I recall three instances when a thriller novel left me wanting more. First, when back in the day, I devoured the Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson. My second exhilarating experience was when I read Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, which although is an autobiographical work, has all the elements of a thriller. My last and most recent instance was when I read Breath of Death by Saad Shafqat.
I will have to confess that I was a little intimidated when I heard the latter is a medical thriller. I hadn’t read this particular genre before and I thought it would be suffused with medical jargon, which would go over my non-medical head. However, I was also intrigued and eager to try something, which had been making the rounds, so I decided to give it a shot. And lo and behold, the novel was gripping enough to make me want more. My only disappointment, however, was when I reached the last page.
The main story line of the novel is based in Pakistan’s hub Karachi, but a generous portion is also set in America. An anonymous and unknown medical illness claims several lives in Karachi. The ill-fated victims more or less find themselves in a fictional ‘Avicenna University Hospital’, where Asad Mirza, a neurosurgeon freshly returned from medical residency in America, and his protégée Nadia Khan are trying to figure out the complex disease.
Alongside the duo’s quest to crack the riddle runs a sub-plot hatched by a terrorist network, aimed at the United States of America. How do these two plots come together? You certainly don’t want me to tell you, so read the novel to find out.
Shafqat’s writing is immensely readable and he avoids rhetoric. Despite the fact that the book is rich with medical information, it has a universal appeal. The story is inventive, with twists that could set one’s mind reeling.
The author also provides adequate social commentary with his depiction of a certain Pir Baba, found in abundance in Pakistani society. The ‘baba’ in the book lures an innocent unsuspecting disease-ridden woman with false claims of restoring her back to health only for the reader to find out that he clandestinely satisfies his lust with her. This particular instance in the novel was quite disturbing and speaks volumes of the many ills we are battling as a society. Moreover, the wretched female also has a chauvinistic husband and a demanding mother-in-law, both aplenty in our social set-up.
We see scathing criticism of America and its many wrongdoings in the book, a country that everyone loves to hate and we also see how that hate can even take hold of a highly erudite professor teaching in the one of the top universities in the world superpower and induce him to take part in the terror plot in the name of Jihad. Although this is frightening to an extent, it is also very revealing.
Having said as much, I cannot recommend this book enough. Go read it for a sure “Breath of Death” experience.
This scribe also caught up with author Saad Shafqat in a session to discuss Breath of Death and the art of reading and writing.
—Photo by Alisia Pex Xue Ning
How did you get started with writing Breath of Death?
The idea of penning down a novel came to me because I have always liked writing. I have been doing cricket writing for a while and have also written social pieces for some publications. I enjoy telling stories to friends and family members and seeing their interest gave birth to the idea of writing a book.
I started looking for a genre and it seemed befitting to write a medical novel, considering I am a physician seeing patients all the time in a hospital and clinic where there is a great deal of human drama. Illnesses and deaths are rampant, which is very tragic, but there is happiness too and a lot of intensity in taking care of sick patients. I conjoined these elements with social pressure, terrorism and extremist thinking and out came the novel.
What was the time span it took you to finish it? Were you at any point in time just tempted to push it aside?
It took a very long time. I started writing in about 2004 and it wasn’t until 2009 that I had a finished manuscript. You don’t require any credentials or qualifications required to write a novel. Anybody who has resolved to write one can do it, hence doing something so open-ended is a very long journey — you have to produce several pages to have a coherent story. When I had written about two-thirds of the novel, I realised I had invested too much to let it go to waste and using a lot of self-discipline, I completed the book. It took me a year to find a publisher and another two years before the novel came into print because the publishing industry moves at its own pace.
In retrospect, I can say that there were several instances when I felt discouraged mainly because I could never be certain whether the project would see light of day. In addition, a great deal of my enthusiasm depended on the right kind of mood so that I could sustain myself. There were instances when I would run out of steam and that could be quite demoralising. Having said that, what got me going despite the odds was that I got involved with my book’s characters during the entire process.
