Mohalla politics

When we first meet Imran Jabbari—the protagonist of Anees Salim’s Vanity Bagh—he has already spent 18 months in jail. Through the ordeal, Imran’s one constant wish is to go back to Vanity Bagh. After all, it was there that he along with five friends—Zulfiqar, Zia, Navaz Sharif, Yahya and Jinnah—had launched the 5K Men group dedicated to petty crime. The same friends with whom he had played football and committed small thefts. The same young men who wanted so desperately to walk in the footsteps of the neighbourhood’s Robin Hood figure, Abu Hathim, that they stepped willy-nilly into a trap.

When the unlikely neighbourhood florist Qadir approaches the 5K Men for a job, they take it up after a perfunctory background check on him. It’s a simple task of leaving two-wheelers, purportedly carrying contraband gold, at three locations in the city. They only realize the true nature of the job when news of bomb blasts at the same three sites flashes on all the TV news channels. Jinnah is killed on the spot. Yahya, who has a speech impediment and is therefore accorded the half status in 5K Men, commits suicide. Navaz is killed by mysterious visitors to his father’s barber shop. Zia and Imran are arrested. There’s no word on Zulfiqar, who had backed out at the last moment and did not deliver the bomb-rigged scooters himself.

That’s part of the trouble with Imran’s stream-of-consciousness narrative. His understanding of events is incomplete, so the reader too never really learns the answers to certain questions, like whether Zulfiqar sold out his friends.

But there are other, more uncomfortable, questions that Salim does raise with sensitivity. Questions like whether it is possible to empathize with a criminal. How about when he is accused of committing an act of terrorism?

Characterization is a strong point of Salim’s sophomore novel. There is attention to detail in the way he describes Imran’s family—his wailing mother Bushra; his father, the ineffectual imam; his brother Wasim, with a hole in his heart; and finally Imran. We learn everything of significance about Imran.

The language in Vanity Bagh is straightforward. The plot too is clearly laid out. But the book fails to rise above the sum of its parts. It falls squarely in the category of books that have nothing wrong with them, but which you would not necessarily recommend to a friend.

Part of the reason it leaves you a little cold is the gimmicks. The characters’ names are inspired by Pakistani politicians and cricketers. Salim even draws attention to the gimmicky detail himself, presumably to establish that Vanity Bagh is in fact “Little Pakistan". Sample this: “When Imran, named after the cricketer-politician, hears about Benazir’s death, he confuses the late politician Benazir Bhutto with his former sweetheart, Benazir of Mogul Bakery. He mourns her demise for a few minutes before realizing it’s her more influential namesake who has died."

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