A Different Story

New fiction in English on Karachi

Karachi—a modern port city of some 20 million people, and Pakistan’s largest metropolis—is much more than the sum of a series of violent events. A-DIFFEREASIM HAFEEZ / BLOOMBERG / GETTYIMAGESNT-STORY_THE-CARAVAN-MAGAZINE_FEBRUARY-2016_01
01 February, 2016

It is difficult for an outsider to think of Karachi and not immediately call up images of violence, death and victims. Scrolling through headlines about the city over the past year is a macabre exercise. In April, Sabeen Mahmood, an activist and intellectual, was shot dead outside a cultural centre she founded. In May, gunmen attacked a bus, leaving 43 dead. A heat wave in June, during the holy month of Ramzan, killed more than a thousand. In August, Shafqat Hussain—tortured at the age of 16 into confessing to the murder of a boy over a decade earlier—was executed.

Amid these spectacles of death, where are the stories of the living? Karachi is, after all, a modern port city of some 20 million people, Pakistan’s largest metropolis, and the country’s financial and economic centre. It is home to many, successive waves of migrants, who speak half a dozen languages. Post-colonial Karachi is much more than the sum of a series of violent events.

Since the onset of the so-called war on terror, there has been a surge of fiction in English published by Pakistani writers. Karachi in particular has been the subject of works by Kamila Shamsie and Mohammad Hanif, and has featured in several recent debut novels—Anis Shivani’s Karachi Raj, Saba Imtiaz’s Karachi, You’re Killing Me!, Shehryar Fazli’s Invitation, and Bilal Tanweer’s The Scatter Here is Too Great, among others. These novels address class mobility, history, sexuality and patronage politics, and point readers to the extremes of everyday life in the city, from the most humiliating deprivations to the unlikeliest moments of beauty, humour and happy coincidence. Karachi comes across, at times, as a metaphor for Pakistan. To read these books is to get a glimpse of Pakistanis’ contemporary self-image, as well as of the particular challenges of the country’s urban life.


In Karachi, which over the decades has grown phenomenally in size, land is in short supply and highly contested. Its scarcity and mismanagement have led to numerous displacements, and various ethno-linguistic communities have been exiled from one part of the city to another. On the eve of Partition, Karachi was home to almost 450,000 people, the majority of them Sindhi speakers. By 1951, with the influx of refugees from India, that number had surpassed a million, the city’s Hindu population had dwindled, and Sindhi speakers became a minority. Now it was Urdu speakers who dominated numerically. These changes, along with government initiatives that further marginalised the poor, had a huge impact on the culture, politics and development of Karachi, and on its relationship to the state of Sindh and to Pakistan as a whole.

Karachi’s frenetic present is today paired with a vanishing past. In the words of Asif Farrukhi, a Karachi-based writer and translator who has compiled several volumes about the city’s short modern history, “historicity is not what strikes you most in and about Karachi ... Perhaps because Karachi’s history has just begun.” But the city’s history remains essential to any understanding of it, and two of the recent novels— Fazli’s Invitation and Tanweer’s The Scatter Here is Too Great—dig into specific currents of the national past, including the decimation of an indigenous secularism by the early post-colonial state and its military, which entailed a crackdown against communists, dissidents and progressive intellectuals in the 1950s, and through the following decades. Both books feature a father or a father figure punished for his leftist links, and so also examine cross-generational familial relationships during the period in question. Notably, they break away from the nostalgic notion, currently pervasive in Pakistan’s liberal circles, of an idyllic Karachi that predated today’s age of extremism and militancy, and also the dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq between 1978 and 1988.

The two other debut novels—Shivani’s Karachi Raj and Imtiaz’s Karachi, You’re Killing Me!—focus exclusively on the present, and look at Karachi’s people in terms of their everyday experiences. But whether set in the past or the present day, each of these novels, in its own way, upends how the city, and Pakistan overall, is depicted in news headlines, and in television shows such as Homeland: as a land of militants and mosques, good Muslims and bad—all caricatures from an imagined land.

