COVER: The Spinner’s Tale by Omar Shahid Hamid

Published July 5, 2015
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro
The Spinner’s Tale

By Omar Shahid Hamid
The Spinner’s Tale By Omar Shahid Hamid

A BOOK that one simply will not be able to put down, Omar Shahid Hamid’s new novel The Spinner’s Tale is an exciting and worthy follow-up to his bestseller, The Prisoner. Revolving around the complex figure of a notorious Pakistani terrorist Sheikh Ahmed Uzair Sufi, casually referred to as Ausi throughout the story, the plot delineates many aspects of Ausi’s development including the political, the familial, the psychological, and even the spiritual. An even and well-modulated tone of writing appears to be one of the novel’s primary strengths, and in spite of the fact that some of the plot machinations appear to be a little far-fetched, to quote the noted Romantic poet Samuel Coleridge the engrossed reader is more than willing to “suspend disbelief” in order to enjoy the tale its skillful author spins out for us.

Indeed the Romantic poets were firmly of the opinion that John Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost was a far more attractive figure than either God or Christ, and on a level that may be different in scale, though not essence. This point fully applies to Ausi in Hamid’s novel. Shrewd beyond belief, diabolically driven, and freely described by the hapless police as one of the most “hardened criminals”, at the beginning of the novel, the captive Sheikh Uzair is transferred from a Hyderabad prison to one in the desolate Nara desert of Khairpur. The reason given to the assistant superintendent of police, Omar Abassi, by city-based inspector, Shahab, is that the Sheikh is so winningly persuasive that the police cannot be trusted to maintain him securely in a less isolated environment. A determined and diligent officer who has based his entire career on meticulous hard work, Abassi takes it upon himself to investigate Ausi’s past. The terrorist proves to be a charming — albeit proud and stubborn — individual who entices Abassi’s curiosity by encouraging him to peruse letters exchanged between Ausi and an old school friend of his, intimating that this may well be worth Abassi’s time and energy.

Intrigued by the fact that Ausi attended the toniest and most exclusive private school in the country (spookily referred to by Hamid and his characters as simply “The School” throughout the novel), Abassi realises that his prisoner, though originally from the urban middle classes, possesses a social finesse that places him in a different league from most run-of-the-mill terrorists. In spite of Sha-hab’s well-meant warnings that he should engage the prisoner as little as possible, especially since Ausi numbers the ruthless beheading of a pregnant British journalist among his many crimes, Abassi hubristically begins to believe that he can, via the letters, solve the mystery behind Ausi’s subtlest motivations. Hamid engages in some excellent thumbnail sketches of his minor and supporting characters alike: the worldly-wise Shahab, sundry other members of the hierarchy of the police force, Ausi’s school friends (the likeable and moneyed Eddy, and the spirited yet confused Sana), The School’s iron-willed headmistress, and numerous family members of the more major characters.

The bulk of the plot is supported by an exchange of letters, predominantly between Ausi and his closest male school friend Adnan ‘Eddy’ Shah, whose genuine liking for each other gradually metamorphoses into something more insidious and sinister. This is perfectly in keeping with the development of Ausi’s character and motivations over the chronological course of the narrative. Nevertheless, one should add that one of the structural flaws of the novel is that Eddy’s writing style, and indeed the very length of his letters, are not strictly harmonious with either his age or his relaxed personality. Since Hamid uses the narrative device of the letters to further his plot, the author may, however, be excused for this slip-up, especially since one gets so caught up in perusing the content of the letters that one forgets that even most devil-may-care students would not have spent time writing them.

The letters do prove to be eminently revealing, although plain common sense should have dictated that Abassi should be wary of pursuing any leads put forward by his terrorist prisoner himself! Sana and Eddy come across as a pair of good-hearted members of Karachi’s elite, who do their best to create a more inclusive social environment for Ausi than he may have expected at a school which appears to pride itself on its age, moral fibre, moneyed connections, and above all reputation. Indeed, Sana bitterly notes towards the end of the book that The School was ultimately never concerned about anything other than reputation.

