So I was excited upon the book’s release and I read the book (courtesy: Tranquebar Press) and yes there were times I was taken aback and then there were times I didn’t know what to do with the emotions surging within me. Why you ask? Well the book is but like this and there is no hiding from its raw and brutal intensity at times.
The plot is fairly simple: The narrator Shahbaz, a young Pakistani returns to his home city after an exile of 19 years from Paris to settle a family dispute. The setting is: 1970 Karachi. Pakistan was in turmoil as Karachi was preparing for Democracy seething and tearing at the seams with corruption, class tension and political fixation. The power balance is at its pinnacle between West Pakistan and the Bengalis of East Pakistan (which would soon convert to Bangladesh). Property dispute eventually pits Shahbaz against his paternal aunt in the eye of the storm – Mona Phuppi, who is not only strong-willed but also conniving.
Shahbaz on the other hand wants his good life back – the days of being a part of Karachi aristocracy and he will stop at nothing to get it back. That is the parallel story that runs throughout. Shahbaz enters the world of the rich and the famous through his father’s friend who runs a popular cabaret and is now a close associate of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The historical references are plenty throughout the book and I liked how the author stayed true to them (of course partly because he couldn’t distort history) and let the characters react to the events and be a part of the bigger picture than tell their own tales.
Shahbaz then goes through his own moral dilemma when he is asked to betray a friend to remain a part of the circle (he further gets acquainted with fundamentalists). Here what struck me was the way scenes were described – in an almost detached manner and maybe that’s why you can relate to it and read it from a third person perspective.
Invitation is a complex book on many levels – from creation of a democratic country to a country that is still stuck in ages gone by. One of the novel’s clear strengths is its evocation of the personalities he gets close to, from Ghulam Hussain, his Bengali chauffeur, to Mona Phuppi, his aunt, to Brigadier Alamgir, an old contact of his father’s who now runs the Agra Hotel, to Malika, a cabaret dancer from Cairo who performs nightly at the Agra. The character of Shahbaz himself is a curious mix: on the one hand, a self-questioning innocent who’s far from worldly-wise, and on the other, one who seeks out drugs and whores with equal avidity.
Invitation is a book full of colour and incidents. The prose is confident, unrestrained and deals with situations in a manner that is sleek – almost like a sleight of hand. The overall narrative of the book makes it a taut debut read – the one that I would recommend to almost everyone.
Invitation; Fazli, Shehryar; Tranquebar Press; Rs. 495