Karachi Raj Anis Shivani Fourth Estate, 416 pages, T699

Anis Shivani’s Karachi Raj, released last year, follows three individuals connected to a basti—a slum. There is Hafiz, who moves from one job to another—labourer, shop-keeper’s assistant, peon to a wealthy actress—as he seeks independence in a tightly controlled world of patronage networks. His sister, Seema, has, against all odds, earned a full scholarship to Karachi University, where she finds herself friendless as she negotiates rifts of class. Seema’s predicament is not entirely believable, though, since Karachi University, as a public institution, has a more diverse student body than the one Shivani pictures, and is hardly a preserve of the elite. Claire, an American anthropologist, lives in the same impoverished conditions as the basti-dwellers she is researching, while also working for the city’s largest NGO, and looks for clarity in her own life as she tries to understand the lives of those around her.

The contrast between the brother and the sister, children of factory workers who were among the earliest residents of the basti, is striking. Hafiz is a wanderer and an idealist, who readily adjusts to every setting, whether a bookstore for religious literature or the home of an actress. At one point, he develops a romance with a co-worker’s wife, and dreams of escape from Karachi. Meanwhile, Seema is a goal-oriented realist, self-reflective and studious, an intellectual who feels out of place both in the basti and at the university. She has an intimate relationship with a professor twice her age, Ashique, whose elegant and upper-class sister begins to pressure her into marrying him. This causes Seema to cautiously reflect upon her place within this world: “Would she ever be consulted about her life, her emotions?”

There is a pedagogical, ethnographic quality to Karachi Raj, in the vein of what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “thick description.” Shivani writes about mundane interactions with sharp attention to detail. Hafiz, Seema and Claire are figures who illuminate the “actual,” as opposed to the popularly imagined and misunderstood, space of the basti. Geertz wrote that “anthropological writings are themselves interpretations … The claim to attention of an ethnographic account does not rest on its author’s ability to capture primitive facts in faraway places … but on the degree to which he is able to clarify what goes on in such places, to reduce the puzzlement.” In similar fashion, Shivani’s characters—complex, imperfect and human—serve to demystify the bastias it is typically seen by upper-class, English-speaking audiences: a world, presumably, of squalor, repression, and a robotic class of poor people.

Khuda Ki Basti, the settlement depicted in Karachi Raj, is an actual slum in Karachi—where, in 2009, the walls of a church were painted with pro-Taliban slogans. ASIM HAFEEZ /BLOOMBERG/ GETTY IMAGES

Since most of the novel, with the exception of its ending, does not contain any major events, the month-by-month chapters drag on. They read, at times, like journal entries from Karachi, but written through a distant, objective lens which does not really draw the reader into an intimacy with its world. Karachi Raj’s ethnographic ethos is reinforced by the fact that its most compelling character is the anthropologist, Claire. As extraordinarily complex as Seema and Hafiz are, each trying to create a better life, it is Claire, with her academic degrees, her notes lost to a flood, her interactions with expat NGO co-workers, and her helplessness in the face of a dramatic turn of events at the book’s end, whose self-questioning alerts the reader to the brutal reality of “good intentions.” Adding further to the novel’s ethnographic dimension is the fact that Khuda Ki Basti, the settlement depicted in Karachi Raj, is an actual slum under the Orangi Pilot Project, which was founded, as Shivani notes in an interview, by “a major South Asian NGO leader, Akhtar Hameed Khan … who believed that slum dwellers could improve their lot by taking the initiative to make their environment conducive to health and prosperity.”

The name “Khuda Ki Basti”—which can be translated as “City of God” or “God’s Own Land,” or perhaps also, more poetically, as “Abandoned Settlements”—has an old link to Karachi, Pakistan and literature. It is the title of a 1955 Urdu novel by Shaukat Siddiqui, about the demise of a family living in the slums of Karachi amid land-grabs and state-led development schemes. Khuda Ki Basti was adapted, in 1969, into a popular television serial of the same name. Its popularity coincided with the rise of the democratically elected leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and his Pakistan Peoples’ Party.

Siddiqui, who died in 2006, was born in Lucknow in 1923, and in 1950 migrated to Pakistan, where he was involved with the Progressive Writers Association, edited several newspapers, including the leftist paper al-Fatah, and eventually headed the Pakistan Writers Guild. Khuda Ki Basti was his first novel. His basti is replete with petty, bourgeois perpetrators of injustice, and their victims, the working poor. At first glance, Karachi Raj seems to offer a more nuanced portrait of basti life. While the Urdu novel is intimately connected to the basti—Siddiqui lived close to Khuda Ki Basti, in the city’s commercial centre, which has a multi-class character—Shivani’s novel is intent on demystifying the settlement, and presents it from the perspective of an outsider who has just discovered it. But Karachi Raj’s more studious approach feels forced, especially in contrast to the social-realist thrust of Siddiqui’s novel, where the basti is not a distant world.


