COVER: The heart of Karachi: Karachi Raj By Anis ShivaniMagazines
IN his debut novel Karachi Raj, erstwhile critic Anis Shivani depicts a year’s worth of Karachi life as viewed from the differing perspectives of an American anthropologist and a couple of individuals living in the low-income district of the Basti. Shivani’s first foray into the realm of fiction intrinsically grapples with an immensely complex topic — the stratified social layers of which Karachi life is composed. Hence the book contains a staggeringly diverse array of characters including, but not limited to, rickshaw drivers, film-makers, university professors, journalists, shopkeepers, construction workers, bored affluent housewives, underprivileged schoolchildren, the country’s president, and doctors engaged in community service. To say that Shivani’s project is ambitious would be an understatement, but thanks to his simple sentence construction and fast-paced writing the book is an entertaining and manageable read, even at over 400 pages.
The structure loosely consists of two intertwined plots, the anthropologist Claire’s story and that of a brother and a sister who inhabit the Basti, Hafiz and Seema. The son of two lower middle-income factory workers, Hafiz starts out employed as a young construction worker but quits his job to work in a religious bookstore. Although he is too dreamy and idealistic to actively adopt the agendum of an urban social climber, fate leads him to become the personal assistant to a beautiful young actress, Hina. His sister Seema, who is far more intellectual, holds the honour of being the only individual in the million-person Basti to acquire a scholarship to the University of Karachi. She becomes platonically involved with a middle-aged history professor, ironically and unsuitably named Ashiq, and though his family tries to propel them towards matrimony, Ashiq’s skittishness about the issue causes Seema to move on with her life. On research leave from Boston University, Claire makes the bold move of housing herself within the precincts of the Basti for a year in order to observe and analyse its people closely.
Shivani’s musings coalesce into a fascinating portrayal of the dynamic, throbbing life of the Basti, its challenges, conflicts, and crises. To be sure some of the characters are undeniably stereotypical, but vast and successful social panoramas hardly require that every figure be authentic in order to be engaging, or even memorable. In this manner, Shivani’s bittersweet work resembles that of Charles Dickens’s whose 19th-century London, peppered with various caricatures, reflects many concerns and aspects of present-day Karachi.
If one takes a step back from the general plot machinations of the text one finds that Karachi Raj acts primarily as a set of colourful vignettes that generally revolve around personalised character interaction. Over the course of her research stint, Claire encounters a well-meaning community schoolteacher, a cynical but dedicated doctor, a rich nonagenarian donor, and a major fashion photographer named Tipu who whisks her through a dozen locales in Karachi (ranging from Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s mazar to that of the Quaid) while engaging in a photo shoot.
Shivani adeptly depicts the sincerity and warmth underlying a number of his characters, very few of them can be classified as ‘bad people’— even Allah Bukhsh, the major crime lord of the Basti comes across as a genial and sociable man who genuinely believes that he is earning an honest living. While Hafiz has to struggle against the inevitable strictures of class, his life leads him to be upwardly mobile in financial terms. Both he and Seema acquire numerous social benefactors along the way, and in this manner Shivani’s portrayal of subcontinental urban life may be regarded as more upbeat and optimistic than that of writers such as Rohinton Mistry, who are more adept at narrative technique but also eminently more depressing. Even when an obnoxious junior director, Ismail, forces Hafiz to clean up elephant excrement during a film shoot, Hafiz’s humiliation is alleviated by his boss’s husband, Majid, who raises his salary and commends the fact that Hafiz “behaved gracefully, with a lot of dignity”. Ironically but blessedly, almost all of Shivani’s characters are permitted to retain some semblance of personal dignity throughout the book, thereby repeatedly drawing the reader’s attention to the silver lining attached to the cloud consisting of the miseries of the human condition.
This is not to say that the Basti is a cheerful place — disease and poverty abound, and Claire finds that several of its people are as much at the mercy of natural forces as they are victims of the lack of adequate money and food. A messy monsoon flood towards the end destroys most of the anthropologist’s notes as she helplessly observes the “dirty, muddy, disease-carrying water, junk floating on it”. The episode illustrates how life in the Basti ultimately evades and eludes comprehensive academic analysis.
So much detail is painstakingly packed into the novel that even those deeply familiar with Karachi life and its complexities will discover things that they may hitherto have been ignorant about. Given the excessive detail, Shivani can be forgiven the occasional careless error: for instance Ismail’s name gets transformed into Ibrahim over the course of the above-mentioned scene, and one wonders why Claire and Tipu have to deal with sweltering heat in the middle of a pleasant Karachi February.
Regardless, the fact that much humour underlies many scenes makes parts of the novel hilariously memorable such as the manner in which the president’s Wellesley-educated minister, Shelly, urges him to get a move on at least half-a-dozen times before the charismatic, but lax, president responds. To say that Shivani’s debut provides one with a serious, deeply engaged look at humanity would be far-fetched, but as a first novel it holds considerable promise, and is well worth perusing during these dog days of a Karachi summer.
By Anis Shivani
Fourth Estate, UK