Ironically, Ausi’s acquired elitism and class-consciousness are what implicitly drive him to become a bona-fide member of the crème de la crème of terrorists! There is an almost humorous scene midway through the novel, where Ausi appears unimpressed when he meets Osama bin Laden in person, dismissing him privately as “a spoilt rich boy looking for thrills”. Unable, due to financial constraints, to attend college abroad (unlike the more affluent Sana and Eddy), Ausi enrolls at a Pakistani medical college, only to become a dropout. Since his mother is Kashmiri he engages wholeheartedly with Kashmir’s military endeavours against the Indians. Although he is captured and suffers horrific torture at the hands of the Indians, his ‘career’ continues to move on a distinctly upward trajectory, and even though his attempts to assassinate the president fail twice, he becomes a force to be reckoned with on the geopolitical stage.

Abassi knows all this, but part of him chooses to foolishly suppress this knowledge as he doggedly pursues all the leads relating to Sana and Eddy that he can find. Within the letters themselves, Hamid proves especially good at authentically depicting the angst and conflicts of young Pakistanis living abroad, so much so that even the reader forgets to question why Abassi believes that a bunch of letters — that may or may not be authentic — will provide precious clues to understanding the inner mental workings of a phenomenally dangerous man.

Since Hamid served on the police force himself for a number of years, some of the best-written and most enjoyable parts of his novel are those that deal with internecine police politics and the challenges faced by junior and senior keepers of the law. Midway through the novel, however, one does begin to get the sense that the book is structurally disjointed. At times the narrative’s pace is so rapid that one finds it difficult to keep track of the content of the letters, the umpteen and passionate references to cricket, Eddy and Sana’s relationship, Ausi’s career — which geographically takes him from Pakistan and Britain, to Kosovo, Kashmir, and India — and Abassi’s search which has him shuttling frenetically between Khairpur and Karachi.

Political thrillers such as those of Dan Brown and Steve Berry often suffer from inadequate character development. Fortunately, The Spinner’s Tale does not. However, at times it is obvious that Hamid needs to compromise on structural smoothness, especially when going into greater depth insofar as character development and analysis is concerned. Had the book been longer and its action paced out more extensively this problem might have been circumvented. On occasion the text begins to read like an enhanced film script, which is hardly surprising given that Hamid takes pains to accentuate the more visual aspects of his work. His descriptions of the Khairpur facility, The School, the brutal execution of the British journalist, Ausi being sexually abused by a huge male Indian simply referred to as “the Jinn”, and Abassi’s ultimate fate are both gripping and memorable.

In spite of the fact that Ausi can safely be described as cruel, ruthless, and unmitigated evil, what is most disturbing is that many readers will end up liking him even as they recoil from what he does. Part of this is due to the detached, objective, and light manner in which Hamid delineates sequences of important events — a technique that feeds into an entertaining read. Part of it arises from the manner in which we are given an authentic portrayal of the young Ausi before he turned into the notorious criminal Sheikh Uzair. That Hamid possesses a truly sound grasp of psychology is evident from that fact that even when his characters ostensibly take us by surprise we cannot claim that they are behaving in a way that does not genuinely resonate with the careful manner in which they have been created.

Although The Spinner’s Tale may appeal most to its Pakistani readers, who will be able to relate to virtually every cultural nuance portrayed, it will also interest readers on a more global level, primarily because Hamid is a sound storyteller who takes pains to keep one’s interest sustained quite literally from commencement up to the very last page. Those who approach this book expecting nothing but a relentless series of harsh and frightening encounters will be pleasantly surprised. In aggregate, the novel honours the fictional realm that it sets up by prioritising the recounting of an entertaining story over and above moral proselytising. In a manner similar to the inimitable film The Talented Mr. Ripley about a conman whom one admires as much as one despises, Hamid’s engaging writing and graceful vocabulary ensures that one enjoys the novel in spite of — or perhaps because of — all its disturbing undercurrents and subtly ambiguous dynamics.


The Spinner’s Tale

(NOVEL)

By Omar Shahid Hamid

Pan Macmillan, India

ISBN 978-9382616443

300pp.

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