The basti has been a central preoccupation and setting for Pakistani novels in Urdu. It features, among other books, in Khalid Akhtar’s Chaakivada Mein Visaal, a satirical tale about an eponymous settlement in old Karachi, before it became the now notorious Lyari Town; and, of course, in Intizar Husain’s Basti, which describes a pre-Partition settlement in a place not far from Lahore. Siddiqui’s novel is unique in being shaped by the specific history of the basti during the 1950s—particularly the post-Partition influx of Muslim migrants from north India, and the rampant discrimination against the urban poor. But Karachi Raj lacks a knowledge of the long and literary history of the basti, and the novel is limitedby it.

Invitation Shehryar Fazli Tranquebar Press, 386 pages, T495

Shehryar Fazli’s Invitation, published in 2011, is also concerned with Karachi at a pivotal period in Pakistan’s history. Thebook is set in 1970, on the eve of Bangladesh’s emergence as an independent state, and challenges a major blind spot of contemporary Pakistani nationalist accounts. Its narrator and central character is Shahbaz, who hails from what was then West Pakistan, but was raised partly in France. He returns to Karachi as a young man at the behest of his father, to help resolve a property dispute. Shahbaz is seduced by power, and the novel follows his descent into moral depravity. He eventually secures the property for his family through a Faustian bargain with a brigadier. The novel insinuates that Shahbaz betrays the poor, and is complicit in crimes perpetrated by the West Pakistani state against East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh.

Refreshingly, Fazli does not romanticise the period of Pakistani history prior to Zia ul-Haq’s Islamicising dictatorship. His is an ambitious project. It is not easy to write a historical novel set in Pakistan without giving in to the temptation to view the 1960s and the 1970s through rose-coloured glasses—a temptation particularly hard to resist considering the socio-religious conservatism that has crystallised since the Zia era, and also given that the period the book covers lacks an adequate scholarly literature to frame it conceptually. Fazli’s novel also insightfully cautions readers not to romanticise Pakistan under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as a place of untrammeled social or political freedom. Fazli approaches that moment of Pakistan’s history as one imbued with authoritarianism, and significantly influenced by a corrupt military.


Shahbaz is a smoking, drinking, drug-taking, whoring young man, whose abysmal sense of self stems in part from guilt over an inability to confront his experience of racism in Paris: there, his ayatul-kursi—a pendant with Quranic verses, worn for protection—was stolen from him by a rogue who threatened to report Shahbaz for snorting coke. Shahbaz followed the man, but failed to retrieve the pendant.

He knew I wasn’t of the city and hadn’t mastered its codes and its tricks. So I walked, ducked my head, and avoided eye contact, went back into the city which had just secured another little triumph against me.

Nor can he resist the temptation to join the world of Pakistan’s power brokers. When he first arrives back in the country, he stays at the Agra Hotel, a brothel, but before long he befriends a military official who invites him to stay at his house. This man is known throughout the novel simply as “the Brigadier.” Though nameless, he is still personable, and full of wisdom. Shahbaz, embedded within the brigadier’s home, comes across, simultaneously, as naive in his apolitical apathy to his own role, and cynical in his tendency towards occasional pin-pricks of conscience. Invitation forces readers to confront the complex relationship between morality and politics, especially in the contradictory language used by some Pakistani liberals to justify the actions of the country’s military.

Shahbaz himself speaks broken Urdu, and finds himself practicing the language by ordering drugs through his driver and conversing with the brigadier’s sister. He is hard to like—obfuscatingly charming, opportunistic and exceedingly

classist, referring to the poor squatters on his family’s property as “a cancer.” And yet, as readers are led into his complicated inner world, they come to understand that his self-hatred stems, in part, from his relationship with his father—an erstwhile leftist, charged and then exiled for his suspected involvement in a planned coup. “So much of Karachi life, its grandeur and power, was unavailable,” Shahbaz says. “I was still living my father’s exile.” Later, he says of his father,

Actually, he was too nervous and afraid to come back. Caution, trepidation: that was the legacy to me. And so this man who took part in a failed communist coup, who should have, for example, embraced the events of May ’68 in Paris, instead rejected and recoiled from them. Worse, he’d instilled that same passivity and caution in me.

