Shehryar Fazli’s debut novel, Invitation, was intriguingly called Karachi noir on its cover. Reviewers have been pleased to affirm its essential grittiness; in a review for Lounge, Arunava Sinha called it “a strangely fascinating story… attracting and repelling at once, the lure of the festering pustule on the skin.”
It is about Shahbaz, a young Pakistani in the 1970s who returns home to Karachi, just before the upheaval of a momentous general election, to find an intoxicating world, at once hedonistic, corrupt and melancholic.
Fazli, who is also a policy analyst in Islamabad, spoke to Lounge about this historical setting, the process of writing and being a novelist with a day job. Edited excerpts from an interview:
You’re a Pakistani, but you didn’t grow up in the country, did you?
Because my father’s a diplomat, I didn’t spend much time in Pakistan growing up. I was born in Tunis, lived in Paris, Brussels, Morocco, Mauritius, went on to college in Canada. So my relationship with Pakistan was always tenuous. But after college, I decided to move back. By then 9/11 had happened and Pakistan had become front page news, a lot of people were telling the Pakistani story but they weren’t telling it well. They’re still not telling it well.
What did you do then?
I started to work with this international non-governmental research and advocacy think tank called the International Crisis Group (ICG). In the meanwhile, I started writing a novel, which didn’t take place in Pakistan, or any particular time or place. At the same time, I was learning more about this very fascinating period in Pakistan’s history—the late 1960s and early 1970s. Popular demos had brought a military regime to its knees and practically ousted them, which led to the first ever general election and the introduction of proper democracy. So it was at some point I decided to put my narrator, who I had in one chapter, originally in a timeless place, decided to plop him into that moment. I liked the result, so I decided it would stay with that.
Your book’s been described as ‘Karachi noir’. Could you deconstruct that?
I like the description, but it’s not mine; Kamila Shamsie, who wrote a very nice blurb for the book, used those words, as have other people who read the book. The first time I heard it, I was actually a little surprised. I said wow, that’s how people think of it? I’ve never really categorized the book. I think some people see it as a coming-of-age story; some see it as a very political novel; when I think of it, I focus on it as a very personal story of my narrator’s quest for a sense of citizenship in a country he’s been exiled from for 19 years.
What was the Karachi of that period like?
In most ways, it was similar to the Karachi of today–except for the fact that with the introduction of prohibition in 1976, a city that was well known for its bars, its cabarets, its night life, its dancers who would fly in from all around the world, all but vanished. By the time I was born in 1978, that Karachi was long gone.
So I needed to get a sense of this very question. Between then and today, in the intervening days, you’ve seen the onset of intense political, ethnic and sectarian violence in the city. The Karachi back then was relatively free of this. I think it was much more relaxed, much more tension-free; Karachi really became dangerous in the 1980s and 1990s. Unfortunately, it’s now gone back to that cycle of political ethnic sectarian violence.
There’s no question that before those draconian laws, Karachi was a much more liberal place.
Was that liberalism true for Karachi residents across classes?
Pakistan is a very class-divided country, and Karachi is a very class-divided city, so certainly it had more of an impact on the upper classes, who would enjoy this world of cabarets and drinking and carousing. But they still do it; they just do it underground, discreetly. But the violence that I’m talking about affected everybody. So everybody, no matter what class they’re from, does have this nostalgia for that old better time.
Isn’t that true of all places though? How is Karachi different?
It’s not a difference in kind, but a difference in degree. Karachi has seen so much violence in the time since then. Now, you know, it’s true of the country as a whole. I live in Islamabad, and I think back to the Islamabad of just a few years ago, when there were no security checkpoints all over the place, when bombs weren’t going off every week.
How does your work as a policy analyst interact with your work as a writer?
The ICG produces policy reports which require months of research on the ground, with the goal of policy reform. So it requires a lot of writing as well, which sometimes competes with my writing time; it exhausts that muscle.
In fact, I wasn’t getting anything done when I first began this novel because of this intense job, which was also a writing job. So I took three years off to go to the US, where a large majority of this novel was written. Then I came back to Pakistan once the first draft was done.
When did this happen?
I started writing a novel in 1999-2000 when I was still a college student. None of what I wrote back then survived, except the narrator—and a certain tone perhaps. I sort of mark the origin as that period. I started the serious writing between 2002 and 2004. In 2005 I went to UMass Amherst (University of Massachusetts Amherst), to the writing programme. I wrote most of the novel then.
You’re part of an exciting generation of English-language writers in Pakistan. Could you comment on the larger picture you’re part of?
I don’t want to speak for other writers, but I think there is this desire to tell the Pakistani story. English is part of the Pakistani heritage, so it’s not surprising that a lot of people are writing in it. It is a dramatic reversal of the brain drain that I grew up hearing about in the 1980s and 1990s—of people physically but also intellectually disengaging from the country. But today, musicians, journalists, painters, film-makers are engaging with Pakistani public life wherever they are in the world, and novelists are one among many kinds of artistes doing this.
India did very well after Emergency with writers who emerged to tackle that period. It’s this inexplicable thing that happens when you go through a tough national moment. In Pakistan, especially since we have everybody else telling the story and doing so inaccurately or incompletely, part of my motivation is to tell a story too.
So how much is this novel driven by politics?
Politics is very much in the background. That is a result of my interest in history and politics—because whether you’re a journalist or a policy person, in Pakistan today politics bleeds into your private life. In Islamabad, a city that used to be a nice little enclave, that seemed impervious to everything else in the country, you now have bombs going off down the road from you. It’s difficult to really depict private life in Pakistan without discussing the impact of what is happening in its public life.
I would hate to be writing something similar as a policy writer and a creative writer, having said that.