Tales featuring jinns, fairies and other mystical creatures have been employed by adults in almost every South Asian household to check the mischief of restless children, put unsavoury morsels of khichrri down their throats, or as part of bedtime storytelling rituals. For those grown-ups who are still intrigued by the paranormal, they should prepare to be blown away by comedian Sami Shah’s eerie and imaginative debut thriller, Boy of Fire and Earth.

The novel follows the story of a boy who is deposited at the doorstep of a childless couple in Karachi one night by a mysterious creature made of smokeless fire. Becoming the only child of a couple that had been deprived of this blessing, the boy — now named Wahid — is coddled by his parents, Mumtaz and Rehman, and grows up into a teenager filled with hopes and dreams, and always busy devouring the fictional worlds in books and comics.

However, things go terribly awry when, on the way back from a party with the girl he loves in the passenger seat of his car and a friend passed out in the back seat, Wahid is attacked by a pair of jinns. Wahid manages to kill one of them through some mysterious power within him. Enraged by the loss of his partner, the other jinn abducts the soul of Maheen, Wahid’s love, in an act of vengeance. The first half of the book, titled ‘Fire Boy’, revolves around Wahid’s quest to get in touch with this jinn and retrieve Maheen’s soul — a quest that takes Wahid through the dark side of Karachi where he navigates his way through dangers known and unknown.

An imaginative debut that veers away from the tried and tested formula of Pakistani English-language fiction

While subsequent events in Wahid’s life push the story forward, the plot slowly begins to lose pace. But just as one’s interest begins to wane, the story transforms rapidly in the second half, titled ‘Earth Boy’, that details Wahid’s journey through Kaf, the world inhabited by jinns. In his journey to Kaf, Wahid is accompanied by Iblis, the devil. It is on this journey that the truths about Wahid’s origins, the Day of Judgement, and the city he lives in are revealed to him.

The descriptions of jinns and other paranormal creatures and people’s encounters with them in the novel seem to have been borrowed generously from the bedtime stories many of us heard from our grandmothers, as well as from the Holy Quran. Even the epigraph is a verse from the Quran that reads: “And verily, We created mankind from sounding clay of altered smooth mud and the jinn We created from smokeless fire (15:26-27).” Even so, Shah does a great job of making these portrayals come alive through vivid imagery, crisp prose and his comical imagination, making them all the more palpable.

The city in which the novel is based is central to the plot; Karachi is captured by the writer in all its raw and menacing beauty. Descriptions of the city are soaked in dark undertones that serve to augment the sinister mood of the plot. The writer also seems to exhibit a penchant for gore and grisly details in quite a few of the scenes, thus serving to make the story creepier.

The most striking element of the book is how the parallel worlds of Karachi and Kaf are so seamlessly infused into each other, yet manage to continue maintaining their own individual, horror-infested existence. The two worlds are equally gruesome, each fraught with monsters and unspeakable horrors, and a comparison between them seems to leave the reader torn as to which one is more terrifying.

She was more than a full foot above him, his head level with the curve of her bosom. The shawl was wound tightly around her and Rehman couldn’t help but admire how it shone. It was the finest cloth he had ever seen, luminous in the moonlight as it swelled and rippled. Her face —framed inside a cave of shadows — was dark and beautiful; skin so black it gleamed like onyx. But it was the eyes that frightened him, so much that the knife fell from his grip and clattered noisily onto the ground... “Allahu Akbar,” he whispered, awe and fear mixing in his voice, “you are a jinn.” — Excerpt from the book

The only places where the book disappoints are the chapters titled ‘Interlude’ that are scattered throughout the story and detail isolated encounters of strangers with jinns. Though decked with suspense and horror, the interludes in the first half leave the reader wondering how they tie into the main plot, and why they are left like stray threads that couldn’t be weaved into the larger web of the story.

In certain places, the book also tends to stray off topic in its musings on Karachi, terrorism, politics and the overall state of affairs in the country; for instance, when Wahid visits a university professor who has found a way to solve the country’s power crisis by harnessing energy from jinns. Such musings are better placed in a political thriller. Other than that, the book is a remarkable blend of satire, comedy and horror that makes for an entertaining and gripping read that will leave one well-spooked.

Shah, combining his skills as a comedian and a storyteller and his wild and terrorising imagination, does a marvellous job of concocting a provocative and chilling fantasy thriller. Where very few Pakistani writers have dared to venture into the realm of fantasy and magical realism, Shah’s well-crafted and stunning debut must be commended for its audacity, for it not only proves the writer’s mettle as a comedian, but also puts him on the map of South Asian fiction as a wordsmith of page-turning thrillers.

The reviewer is an undergraduate student at the Lahore University of Management Sciences

Boy of Fire and Earth
By Sami Shah
Picador, India
ISBN: 978-9386215147
358pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 24th, 2017

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