Imagining the city by the sea

Published: February 22, 2014


Conflict, it seems, is not just needed to keep a plot engaging. The Lahore Literature Festival’s first session, Delirium in Karachi seemed to be missing that vital ingredient on its panel which led to much yawning in Lahore.

HM Naqvi was moderating the session featuring three Karachiites who have released debut novels this year.

Naqvi began by remembering his excitement at discovering earlier novels that had depicted Karachi and asked Bilal Tanweer (The Scatter Here Is Too Great) whether he felt he was tethered to a tradition or breaking new ground.

Tanweer replied, “There are very few narratives about Karachi, so imagining it is difficult. My book explicitly deals with trying to imagine the city and incorporate a range of experiences…of course this can only lead to defeat.”

Saba Imtiaz (Karachi, You’re Killing Me!) interjected that Tanweer’s and her book dealt with the same bomb blast but they had treated it differently. “I wrote about the incident not in a grand way but through the eyes of a journalist.”

She confessed that Helen Fieldings’ Bridget Jones’s Diary was an influence on her novel. “I wanted to write something similar from a Karachiite’s perspective…living in the city does take away your spirit though,” she said.

“No novel can represent Karachi. There will never be a definitive Karachi novel. We should not strive for it,” said Imitiaz.

Tanweer took issue with the term Imtiaz used, ‘represent’ (he prefers the idea of engaging with the city) but more or less agreed with her.

Omar Shahid Hamid (The Prisoner), a former police officer, said he had made a deliberate decision to write about the police. “We have so many fantastic stories within the police. It is unlikely that an outsider will be able to get all the nuances and also quite unlikely that an insider would reveal them.” He said he had set out to create a world in his novel, much like Vikram Chandra in Sacred Games and Mario Puzo with The Godfather.

Naqvi said he hoped that novels about Karachi resonated beyond the city much like Puzo’s work.

Naqvi, referring to the death of Chaudhry Aslam, asked Hamid to comment on the relationship of reality and fiction. “The relationship is a very close one. Most of the incidents have either happened to me or my colleagues. Some details have been changed…it was easier to write it that way.”

Tanweer said, “We needed to think about why we read and write stories. One function of stories is that they are simplifications of realities which help people understand things they did not see before. If only particular stories come out then our range of decisions becomes limited. Narratives are not substitutes for a lived life, rather they are simplifications that can be of use.”

Hamid, when asked why he had not written a factual account of his time as a police officer, said fiction was more useful to narrate stories. “You can say a lot more and explore more avenues.”

Other audience members waxed and waned about the glory days of Karachi and why there was more focus on the negative. Imtiaz retorted that she was also guilty of casting a nostalgic eye on Karachi and each decade seemed messier than the last.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 22nd, 2014.

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