Were there many of your own medical experiences in the story?
Yes, absolutely. Unfortunately, brain illnesses, like the ones described in the book, are very critical leaving people handicapped for life. My colleagues and I encounter it all the time as neurologists. “Encephalitis”, which is the dominant illness in the novel, is from my own medical experience and thus made a very natural premise for the book.
Have you grown up reading a lot? If yes, please tell us your literary inspiration(s)?
I had very good English teachers back in school, especially a certain Ashfaque Hussain, who induced students to read outside the curriculum. His encouragement led me to read voraciously, particularly books by Enid Blyton, Hardy Boys and the “The Three Investigators” series by Alfred Hitchcock, which is more or less inconspicuous. During my adolescent years, I turned towards John Grisham and Robin Cook. The latter, being a medical novelist, has been my paradigm and certainly very inspirational.
I have also been inspired by a very important body of work brought out by Pakistani authors writing in English, especially Kamila Shamsie, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Mohammed Hanif, Mohsin Hamid and Shandana Minhas to name a few. They have also managed to garner a wide international audience and I was keen to follow their example.
How common are medical thrillers in Pakistan?
My natural inclination, when I conceived the idea of writing a book, was to explore something, which hadn’t been done before, and thus I zeroed in on a medical thriller. Another reason was also because I am a physician by profession.
Definitely, there are western authors writing in the medical genre like Robin Cook, but in Pakistan, I hadn’t come across a medical novelist.
It was very gratifying for me when Muneeza Shamsie, who was moderating the launch of my book at Liberty Books, said that it is the first medical novel she has read coming out of Pakistan.
What is the one book/author you feel everyone should read? Is there a genre that you particularly like?
It would have to be Ernest Hemingway, particularly his novella The Old Man and the Sea of which I have even memorised certain parts. Hemingway has a tremendous command of words, but he manages to keep his writing honest and lucid. He can work you into such passion with his words – and that in my opinion is the power of a novelist.
Where genre is concerned, I really like dark comedies, and I loved Mohammed Hanif’s book, The Case of Exploding Mangoes. It features such classic satire.
What is the earliest memory you have of writing a story?
I must have been in Class 5; and it was an off day from school. I had it in my head that I wanted to write a novel and convinced myself that it would not take much. I started writing but I was barely able to get past one paragraph. Later in my years at school, there was an instance where our English teacher asked us to write an essay describing a house of our imagination. I loved making it up from rooms to passages, etc. It was a hit with her because she made me read it out to the entire class.
Is there any novel in the pipeline?
Yes, I am trying to write a dark comedy novel set in a hospital. I have started working on it but haven’t reached very far.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Firstly, aspiring writers need to read manically. Reading gives the input that will create the output because I believe it is very difficult to create a novel from a vacuum. A good start would also be to contribute to publications because that gets one into the process of writing and helps in building contacts in the literary circuit.
Moreover, one should not ever get disheartened because the road to writing and publishing a novel is not without hurdles. There might be plenty of rejections before you can secure a publisher. I, too, underwent it when I approached Javed Miandad a couple of years ago to write his autobiography, and I wasn’t even a publisher author back then. He fired a couple of questions at me and upon discovering that I didn’t have anything to my credit, was so dismissive. I was extremely dejected, but my wife sat me down and told me not to lose hope. She said that I was trying to get noticed in the public domain and it would not be an obstacle-free journey. One needs to be persistent and thick-skinned to make a mark.
It is a huge setback that aspiring writers face difficulties in getting fiction novels published in Pakistan due to the dearth of credible publishing houses, but my advice is that they should aim for New Delhi, which is now a major centre for bringing out English fiction.
Lastly, writers should get their work evaluated by someone who can give them an insightful critique. Once satisfied that you have an honest opinion, just give it everything, and your product will definitely get noticed.
The reviewer is a Multimedia Content Producer at Dawn.com and considers books her best friends. She can be reached at email@example.com