Decades have passed since the 1977 coup in Pakistan but the forces unleashed as a result have had such a devastating impact on the nation that it still continues to struggle with the legacy of the “Zia" years. Pakistani artists and writers have recalled those years of military dictatorship, the growing influence of the secret service, the bypassing of democractic and human rights, and the ensuing chaos. Sorayya Khan’s City Of Spies is another addition to the memory file.

The novel chooses a young schoolgirl for a narrator and most of the narrative plays out between 1977 and 1979. Aliya lives in Islamabad with her Dutch mother and Pakistani father, who decides to come back home to take charge of WAPDA (Water and Power Development Authority) after the 1971 war. Their household includes a servant, Sadiq, and his son Hanif, who is later killed in a road accident.

The novel traces key events from 1977 onwards—the coup by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, referred to mostly as “the general", the arrest of prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the malignant abuse of religion by the powerful. Islamabad, which had neither the history nor the commerce of Lahore and Karachi, is presented as a new city that was breeding a new, dangerous culture of impunity.

However, this is not really a spy novel. There is no cloak-and-dagger espionage, no femme fatales, no adrenalin. It is a story about secrets in a household, and the way global power play can destroy individual lives without the slightest whimper of protest from any quarter.

The American embassy is at the heart of the narrative. Aliya attends the American Embassy School, and is acutely conscious of being a “half-and-half", which is to say, of not being fully white, blonde or blue-eyed. Her elder sister Lehla and brother Amir are living abroad, and her best friend Lizzy is an American whose father works with United States Agency for International Development. Aliya’s priorities—fitting in and finding approval—are not very different from those of the average privileged pre-teen, but she is witness to incredible acts of racism by her schoolmates. The white boys routinely spit upon Pakistani pedestrians or cyclists from the windows of their school bus.

City Of Spies: Aleph Book Co., 239 pages, 295.
City Of Spies: Aleph Book Co., 239 pages, 295.

In Aliya’s household, there is secrecy around the death of Hanif. Nobody will say who is responsible, not even his father Sadiq, even as his silence eats away at his mind. A settlement for Hanif’s death has been reached but, as Aliya wonders, how many Pakistani rupees is a child’s life worth? Is an American child worth the same? What about the Americans who were held hostage in Iran? Could the same price be placed on their lives?

In Sadiq’s slow loss of himself, in his bewilderment, is reflected a nation losing its sense of self. The author does a fine job of telling the bigger story through the limited world of a child’s experience. With a light touch, she weaves in other threads of experience—growing up in an increasingly orthodox environment, the difference between what was available to foreigners and what was meant for citizens, the tragedy of class difference so deeply ingrained that a servant reminds a child to address him as “tum" rather than the more respectful “aap".

The novel’s main failing is that the narrator’s voice does not always ring true. When parents or other adults are talking of events that the child is struggling to grasp, the author manages to carry it off. But sometimes, the images evoked and the words used ring false coming from an 11-year-old. For instance: “My father was wrong... If countries could be people, the Land of the Pure was standing tall, wrapped in a green and white saree-flag, no midriff or cleavage showing, not a hair out of place. She’d hardly noticed she’d been violated." The easy association of womanhood with nationhood does not sound credible from the mouth of a child-narrator.

The other dissatisfaction comes from the epilogue. The climax offers up only half a reveal, and the reader may well be content not knowing how the loose ends tie up. But the epilogue sets out to fill in the blanks. It does so by taking a leap of time, but it also adds much information, moving back and forth between various stages of the protagonists’ lives in different locations. One feels as if half a book had been crammed into an epilogue. It does not serve up, warm and rich, the morsel of revelation that was being saved for the tail end.

That said, there is much warmth and depth to the novel. There may not be any James Bond-style action or the grey interiority of Graham Greene’s spies, but the fate of nations definitely does hang in the balance. As do the fates of ordinary citizens who struggle to love and let go.

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