A wander through the fiction section of Delhi’s bookstores reveals rows and rows of colourful dust-jackets and attractive offerings by Indian and Pakistani authors. The volume is staggering, but though there is no shortage of choice, not all of it is good. Sadly, Invitation too promises more than it can deliver.
As this South Asia Special testifies, there has never been a better time to be a subcontinent writer in English. Gone are the days of the simple mathematics of ‘Indian fiction equals Salman Rushdie plus Vikram Seth’ —today we find everything from chick-lit to college chronicles, though little of it is quality fare. That hasn’t stopped the bookshelves filling up, though. The English aspirations of the growing middle class have helped launch many a bestselling author, making writers like Chetan Bhagat household names. The remarkable thing is the pace at which English is becoming the intermediary between local writers and local audiences.
But the other theme to much of this burgeoning literature is that of a bridge to the West. That is, fiction in English, with subcontinental storylines, but predominantly aimed at a western (or western-oriented) audience. The recent success of writers such as Mohsin Hamid and Aravind Adiga, in terms of sheer volume of sales, owes largely to this phenomenon. Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist has even become required reading in some US colleges as a window into the lives and minds of Islamic fundamentalists. The protagonists are local, as is the setting, but the audience and mindset is not.
Invitation, in its own way, fits right in to this category. It starts with the return of an upper class protagonist to the land of his birth. After having spent nearly two decades in Paris, the hero, Shahbaz, returns to Karachi to work his way through a family property dispute.
The Hero’s Return, of course, is a well-worn theme. Darashikoh Shehzad, the flawed protagonist of Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke too returns home after years spent in the US. So does Karsan Dargawalla from Canada in M.G. Vassanji’s epic, Assassin’s Song.
Naturally, with the return comes the desire to fit in, and to reclaim the heritage of the past. Shahbaz wants his good life back. His family, after all, is Karachi aristocracy. Though his father lives in exile, when he sees the respect that is accorded to his family name, Shahbaz realizes that he will do anything, including mingle with the nefarious and shady, to get back the old life.
But things don’t work quite so easily. The years spent in the West have changed the way he sees the world, often in ways that are incompatible with local values. His simplistic the-world-is-black-and-white innocence is soon tested against the murky greys of 1970’s Karachi. And a flawed (some would say weak) personality doesn’t help. Shahbaz soon slips into a morally dubious lifestyle. Much like it was for Darashikoh in Lahore, a life of drugs, sex, power and money is too good to resist.
We are soon immersed into the context. The book is set in the Karachi of 1970, seething and churning in the build-up to the war of 1971. Suspicions between East and West Pakistan run deep, tainting even personal relationships. Running through the book are themes of corruption, class conflicts, and deep political machinations. The central plotline, which is the property dispute between Shahbaz and his father on the one hand, and his father’s sister Mona Phuppi on the other, appears to be symptomatic of the broader ‘property dispute’ between the two halves of Pakistan.
The story meanders along. Shahbaz first bases himself at the seedy Khyber Hotel. Eventually he moves to the home of his father’s old friend, Alamgir, who is a well-connected Brigadier. Alamgir in turn introduces him to the circles of powers, privilege and intrigue. His contacts broaden. Shahbaz becomes involved with a cabaret dancer from Cairo called Malika, who calls him ‘darleeng’ and is just how you would expect a cabaret dancer from Cairo to behave. Mona Phuppi, his aunt, is a loud, crass, manipulative woman but who, in the end, is family.
But the most poignant relationship in the book is the one he has with a taxi driver, an East Pakistani called Ghulam. Ghulam is the window into the intrigue of East-West politics, and while being a good friend to Shahbaz, also unwittingly reveals information about militants back in East Pakistan. Shahbaz’s misplaced loyalty both towards the Brigadier and his own selfish ends lights up what is perhaps the best passage of the book, with Ghulam’s fate resting in the balance.
Fazli tries to build a picture of a roiling Karachi, a Karachi-noir of sorts, best seen in the evenings and in the shadows. The Khyber Hotel is a barely-concealed brothel, the Brigadier is a power-seeker who mixes with all kinds of people, and cocaine and opium are everywhere. Fazli aims at discomfort writing, a la Upamanyu Chatterjee. The characters are dirty, sweaty, itchy, and depressing.
The noir theme, however, is unconvincing. Much like the cover of the book, tantalizing with a picture of curving hips in a corset, with the title strategically placed just where the belly ends, the book flatters to deceive. With such material at his disposal—the dark politics of the time, the ups-and-downs of one of the great cities of the subcontinent—Fazli’s treatment seems almost a let-down.
Perhaps the breakthrough feature of Invitation is its use of Urdu/Hindustani. Written phonetically in English, many of the dialogues between the characters take place in the native tongue, which seems much more natural. This is a medium which will only grow as a storytelling device in the subcontinent as literature in English picks up. The genuflections of the junior, and the ‘jeetai raho’ of the elder, are notes that will touch many a local heart.
Beyond a point, there is little that holds the reader’s interest. Historical fiction it is not. And Shahbaz’s personality, except in the odd evocative section, fails to move. The side characters—such as the cabaret dancer in particular—are dull. And whether you look for story or politics or even history, ultimately you are left with a little of each but a lot of nothing.
But if a voyeuristic glimpse of Karachi (and Pakistan) is what you came to the bookstore for, especially obscured as it has been to Indian eyes up to now, don’t pass up Fazli’s invitation.