A moderately seasoned writer, Sorayya Khan has already written a couple of novels, Noor and Five Queen’s Road, that have established her as a writer who possesses a sound knack for being able to describe things vividly with a marked linguistic clarity. Her latest endeavour, City of Spies is situated primarily in Islamabad and briefly in Lahore. The main action takes place from mid-1977 through late-1979. Although this period in Pakistan witnessed important national events such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s execution and Gen Ziaul Haq’s subsequent consolidation of power, this particular political perspective of the novel simply acts as a backdrop to the far more central coming-of-age story of its pre-teen protagonist, Aliya. Indeed, Bhutto and Gen Zia appear almost incidental to the main story itself; their names serve the situational purpose of anchoring the book during a particular period of time in Pakistan’s interesting political history. Given how a number of modern South Asian fiction writers overwhelm their creations with political ramifications, this approach is both refreshing and uncommon on the part of its author.
The daughter of a Pakistani, Javid, who relocates from Europe to Pakistan with his Dutch-born wife, Irene, Aliya is the youngest of three siblings. Her older sister Lehla and brother Amir are marginal figures in the tale — far more major to the general plot is the family’s loyal servant, Sadiq. In the early portion of the novel, Aliya is portrayed as being far more influenced by Sadiq’s family dynamics than she is by those of her own relatives (up to and including her rather formidable paternal grandfather). Shortly after the commencement of the novel, an American expatriate’s car kills Sadiq’s pre-teen son, Hanif, in a hit-and-run accident on a poorly lit road. The episode is made even more poignant by the heart-rending and ironic fact that the boy had gone shopping for shoes with his father, so that he could eventually negotiate the local roads better. This tragedy acts as the implicit lynchpin for the novel; most of the plot relates, either directly or indirectly, to the unfortunate manslaughter of the child.
Khan does an admirable job of outlining Aliya’s angst at being half-white, and hence constantly having issues with her identity. Even though she attends an American school and boasts a close friend, Lizzy Simon, who is American, Aliya invariably feels out of place in the predominantly ‘desi’ Pakistani milieu of her home. Javid and his father are, in spite of the former’s relatively liberal marriage, quintessentially Pakistani and patriarchal when it comes to major aspects of their outlook on life. Indeed, one of the most superbly constructed characters in terms of structure and authenticity is Aliya’s mother Irene, whom the reader cannot help but praise for both her Dutch common sense as well as the way she expertly adjusts to life amongst the Pakistanis.
Mother figures remain subtle influences within the precincts of the plot, but are nonetheless central for Khan’s book. Lizzy’s mother Anne Simon harbours a guilty secret that ends up affecting the lives of more individuals than just those of her own family members. The book succeeds in drawing readers into it in a manner whereby we are all called upon to actively judge the actions of its characters—indeed, it is impossible to engage effectively with Khan’s text unless one does so. However, to note that Khan’s writing diametrically polarises American and Pakistani culture would be reductive to the point of being unfair. If anything, the text consistently draws one’s attention to the truism that the ’70s in Pakistan comprised a decade in which, due to the frequent interaction between Pakistanis and members of other cultures, national boundaries became prone to considerable ambiguity. Towards the latter portion of the book, a Pakistani man begins to obsessively stalk the street where Anne and her family live — while this is understandable within the context of the plot, it does not detract from the undeniably disturbing point that the dissolving of cultural boundaries can have far-reaching implications that are as morally significant as they are nationalistic. Khan’s ability to effortlessly combine narrative suspense with moral reasoning is commendable, and it is testament to the ease with which she writes that her work steers clear of preaching and pedantry.
In spite of being blessed with a sensible, no-nonsense mother, Aliya develops a number of complexes about having a paler skin tone than most of the people of her country, and later a far more disturbing attitude towards how this ties into superiority and a sense of entitlement. Yet this does not prevent her from enjoying a relatively healthy childhood friendship with Lizzy, whose American background does not present any real impediments to the development of her pleasant, friendly interactions with Aliya. It is always sad to watch children grow up too fast, but Aliya has no choice other than to do so, especially once the tragic aforementioned accident takes place. Khan skilfully describes Aliya’s touching personal relationship with Sadiq, who among other things teaches her Urdu, and the reader gradually becomes fully convinced that the protagonist’s loyalty towards this valuable servant provides the novel with much of its sincere emotional momentum.
Certainly the late ’70s were a tense time for politics in general and Pakistan in particular insofar as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s hanging, Gen Zia’s ‘Islamisation’ of the state, the hostage situation in Tehran, and the occupation of the Kaaba were concerned. All these events are specifically alluded to in the novel; the most major and traumatic political motif, however, involves the burning of the American embassy in Islamabad. In a manner similar to Bina Shah’s A Season for Martyrs and Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone, Khan’s book incrementally builds up towards a gripping political climax. In Shah’s case it is Benazir Bhutto’s fatalistic automobile journey, in Shamsie’s it is the Peshawar massacre of the ’30s, and in Khan’s novel, things come to a head with anti-American tensions erupting in sensitive areas of the nation’s capital. Not only does she effectively describe the justified fright that Aliya and Lizzy experience at their American school that day, she also deftly ties in this major episode with the novel’s ultimate conclusion — several years later — where all mysteries are clearly explained.
Based on this book it is evident that one of Khan’s greatest strengths as an emerging voice of Pakistani fiction is her ability to maintain equal levels of control over both plot and character. Far too often, novelists are unable to seamlessly merge political events with the mundane domestic machinations of their plots. Fortunately this is not a problem for Khan, and might count as the main reason why her novel’s pace and momentum never flag. At times, the heightened dramatic quality of her work gives it the feel of a tear-jerker Indian film, but this is not overall a displeasing effect, especially since the fundamental purpose of novels is to entertain as opposed to instruct. In spite of the inevitable racist undercurrents of the book, and the characters’ highly strung reactions, a genuine warmth and sweetness pervades the text at many junctures largely due to Khan’s portrayal of universal family values that transcend both class and culture.
We are left with a plethora of positive private images including Irene lovingly baking Dutch treats for her family, Aliya’s grandfather taking care of his granddaughter during the tensions at the embassy, and Sadiq paying close attention to Aliya reading Urdu newspapers. This helps alleviate difficult angst-ridden scenes such as those where Javid, who is the head of the Water and Power Development Authority, rages against Gen Zia’s policies, Sadiq’s half-crazed reactions when he discovers where the killer of his son resides, and numerous moments where Aliya experiences a type of self-loathing that while understandable is nonetheless rather painful to witness regardless of one’s personal background. On turning the last page one cannot help but feel that Khan should be commended for structuring a work of fiction that both furthers the overall development of Pakistani fiction and joins the ranks of entertaining and well-written modern novels.
City of Spies
By Sorayya Khan