Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Abdullah, the delightful septuagenarian protagonist of H.M. Naqvi’s latest novel The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack, might be a ‘Cossack’ (having successfully imbibed his way to earning that name), but Naqvi himself is nothing short of a veritable Vaslav Nijinsky when it comes to negotiating the balletics of Pakistani Anglophone writing. Erudite yet entertaining, the Cossack’s story, in spite of his literally heavyweight frame and metaphorically heavyweight influence, gracefully pirouettes its way through the landscape of both Abdullah’s witty mind as well as the geographical terrain of Karachi in general, and Garden East in particular.

Buttressed by over 180 footnotes that are in themselves interesting enough to merit the price of the book, the novel centres on the latter years of the protagonist’s life, though he dwells plentifully on his childhood and youth through a series of digressions that concurrently enable one to piece together a mosaic of Karachi’s history from the 1940s through to the present day.

The second of five sons of a wealthy hotel proprietor, Abdullah grew up in a “custard-yellow” house in Garden East illuminatingly termed the Sunset Lodge, to which he remains deeply attached in his old age. He occupies part of it while his dull younger brother Rahimullah, aka Babu, lives on the mezzanine with his wife and adorably cute twin sons, Guddu and Toto. The plot follows the Cossack’s brothers’ attempts to get him to agree to sell the family home, but Abdullah stubbornly and nostalgically clings to the Lodge, the title deed of which was secretly passed on to him by his father as the patriarch lay dying. Fun facts about old Garden East emerge from time to time throughout the story, such as the point that, at one time, the area housed a synagogue (“Yahudi Masjid”!); indeed, Naqvi’s unyielding grasp of Shia, Goan and Jewish influences on the city is commendable.

With a protagonist impossible not to like and enjoyably ranging across aspects of Karachi’s art, culture, landscape and ethnic diversity, H.M. Naqvi’s latest will likely have a very long shelf-life

The novel contains a plethora of intriguing characters, including a young Christian boy called Bosco who has to be squirreled away with the Cossack for rather dramatic and sinister reasons, and a sensual free spirit called Jugnu who is fleeing her former lover — the formidable Lyari mobster Langra Sardar. The protagonist’s brothers are a truly motley crew comprising a communist, a playboy-turned-farmer and a couple of chauvinistic alpha males who are as different from the Cossack as chalk from cheese. Abdullah falls head over heels in love with Jugnu when she prevents a crowd from roughing him up, and both she and Bosco bring out the tender side of this well-read and good-humoured son of Karachi.

Overweight to the point of obesity and plagued by diabetes, Abdullah makes no apologies for having lived — and continuing to live — life to the fullest. A passionate philologist, his love for books is rivalled only by his love for food. The novel is told entirely in the first person and is peppered with bawdy and undeniably earthy jokes; Naqvi pulls no punches and spares no orifices when it comes to this literary move, even resorting to a filthy but funny classical Latin poem in one footnote which will have the reader in stitches if he or she bothers to look up the meaning of it.

On occasion the digressions seem unusually long, such as when the Cossack cooks karrahi chicken for Jugnu and goes on for over a page about Orange Pulao, but such passages only add to the charm of the book. Naqvi provides both a family tree of the main characters as well as a helpful glossary at the back (for those not familiar with Urdu vernacular), but his English demonstrates a deeply ingrained familiarity with the rhythms and idioms of the language, which enables the book to be appreciated on multiple levels. It helps, though, if one is as well-read as the author, but such readers will definitely be in the minority.

One footnote, for example, contains an implicit reference to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, but Naqvi simply embeds a quote from that sonnet within his writing, leaving it to the perceptive reader to discern the source. One must confess that the author is a bit of a trickster, but then the best writers of comedy generally are. Nevertheless, perusing the book with the aid of both caffeine and functional internet will be well worth the reader’s time, if for no other reason than because it provides one with a multi-dimensional and accurate view of aspects of Karachi’s art, culture, landscape and ethnic diversity (which is no mean feat).

Abdullah the Cossack is a character whom it is impossible not to like. Externally gruff and clumsy yet a gentle and true romantic at heart, irreverent though well informed about religion, fundamentally moral yet not beyond fiddling with the law when it suits him, his adventures sustain the rapid pace of the book which, in spite of the dozens of footnotes, never flags for an instant. At times I was reminded of fantasy writer Jonathan Stroud’s inimitable djinn Bartimaeus, whose narrative and digressions resonate with the same panache as those of Abdullah. Regardless of whether the Cossack is behind the wheel of an elegant, ancient Impala, wolfing down sandwiches at a funeral, ponderously chasing Jugnu, or liaising determinedly with some of Lyari’s deadliest thugs, he comes across as a man whose good heart and genial spirit help him deal with the trickiest of situations with consummate skill.

It would be maudlin to say that Naqvi appears to love Karachi as much as we end up loving the Cossack, but one should point out that, because of that undercurrent of passion, there is never a moment of indifference in this novel, either on the part of the protagonist or the author. Virtually every page is imbued with Naqvi’s trademark wit, and the almost childlike wonder that makes the septuagenarian Abdullah so memorable and believable a character. The author demonstrates an admirable eye for detail and manages to capture the essence of mausoleums, shrines, dhaabas, police stations, deserts, buildings and roads with breathtaking authenticity. In addition to this, his sense of comic timing is nothing short of impeccable. To deliberately but aptly misquote Alfred Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’: Cossacks, Russians, and Pakistanis alike “[reel] from the sabre stroke[s]” of Naqvi’s rapier wit!

Being an academic, I generally hesitate to predict if a book will acquire canonical status and withstand the test of time when it comes to carving its niche within literature, but it appears as if this oddly enchanting account of Abdullah the Cossack’s adventures will have a much longer shelf-life than both its author as well as its reviewers. While visiting the shrine of his namesake in Clifton, Abdullah refrains from having parrots tell his fortune since he prosaically believes that what is fated will come to pass. However, this well-written and thoroughly enjoyable novel begs the abovementioned prediction, regardless of what fate truly has in store for it.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

The Selected Works of
Abdullah the Cossack
By H.M. Naqvi
Fourth Estate, India
ISBN: 978-9353025953

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 17th, 2019