(Published in The Financial World, Tehelka, retrieved from http://tehelka.com/story_main49.asp?filename=Fw180511Fazli.asp)
Author: Shehryar Fazli
Price: Rs. 495
‘Haan? Kya, what’s so funny?’
‘Oh, I was just looking at those.’ I pointed to the little island next to ours, the island of old Indian boats, captured in Pakistani waters over the years ever since Partition and stockpiled here. I don’t know if I ever saw the boats myself as a child, or whether the image I carried was based only on my father’s descriptions. But I did carry that image, a museum of decaying Indian boats in the middle of the sea.
‘They’re probably haunted,’ my father used to say, ‘Ghosts of the Indian boatmen, all over the place.’ This was how he forced impressions of the old country on a child’s mind once in exile.
Oh, no, you think, as you finish the first page of Shehryar Fazli’s debut novel Invitation– alienation, exile, roots, India-Pakistan, and probably some metaphor, all in one paragraph, with an eccentric aunt thrown in. 384 more pages to go, you sigh.
But a few paragraphs down, you realise that Fazli can write. His composition is skilled, his narrative flows. Something about the scenario of an aunt who’s meeting her nephew after a couple of decades and throwing a small tea party at the clubhouse on the beach in his honour, makes you want to read on.
You begin to think the title may signify acceptance into the family, a nation opening its doors to a young man who left as a child, the beckoning into the mind of a man without roots...and then you suddenly notice that the cover photograph is not of a beige cushion, but a cabaret dancer’s pelvis. Oh, no, this is going to be about the seamy underworld of Karachi. That’s why Basharat Peer calls it a “Pakistan we haven’t seen before” and Kamila Shamsie uses words like “Anglophone” and “Karachi Noir” in a long endorsement at the back.
A little later, you discover that the plot involves some land that the protagonist Shahbaz Aslam’s father is trying to claim his stake in, after his fiery sister has won it back in a court case. Aslam Senior either cannot or will not come back to the land that he was forced to leave for Paris because the police figured out he was involved in a failed plot to overthrow the government.
But other elements in the story are the tension between East and West Pakistan in 1970, the power struggle between Mujibur Rahman and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s perception of India, an Egyptian cabaret dancer whose contempt for Shahbaz arouses him, a retired navy officer whose mercenary nature is apparent from the start, and a Bengali taxi driver whom you know will come to some kind of harm before the book is over, possibly caused by the protagonist.
Whether the narrator’s angst and lengthy introspection comes from Fazli’s own experience isn’t clear. They’ve certainly led similar lives. The author was raised in Paris, and moved to Pakistan later. He has said that the idea of writing about the return of a young exile struck him over a decade before the novel was published, but the political context and temporal setting came in later.
The biggest problem he seems to have faced while writing the book is the integration of the two. It’s hard to combine a life one knows with an imagined ambience.
There is a tendency among subaltern writers to force in a political situation and encounters with real-life characters in an attempt to lift the status of their novels from fiction to literature. While Fazli shows more promise than many, he struggles to weave his sub-plots into the fabric of the novel.
One wonders whether the main character had to be an expat. Is a view from the outside what we want? The most interesting parts to me were the interactions between Shahbaz and a couple of Jamaatis, and references to the prism through which India is seen by Pakistan. Neither strain could offer much perspective, though, because the character’s place in that setting isn’t established.
Perhaps Fazli should have taken a cue from Khaled Hosseini, whose Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns don’t quite have the stamp of experience, but portray a vivid image of social realities through characters who have seen an Afghanistan Hosseini hasn’t, while Invitation is rather diaphanous.
Given that Fazli is Senior Analyst for the think-tank International Crisis Group, his knowledge of the events leading up to the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh could have supported a novel that doesn’t draw from personal experience.
The prose is good and the setting has tremendous potential, but an ungainly plot lets the book down. Would I spend Rs. 500 on this one when I could pick up two Orhan Pamuk or Gabriel Garcia Marquez books instead? No. But I would watch out for Fazli’s next work.