As I picked up Bilal Tanweer’s much-anticipated debut novel, each page left me searching for a breather. A break from the profundity. From the cluster of sentences that make one stop, breathe deeper, look away from the book, come back to the page and dog-ear it. Parts that one knows will come up as quotes when one searches for the author’s name on the internet.
But then isn’t that the nature of the city in which his stories are set? Karachi never gives one a break. In one word it is ‘intense’. The Scatter Here Is Too Great, similarly, is not light reading.
The novel reads like a collection of short stories, in which different characters have interconnected experiences — experiences that are born out of the city and an event that affects everyone: a bomb blast. One special treat of the book is that each story has a unique voice and the reader moves from a four-year-old to a romantic teenager to a grieving father to other characters and back.
One cannot help but imagine these stories like the scattered fragments of a car’s shattered windscreen, a metaphor for this city.
Nothing that Tanweer is telling us is new. From Cantt station to Lyari to Clifton Beach, everything is familiar but told in a way which exposes the city to the reader in a new and meaningful manner. One almost wants to take the mini-bus all over again and have chai at a café outside Cantt station. The descriptions are real.
The first chapter in the voice of a small boy captures you instantly, also because of the jarringly simple language, like “I also left school because we had become poor. Baba lost his job at the office where they printed children’s storybooks... The old uncle Baba worked for was shot while walking out of a bank. Two people on a motorcycle tried to snatch his money. When he refused, they shot him.” The writer has not relied on heavy language anywhere. The themes are complex but the language is colloquial, which gives it a human feel.
It tells you the difficulties of young romance which raises its invincible head even in the most difficult of backdrops like an ever-vigilant nani and a lower middle-class setting in one of the most dangerous cities in the world. It displays a myriad of relationships. Particularly noteworthy is the difficult relationship of a father and son, when for the father, his ‘purpose’ becomes more important than his family.
Handling the subjects of violence and sectarianism intelligently, the author has not used the predictable method of using imagery that relies on the ethnic or sect-wise description of the characters. There is, thus, a subtle but strong message that the human experience is a shared one, especially in dark times, irrespective of where one’s family trees find roots.
In a time when violence in Pakistan gets global attention, it is a relief that the book does not seem to be targeted at a certain kind of readership. Tanweer is writing for himself and for Karachi. It is, thus, an honest book which makes the reader connect to it instantly.
The novel cannot be reduced to being labeled as just about Karachi. It tells stories that allow the reader to look beyond the headlines. Tanweer has managed to make us look at what we already know in a new way: “These stories, I realised, were lost. Nobody was going to know that part of the city but as a place where a bomb went off. The bomb was going to become the story of this city.” The Scatter Here Is Too Great is telling these untold and real stories. And we are listening.
Farahnaz Zahidi heads the Features desk at The Express Tribune. She tweets @FarahnazZahidi
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 15th, 2013.