It is certainly an endorsement for first-time fiction writer Saad Shafqat when writer Mohammed Hanif finds his novel original and intriguing enough to keep him gripped through the read.
“Breath of Death”, is a medical thriller by Shafqat, who co-wrote cricketer Javed Miandad’s autobiography that was published in 2003.
Narrating the story, Shafqat, who is also a neurosurgeon and cricket enthusiast, drew inspiration from his medical background as well as the growing militancy and terrorism within Pakistani society.
Going by PD James saying that all the fiction is largely autobiographical, Shafqat’s characters also emerged from his real-life experiences of life at a hospital, meetings and discussions with colleagues and dealing with illnesses related to the brain and the nervous system.
“That makes the happenings in my novel very much believable and for that reason potentially terrifying,” said Shafqat, as he explained that the country, at present, had only experienced the form of terrorism that is confined to bullets, grenades and bomb blasts. “There is, however, a chemical and biological dimension of warfare and weaponry that we have never experienced in incidents of terrorism,” he said. “Aur Allah kare kabhi na aye [God forbid it may never come].”
Nevertheless, Shafqat presented a possibility of the latter form of terrorism. The plot was set in Karachi, featuring regular work days at a certain “Avicenna University Hospital” until things went petrifying with the arrival of a number of unusual brain infection cases.
The subsequent build-up, based on the investigations by a neurologist, who teams-up with a group of bright medical students, promises enough twists, turns and atmosphere to keep even hardcore thriller connoisseurs intrigued.
An avid fan of Pakistani English fiction writers, Shafqat received inspiration from the works of Mohammed Hanif, Kamila Shamsie, Daniyal Mueenuddin and HM Naqvi. He has been writing stories and articles since he was a child and had been motivated by his school teacher, Ashfaq Hussain, at Habib Public School. “You could write exceptionally well but since you have made up the mind to pursue medicine, going about writing will be of no use,” Hussain once remarked and these words stuck to the student’s heart.
Shafqat managed to save his writing flair despite his long medical career - from being in the inaugural batch of Aga Khan University in 1984, to obtaining a doctorate in neuroscience from North Carolina’s Duke University, followed by a residency and fellowship training at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
In the late summer of 2000, Saad returned home to Karachi in what he described as a “visceral urge” and was appointed assistant professor of neurology at AKU. His obsession with cricket revitalised the flair for writing as he started contributing a regular column to Dawn and to the ESPN website Cricinfo.
Around three years later, a mutual friend got him in touch with Javed Miandad and that turned out to be a significant break in his life. “The experience of co-authoring the biography was a breakthrough that gave me the encouragement that I can produce something, which would be on a par with contemporary fiction.”
It was a feeling of “restlessness” that led him again to the path of fiction writing. “You feel that you just want to express yourself and want to be heard,” he said. And when it came to writing a medical thriller, the feeling was no different. “I felt like I wanted to tell a story, the way I really enjoyed narrating anecdotes and stories to my friends.”
The first shipment that arrived at Liberty Books was sold out and Shafqat now awaits the second shipment from Chlorophyll, a New Delhi-based publishing house that launched the book in India. Shafqat has planned a formal launch for his novel at the T2F on March 30.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 15th, 2013.