Actually, he was too nervous and afraid to come back. Caution, trepidation: that was the legacy to me. And so this man who took part in a failed communist coup, who should have, for example, embraced the events of May ’68 in Paris, instead rejected and recoiled from them. Worse, he’d instilled that same passivity and caution in me.

Saba Imtiaz’s Karachi, You’re Killing Me! describes life behind the scenes in a Karachi newsroom. ROBERT NICKELSBERG/ GETTY IMAGES

Shahbaz’s need to prove himself to his father leads him straight into the brigadier’s home, where he encounters a range of characters—from Hammad Sahib, a Dhaka University professor; his driver and drug dealer, Ghulam Hussain; the object of his desire, the Egyptian cabaret dancer Malika; Zulfikar Ali Bhutto himself; as well as two mysterious brothers with ties to the Islamist organisation Jamaat-e-Islami. Even though Shahbaz constantly devises justifications for being in the wrong time at the wrong place, he is far from being an innocent or passive observer. His narrative demands that the reader come to terms with the murder of Hammad Sahib—which serves to symbolise the violence of the 1971 war that secured Bangladesh’s independence.

Bilal Tanweer and Saba Imtiaz’s novels are more compelling accounts of Karachi than these other two books, and this is not because they seem to be principally concerned with violence. Rather, it is the forms of storytelling they employ that make them distinctive. Neither author attempts to create a sweeping or comprehensive epic of Karachi. Rather, both consciously reflect upon the role of the writer, speaking out loud on narration and its dangers, and raising questions about the very process of writing about the city.

The Scatter Here is Too Great Bilal Tanweer Random House India, 214 pages, T350

Tanweer’s The Scatter Here is Too Great came out in 2013, and explores how the lives of various people are forever fragmented by a bombing on a busy street. There is an ambulance driver who cannot shake apocalyptic visions; an elderly and lonely communist poet who wanders around town shouting at people, barely able to hold the interest of truants; his son, a wealthy businessman who has become detached from his father, and seeks the affection of his own children; a young woman who tells her brother tales to communicate and also conceal her heartbreak; her lover, a young man who works for a professional gang that threatens loan defaulters; and, among them all, is a writer who is often at a loss as to how to voice his descriptions of his shattered city. He writes:

Nobody was going to know that part of the city as anything but as a place where a bomb went off. The bomb was going to become the story of this city. That’s how we lose the city—that’s how our knowledge of what the world is and how it functions is taken away from us—when what we know is blasted into rubble and what is created in its place bears no resemblance to what there was and we are left strangers in a place we knew, in a place we ought to have known. Suddenly, it struck me that that’s how my father experienced this city. How, when he walked this city, he was tracing paths from his memory to the present—from what this place had been to what it had become.

Tanweer’s prose is reminiscent of Saadat Hasan Manto’s in Siya Hashye—“Black Margins”—a powerful collection of anecdotes about Partition violence, and is also influenced by other Urdu writers, such as Naiyer Masud, as well as contemporary Pakistani poets. His writing does not attempt to capture a single truth. Rather Tanveer traces the interruptions, the connections and broken links between people, as well as the fractured states of mind that accompany the experience of violence, both that of the everyday variety, such as the abuse the young woman faces for having a lover, and of the spectacular kind, with the bombing itself. Tanveer consciously reflects upon story-writing as a form of map-making for the city.

Most importantly, however, as Tanweer signals in the passage quoted above, to write Karachi is to remember Karachi—to move away from having bombs alone define the memory of the city. The many stories Tanveer tells in the first person—whether of an amateur gangster falling for a girl, with whom a first real date goes awry; or of a truant mocking his fellow passengers on a bus journey—rather than being peripheral to the novel, constitute its essence. The city, then, neither has a single author, nor is defined by famous landmarks, street names or out-of-the-way places awaiting discovery. Rather, it might be made known through acts of telling and listening to stories.

