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.