Skip to main content

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

BOOK REVIEW: Pakistan: Beyond The ‘Crisis State’ / Author: Maleeha Lodhi

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Published under the title: 17 Reasons to Hope

“History will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, history will have its revenge and retribution”— from the movie, ‘Good Night, & Good Luck’

A region known for most “terrorist sightings”, a place feared for harbouring medieval mindsets next to progressive thinkers and a nation shunned for having an affinity for nuclear toys. By turns a cautionary tale, an indispensable ally and an international pariah, Pakistan does not fit into any mould — for long. But its name crops up whenever things go awry.

Pakistan: Beyond the ‘Crisis State’ is a compilation of articles put together by Maleeha Lodhi that countermands the grim prognosis. When Ms Lodhi, who has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and UK, acknowledges that “resilience has been part of Pakistan’s story from its inception, obscured by the single issue lens…

Quarter Preview: ‘MANTO’

The Good Times GT Magazine (Friday Times) published the official images sent with this write-up, posting the coverage here.

Manto is all the rage these days.

The writer who orbits the South Asian literary stratosphere recently marked his centennial anniversary and now appears as the subject of a new film. It has been directed by Sarmad Sultan Khoosat, who also plays the title character and scripted by Shahid Mahmood Nadeem. Babar Javed produces. Media men & women invited for a first look in August had high expectations.

Contrary to what many thought, this was not a curtain raiser but a quarter preview, and the attendees found themselves at the screening of an extended teaser of ‘MANTO’ - the movie at Nueplex Cinemas – Karachi. The private showing also unveiled trailers of upcoming serials courtesy of GEO Films Production. The figure of Manto himself stays in shadow till 11th September – a day red flagged after 2001, but one that has always been significant for Pakistan and observ…

VIEW: A (Deep) State of Denial

First Published inDaily Times / 31 Dec 2012 (Monday)

By: Afrah Jamal

Thank you to the folks interested in publishing this in Urdu


Hapless polio teams are in the crosshair of extremists and people have come up with their own theories to explain the presence of health workers in the montage of violence. If a polio team does not reach any home, the residents can call a number and let them know. Many houses were left wondering about the fate of the drive this year after the three-day carnage that claimed nine lives, six of them women. A maulana on the media attributes the sudden spike in polio-related violence to government. More polio means more $$, he hisses confidentially. Twitter-sphere assigns the subsequent instability to the dreaded ‘deep state’.



According to them, it can sacrifice anything and anyone on the altar of national interest or in this case — the lure of more dollars. Every ‘whodunit’ begins or ends with a deep state cameo. Apparently, their interference is legendary, as is …

BOOK REVIEW: Thinner Than Skin

Published inDaily Times (Pakistan) / 23 Feb 2013
Author: Uzma Aslam Khan
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal



Uzma Aslam Khan is the author of critically acclaimed, award winning books like Trespassing and Geometry of God. Her new novel, 'Thinner than Skin' goes off the beaten track for inspiration. A realm built upon incomprehensible layers of intrigue, violence, fairytales and legends provides the stage. People foraging for a lifeline become the props. And the inevitable soundtrack of radicalism now coursing through every fibre sets Pakistan’s modern heart to an ancient beat.

It is these paradoxes that bring its US-based protagonist, Nadir, along with a German-Pakistani girl, Farhana, on a trek from northern California to the Kaghan Valley. Wesley — the American in the background — is drawn to the mating glacier ritual, which is an actual thing. And their trusty ally/guide Irfan charts the course to their path of self-discovery past majestic mountains and ice encrusted lakes.

Their quest …

KARACHI DIARIES: KOMAL RIZVI VDO Launch / Press Conference

First Published in Economic Affairs (Islamabad) / June 2014



This brother / sister duo came highly recommended. Their music video launch / press conference held at Port Grand, (Karachi) will be the talk of town. And their experimental new sound would be put up for review.



Komal Rizvi, who made her debut as a singer / actress / VJ in the 1990’s, was staging a comeback with her new single - ‘Kalli Kalli’ in April 2014. Hasan Rizvi stars in the video with his sister; Sohail Javed directs. It would be Komal’s first launch and Hasan’s umpteenth choreography.



The filming had been eventful, the storyboard toyed with the elements - water, fire,,,, etc, as did the musicians; one was scorched, the other drowned, several times over reportedly. Nothing had dampened their ardour, or kept them from bombarding Sohail with a steady stream of creative input. ‘Add a tabla’ one would say, ‘how about a sitar’ the other would suggest.


The award winning director survived, and was later hailed for his …

INTERVIEW: What makes a Fighter Ace? (2006)

Written many moons ago when i was an Asst. Ed with Social Pages.

Published in Defence Journal September 2006

Republished in PROBENEWS(2006)


Legend has it that a Sabre took off from Sargodha airfield to intercept Hunters on a fateful September morning & landed back with an Ace.

120 Seconds: Squadron Leader Alam in a Sabre is on Air Combat Patrol accompanied by his wingman. Upon observing IAF Hunters exiting after an unsuccessful air strike over Sargodha, Alam sets off in hot pursuit of the enemy formation. He pursues a fleeing Hunter and eventually shoots it down with a missile shot.


He spots the other members of the Hunter formations flying very low and as he approaches the trailing member he is spotted and the entire formation breaks (violent turn) in the same direction - a fatal error as in less than two minute Alam has taken out four of them, (as confirmed by more than one independent eye witness) 1 bringing his tally for the mission to five…… And an Ace is born - a legendry ins…

BOOK REVIEW: Hira Mandi / Author: Claudine Le Tourneur Dlson

Published in Daily Times Saturday, February 11, 2012

Reproduced on Claudine Le Tourneur Dlson's Website

Translated from French by Priyanka Jhijaria

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

A programme about Hira Mandi did the internet rounds a couple of years ago. It claimed, among other things, that the sons of the ‘dancers’ reportedly end up as lawyers, doctors, artists — a few join politics and some even reach the military. These outrageous statistics may be one of the reasons the documentary was banned from the mainstream media. That and its primary premise — the plight of the fallen women — would prompt the conservatives to howl with dismay before scurrying off to bury any evidence in the backyard along with other bodies.


Claudine Le Tourneur d’Ison embeds such wrenching moments in a bold narrative where its doomed protagonist can hail the brave new world and its genteel patrons from an extraordinary vantage point. The expedition to the underworld with the unfortunate progeny and the hapless…