There are no mangoes in Maha Khan Phillips’ novel set in Karachi, as a satirical Granta article decreed is now essential to the Pakistan novel. There are cotton fields, though, and a maid and memsahibs. And there’s also a delicious touch of subversion that takes all the clichéd elements and blends them into an addictive cocktail that is certain to leave you with a hangover. What is Pakistan, after all, except a boring failed state, if you take away the anachronistic landlords and the bogey of radical Islam?
Somewhat like Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes (the wickedly funny 2008 novel is now the touchstone for all fiction of the genre set in our neighbouring country), Beautiful from This Angle works because the author never takes herself as seriously as she does her subject and her craft. There’s a lightness in the treatment that belies the tale but which, nevertheless, serves it well. The cover photo and blurb (“Dishing up the dirt… from Karachi’s hottest Page 3 parties”) position the book as chick lit, but its impact goes beyond the pigeonhole.
Beautiful from This Angle: Penguin India, 234 pages, Rs 250.
Tracing a year in the lives of three 20-something best-friends-forever, Beautiful uses, like Bangladeshi author Shazia Omar’s Like a Diamond in the Sky, the accepted tropes of rebellion against Islamic strictures: fashion, promiscuity, drugs, alcohol. Wild child Amynah Farooqui has the predictable dysfunctional family, but she’s also smart enough to channel her party queen status into a provocative newspaper column, thereby universalizing a city that’s too frequently in the headlines for the wrong reasons.
But there’s a Pakistan outside the bubble of Karachi society, and that is where her chaddi-buddy Henna belongs. Daughter of a feudal lord-turned-politico, Henna is the antithesis of Amynah: subservient, sacrificing, dutiful. And caught between the two—though who is to say definitively who is caught between who?—is Mumtaz Malik, bitter, ambitious, self-serving. Deftly painted in shades of grey, these primary characters and their constantly shifting bonds propel the novel through a civilizational confrontation that rings very close to home.
When the three friends set out to rescue a village woman (the maid) from her allegedly abusive husband, Mumtaz films her story as a documentary for CNN as “something we can sell to the West”. But this is Pakistan, and perception is sometimes stranger than reality. The tone is set beautifully in an early scene in Henna’s father’s cotton fields, which takes back Amynah to carefree childhood summers; a few pages later, those very fields, in the shadow of twilight, transform into an ominous presence, accentuated by a rustle from memory. Nothing happens, but the disquiet is impossible to shake off.
It’s this sense of impending doom, of the quiet implosion of a society torn apart by multiple contradictory strains and pressures, that lingers long after the final page. From religious “fundoos” to the rich-and-oblivious and from US-pandering politicos to the insidious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the author’s savage wit spares no one and, in the process, captures a country in dangerous free-fall. The Western media perhaps comes in for the most severe bashing: If one channel wants a documentary on a brutalized woman that ticks every box in the oppressed-under-Islam story, another films a reality show called Who Wants To Be a Terrorist? while a third seeks to censor local liberals from a television interview.
As the trio’s film climbs the bleeding hearts’ charts all the way to the Oscars, the fallout causes their lives and their friendships to unravel, crescendoing in a manner that shakes the world. For all the fun, warmth and humour, the laugh-aloud moments, the razor-sharp observation of a certain class of contemporary society, Beautiful is ultimately a bleak, unsettling novel about coming of age in an age too corrupt to care.
Everyone has to pay a price, Henna says, for what we have done. In Phillips’ Pakistan, the young pay the price for history.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org