Storytelling is also a mode of survival. This is certainly true, for instance, in the case of the young woman who tells her younger brother tales of kings, queens and viziers, implicitly narrating her own desires and heartache. Here, as elsewhere, Tanweer turns the journalistic way of writing on its head. To follow a story is not to collect “the facts,” but to listen, and to follow someone’s tale. As the brother of the young ambulance driver with apocalyptic visions states, reflecting on the end of the world and a city that is dying, “what appears strange and complex becomes even stranger and more complicated once you begin to investigate it. That’s the true nature of the world.” In fragmentary prose, Tanweer’s novel urges one to listen, and to “look again at the bullet-smashed screen: the bullet hole is a new territory. It cracks new paths, new boundaries. These are maps of an uncharted city. They tell different stories.”


Saba Imtiaz’s Karachi, You’re Killing Me!, published in 2014, also considers the role of the writer, though in this case of the journalist or reporter in particular. Imtiaz describes life behind the scenes at a Karachi newspaper, with each section of the novel echoing an often witty headline. These range from, “Dissident cleric rushed to hospital after eating toxic halwa,” to “23% of Pakistanis say white is their favorite colour: poll.” Imtiaz captures, with rich humour, the absurdity of how news is made. The book is centred on Ayesha, a perpetually broke journalist, who discusses in frank and vivid ways what happens between editors and reporters, as well as what goes into covering political rallies or hobnobbing with socialites. Imtiaz, having herself been a reporter in Karachi for years, convey’s Ayesha’s point of view wonderfully well.

Karachi, You’re Killing Me! highlights the challenges faced by Pakistan’s journalists: lacking safety, being underpaid and unsupported, and expected to embed themselves in political parties and report accordingly. Even as she evokes laughter, Imtiaz criticises Pakistan’s politicians and elites, as well as the aggressive American military adventures currently playing out in the country. She describes how an entire industry of foreign correspondents and fixers has mushroomed following the militant attacks on the United States in 2001, offering purportedly authentic stories that are often simply fixed from an Islamabad desk. Alongside them are local reporters, all competing with one another, in one of the most dangerous countries on the planet for journalists. The novel captures the absurdity of this world through Ayesha’s fast-paced life, as she simultaneously tweets, researches, figures out transport, deals with her boss, drinks whiskey and eats chilli chips, all the while reflecting on Karachi’s many peculiarities and problems while also pondering her own love life—or lack thereof.

Forced to choose between wealthy, drug-addicted, bored and boring men, and fellow journalists engaged in cut-throat competition with her, Ayesha has few options. With Karachi closing in around her in both personal and professional ways, she longs to leave the city, and hopes to be hired by a foreign media organisation so she can get away from this place “where life and love come to die.”

Pakistani fiction is a varied and rich terrain of novels, short stories, novellas and graphic novels. To define it solely in terms of recent English-language novels, would be a disservice to the country’s long tradition of Urdu fiction. While it is true that new novels in English have given some competition to the Urdu novel, it is also important to recognise that the supposed death of Urdu is mostly a myth of English-language discourse. The Urdu literary scene, which has tended to be dominated by poets, is buzzing with exciting novelists, such as Pakistan’s Mirza Athar Baig, author of the critically acclaimed Ghulaam Bagh, and India’s Shamshur Rahman Farooqi, who wrote Kai Chand Thay Sar-e-Aasmaan, which sold out in both India and Pakistan.


As Pakistani writing in English continues to grow, however, it is refreshing to read debut novelists whose work, unlike that of many of their predecessors, is not focused primarily on the Pakistani diaspora in the United States or the United Kingdom, but is concerned with the life-worlds of the Pakistani cities that they have left behind and returned to. It is also good to see writing specifically about Karachi that treads across a range of human experiences, going beyond the headlines of bomb blasts and foiled terror plots. Even more pleasantly, the novels here do not situate Islam as the main force in understanding Karachi, or Pakistan overall—an all too common mode of describing Pakistan’s woes.

These novels, together, show Karachi as a city of cities, of many stories, of people with incredibly unique lives. But Karachi also comes across as having much in common with other densely populated post-colonial cities in South Asia, with their many migrations, losses and exiles. As Intizar Husain once wrote, “They had left their cities, but carried their cities with them, as a trust, on their shoulders. That’s how it usually is. Even when cities are left behind, they don’t stay behind. They seize on you even more. When the earth slips out from under your feet, that’s when it really surrounds you.”