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The Prisoner | Omar Shahid Hamid

Crime in the city

The most engaging examples of crime fiction show you not only how their protagonist’s mind works, but also how the city they are operating in works: the Edinburgh of John Rebus, the various Italian cities of Aurelio Zen, the Bangkok of Sonchai Jitpleecheep. With his debut novel The Prisoner, Omar Shahid Hamid lets the reader see through the eyes of deputy superintendent Constantine D’Souza of Karachi’s Central Prison and also get an insight into the city.

The Prisoner starts with a jihadi group’s kidnapping of American journalist Jon Friedland—a name perhaps not intentionally similar to that of British journalist Jonathan Freedland—from an upmarket Karachi neighbourhood. The group’s threat to execute Friedland on Christmas Day, just before the US president visits Pakistan, puts great pressure on the police and intelligence agencies and prompts high-level efforts to rescue him.

D’Souza is asked to assist on the case by facilitating discussions between intelligence officials and his old colleague Akbar Khan, now an inmate of D’Souza’s jail, but still the person most likely to know where Friedland might be.

Constantine—known to most people as “Consendine"—belongs to Karachi’s Goan Christian community (curiously he is not a Catholic; his father, we are told, is an Anglican preacher). Being Christian has frequently been an asset in his field of work, as he is viewed as impartial and beyond sectarian politics: “Since he was considered an outsider, a member of a minority community and therefore unobtrusive, nobody had anything to fear from him."

While the search for the American journalist provides a framework for the story, The Prisoner is really an exploration of Karachi’s corruption, politics and violence, and the events and machinations that over the years have formed the various characters’ personalities and behaviour. D’Souza and his imprisoned friend Khan have a long history, and the novel moves back and forth between the past and present, building our understanding of current events.

The picture Hamid paints of Karachi’s police, politicians, religious leaders and criminal networks is pretty depressing; at one point D’Souza notes that to have optimism is the ultimate sin. Unsurprisingly, as a policeman of 12 years, Hamid is sympathetic to how the police operate. D’Souza describes the intelligence officer Major Rommel as “an honourable man learning to survive in a dishonourable world", and that description could apply equally to some of the novel’s police characters. They are certainly no heroes, but they nevertheless show commitment and bravery while working within an immensely corrupt and brutal system.

The author’s father, Malik Shahid Hamid, managing director of the Karachi Electric Supply Company, was murdered in 1997, and senior police officer Chaudhry Aslam—on whom the character Akbar Khan is based, and who was killed by a Taliban car bomb recently—delivered the news to the family that the killer had been caught. In interviews Hamid has said that he joined the police because of Aslam, and has spoken of his belief that the police can act as a transformational body. He chose to work in the Crime Investigation Department with Aslam, who became his mentor.

While the police are treated with an element of sympathy in the book, various religious leaders are described with cynicism—“The only battle that one will be fighting will be the battle to get sober in time for the dawn prayers"—as are the politicians—“Jail was to subcontinental leaders what Oxbridge or the Ivy League were to their western counterparts—a finishing school where the true pedigree of a leader could be given the final touches. It was a rite of passage without which the public would never quite trust you."

The novel’s technique of jumping backwards and forwards in time takes a while to get used to, but ultimately proves to be effective in building the story. The dialogue is unfortunately lengthy and flat at times, and the narrative suffers from occasional jarring shifts in points of view, even from one paragraph to the next. The story, however, is strong enough to pull the reader along regardless.

The Prisoner is based on real events such as the kidnapping of journalist Daniel Pearl and the killing of Mir Murtaza Bhutto, son of Pakistan’s former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, but it can be appreciated without any familiarity with Pakistani politics. It is a fast-paced, engaging read, and D’Souza is an interesting character that I hope Hamid develops and brings back in subsequent novels. The book’s principal character, however, is the city of Karachi itself, and more of its stories should be told.

The author is a writer and translator based in Bangalore.

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