ground is laughable and the situation is dire. A novel set in pre-prohibition Pakistan lends itself to a wider array of possibilities. A glorious chapter in our history was drawing to a close. And the coming days would transform the landscape. Some beloved landmarks and attractions (Mayfair the open air theatre, trams, cycle-rickshaws) as Asif Noorani observed in an article ‘Saddar of the fifties and sixties’ had already vanished before the onset of the 1960s. The rest, like floor shows and bars, were near extinction.

The end was near.

The story opens with Shahbaz, back from exile to settle a property dispute on the eve of democracy where he befriends one Ghulam Hussain — a Bengali taxi driver. He traverses the seedy underbelly of Paris and later Karachi. Along the way he encounters an eccentric aunt, Apa — a crusty old lady (who, he admits is straight out of real life), a shady (retired) Brigadier — who happens to be Z A Bhutto’s crony, an obliging escort and two goons from the Jamaat-e-Islami (the same)!

He will make a rash promise to Ghulam Hussain, willingly enter the rabbit hole and form alliances of convenience. Here bitter regret is an unmistakable subtext; with that a heightened sense of dread mixed in with euphoria.

Fazli admits that there are three Karachis: one that has survived, one that he never saw and one that crept through the backdoor while he was time travelling to the early 1970s. Through this mix of historical fact with fiction, he still hopes to have captured the spirit of the time. Despite some inaccuracies, he insists that the outrageous cabaret scene is a faithful representation.

Invitation has been described by Kamila Shamsie as Karachi-Noir — a term that Fazli concedes adequately represents the desolate moral landscape. Those who lived through these times are in for an uncomfortable reunion with their past selves. Fazli chooses to focus on the ugly rather than the beautiful by casting Shahbaz as a co-conspirator instead of a detached observer. Despite the occasional moments of levity, the characters are humourless and trapped in limbo.

Through Shahbaz, Shehryar can barge into areas where conservative writers fear to tread, riding roughshod over cultural sensitivities. He defends his choice of using explicitness as a tool to explore characters, claiming that unlike others, “he would have felt awkward ignoring this aspect of life”, adding that avoiding it would have meant leaving a “literature with gaps”. Shahbaz’s free and easy lifestyle that leaves little to the imagination raises some questions in the reader’s mind. “I am compelled in this company to say that this is not an autobiographical book,” was the author’s sheepish reply. Making the main character a cad is a bold move but in spite of the author’s claim, the book could have done without the crudity.

This is Shehryar Fazli’s debut novel and in this case one can judge a book by its cover. The image of a cabaret dancer’s torso says it all. Invitation is an audacious attempt to lure readers away from the darkness and send them hurtling towards oblivion. Like Shahbaz, they will walk away from this experience forever changed.

Tranquebar; Pp 385; Rs 995


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