Imtiaz presents a gritty yet humourous narrative that takes the reader through the inner workings of a national newspaper, political rallies, literature festivals and socialites at fashion week. We experience all this through a reporter’s lens as Ayesha jets from pressers to rallies in rickshaws and taxis all the while working through her plentiful personal issues, topmost among which is finding a suitable man to date in the wasteland that is Karachi.
In describing life as usual, Imtiaz takes on the many serious issues facing journalists in the field today — safety (or lack thereof), the deficient infrastructure and support, and the alarming rate at which journalists are being recruited by political parties to report as required. The story is told uniquely, from an advantage point of Imtiaz’s years spent being a reporter in Karachi for one of the country’s leading newspapers.
Imtiaz aptly packs Karachi’s myriad idiosyncrasies and nuances neatly into a narrative that spans everything that is relative to and reflective of Karachi’s inherent fabric — from the bomb blasts to terrorism reports, the CNG crisis, politicians’ tiresome and endless security detail and much more, highlighting what is necessary to grasp quickly all that is wrong with Karachi today.
Another arc to the plot includes Ayesha’s abysmal personal life. Her life as a single female reporter revolves around work mainly, and she complains of the lack of candidates worth dating in the city. Between rich men lost in a listless sense of ennui and obnoxious fellow journalists, her options remain plainly limited.
All this, juxtaposed with her chasing the city’s best bun kababs and gorging on copious amounts of chilli chips, doesn’t let the reader forget for a moment they are in fact are travelling with the protagonist through the underbelly of Karachi, where gang wars are common and gang leaders carry the latest iPhones.
Escape seems to be on Ayesha’s mind constantly and that pulsating restlessness and anxiety is the force that pushes her forward to expose the flaws of the system as much as it sustains her and fuels her journalistic ambitions. The holy grail of being hired by a foreign media organisation is persistent throughout the novel and Ayesha envies those who have succeeded in being recruited by foreign organisations and moving away from Karachi, “where life and love come to die.”What is carried out with especial bravado are the newspaper’s headlines of the day that begin each chapter, each more laughable than the other, leaving one to seriously ponder over the dire state of affairs of our news media in general: “MQM sends haleem and nihari to prime minister,” “City wears anti-dengue look,” “Big black ghost lands many factory workers in the hospital,” and the best, “Taliban accuse Pakistani government of using sorcery and black magic.”
As Ayesha manoeuvres her way through Karachi’s journalistic circles, she aptly describes the media flux within which all sorts of people come together, roles overlapping. Foreign correspondents and fixers that are reflective of a post 9/11 state of affairs, along with the requisite diplomats and local journalists, are posited alongside each other, exemplifying the cutthroat landscape within which they engage in the harrowing game of survival. In one particular chapter, Imtiaz cleanly mocks the cliché of writing a story on gang wars in Lyari (every transient foreign correspondent’s “it” assignment to announce they are now legitimate reporters based in Pakistan) and pays homage to all those who are both genuine and pseudo in the land of the pure.
This delicate comparison — something she excels at drawing, takes us deeper into this world, showing us a microcosm in the form of the tiny journalistic community. Her very brash and witty accounts remind one of Kim Barker’s book on her life as a reporter in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as she describes the military-embedded reporter’s war stories in a similarly witty tone. But where Barker employs dark humour to tell her tale, Imtiaz’s account comes off more as a rant against Karachi’s many flaws. Occasionally, they bring her a smile.
The book lauds those who speak out against all that is wrong with the country today, such as the character of Samir Khan whose father was shipped of to Guantanamo and held without charge for several years. She is equally quick to denounce politicians’ daughters “decked in diamonds and Bottega Veneta clutches with no good explanation as to how they can afford them” thus pointing out the vast intellectual disparity between these two groups of people living in the same city.
Amidst the persistent air of doom and gloom and much more that is Karachi (a city obsessed with Humsafar, Turkish soap operas and cricket betting), Imtiaz still manages to carve out a narrative of hope that is the driving force of the millions that trudge along here, giving her book thus the clichéd happy-ever-after ending. Her narrative is articulate and fast-paced, and doesn’t disinterest the reader for a moment. All in all, it is a book for those who share her feelings about dystopic Karachi and care for a light, wholehearted look at the city and its many demons.
Karachi, You’re Killing Me!
By Saba Imtiaz
Random House, India