Author: Omar Shahid Hamid
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy & Jamaluddin for the launch invite.
Published in Daily Times / Sunday 26 Jan 2013
“When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes back”
Though ‘The Prisoner’ resides unobtrusively in the fiction section, its outlines are expertly crafted from those off camera moments and unacknowledged victories. A kidnapped American journalist comes into play early in the game giving the requisite urgency and while parallels to the Daniel Pearl case are inevitably drawn, the events depicted here follow a different trajectory. The lead positions are taken by an ever cheerful Akbar – the maverick and Constantine often referred to as ‘Consendine’ a Christian who joins Dr. Death, Colonel Tarkeen, Major Rommel in the deadly waltz. Our beloved Army, agencies and ‘Kaley Gate wale’ await and a party called the ‘United Front’ rises with it’s ‘goonda politics’, with a Don in self imposed exile in tow.
The curtain is pulled back to reveal a motley crew out to serve & protect & profit and survive. Hit squads lurk nearby. Finding the American is the priority but it is also a gateway to sift through the political debris, tour the underbelly and discover Karachi’s changing skyline. It is where the law confronts the wards, ‘crews of young men supposed to create party structure at basic neighbourhood level’ who created a parallel government’ instead, usurping ‘power of taxation, …punishment,’ with a monopoly over ‘life and death.’ But though the writer resurrects past controversies, and boldly goes where few have dared to tread, ‘The Prisoner’ is not a takedown.
Not really. Nor does it plunge into the abyss to admire the moral compasses spinning out of alignment. What we know of Karachi police comes from experience (unpleasant), headlines (unsavoury) and reputation (shady times ten). Omar concedes the police is corrupt but also shows the ‘challenges they face, the pressures upon them, the hazardous environment they must operate in’, and what happens when they fall in line of duty or get on the wrong side of ruling factions for that matter. When he casually mentions a city of millions twisted into submission forcing a ruthless right hand man, described as ‘the high priest of murder, chief enforcer of reign of terror’ to take the stand and calls upon a line-up of unsavoury characters (Shashlik Khan), it is to set the stage. When he remarks that real power that lies with a ‘ward’ and not the ‘thana’ (jail), it is to acknowledge its untameable heart.
Both the 1990’s and 2000 come into play and the overlapping timelines provide a snapshot Karachi’s troubling past. It is an immersive experience and, though the players are masked, in most cases it is not that hard to discover their identities. One learns a bit about the prison system ‘crawling with informers and turncoats where men came out a bigger, better more dedicated criminal,’ the mushrooming madrasas that do not necessarily have sinister agendas but abject poverty and hopelessness end up making places like Orangi ‘a rich recruiting ground.’ And towering above all stands the familiar ‘Haji Camp’ designed as a virtual fortress, with its ‘massive arms dump, living quarters, torture chambers in the basement that no SHO has dared raid.’ Within these pages our heroes can vent - ‘…either we survive or they do’, later the character observes that ‘he has never seen anyone slaughter policemen like they do.’
In real life the number of their fallen may exceed 460 in 10 years and other nations are reportedly taken aback by these shocking stats that rival that of ‘Mumbai, NY, London or San Paolo.’ One day before the launch of his book, Omar was at a colleague’s funeral. A week later, his partner and most likely the inspiration for the central character was taken out by the TTP. For that reason it is a world bleached of colour, masterfully crafted from Karachi’s moody fits and broken dreams that is by turns dramatic and funny and dark.
His debut novel is a searing suspense thriller, which not only serves Karachi’s ruling underworld on a platter it also vindicates the defenders. There is a negative perception about civil servants and for the most part it is accurate, says an ex-civil servant. Omar has been described as an exception by former Commissioner Zia-ul-Islam, who was also the moderator at the book launch. One day he had come upon Omar serving as a magistrate, and who quietly continued with his job as magistrates/judges are supposed to, unlike the misguided majority busy bowing to protocol. Zia, seen raving about his honesty, integrity, intellectual prowess (Omar is BA Law, Masters in Law (University of London), Masters in Criminal Justice Policy from LSE (2006) – is convinced that Omar Shahid Hamid is well equipped to be a police officer, but may be not here, he adds ruefully.
Zia, who was Commissioner and recognized some of the operations detailed in the book, shared an ominous extract written sometime in 1995/96 ‘……….gradually but surely Karachi is being carved into crime syndicates, organized crime is coming to the city in a big way. The present turmoil and violence is only tip of iceberg - the first sign of imminent surrender of state power to mafias and militias…” and most saw this coming he says, adding that ‘we let it happen’. There are mafias in Tokyo, he admitted but they don’t interrupt daily life. Our underworld is above ground and visible, has political support and flourishes below and above and though crime affects major cities, it remains in control. Not here.
‘The Prisoner’ is an action packed adventure that offers valuable insight into the rarefied world of Karachi police department now on the frontlines and can be used to piece together Karachi’s chequered history. It is rated R for language and G for some gruesome imagery.
Among thugs that represent a ‘grave threat to national security,’ the hydra of jihadi’s rising from the rubble of 9/11 and the spectre of terrorism, a few good men striving to take back the streets of Karachi stand their ground. This is their story.
“When policemen break the law, then there isn't any law — just a fight for survival.” Billy Jack (1971)