Stories based on crime are of interest to many readers. They highlight the socio-legal stalemate in society. However, as popular as it is, crime fiction is generally considered less important than literary fiction by the critics because of a lack of nuanced characters in them. As a response to this age-old criticism, we have seen novelists come up with intricate plots driven by the interaction of complex characters against a backdrop of criminal activity, thus lending a sort of literary credibility to the genre. Shehr-i-Beymeher [The Cruel City] is one such novel that explores the impact of social evils on various people inhabiting that society. It brings out the vicious circle of violence that is sustained by the transformation of the victims into perpetrators of violence later in life.
Written by accomplished journalist Hassan Javed, the novel has all the familiar characters that come up in news stories, such as police officers, social workers, politicians, criminals, terrorists etc. However, Javed has been quite successful in dramatising the interplay among these characters as he tries to dig deep inside their psychological makeup. He touches upon several social evils in society, including some topics which are regarded as taboo by many of our writers. The storyline is kept intriguing by the introduction of new twists and each character has its own strengths and weaknesses. Some of them have a larger-than-life charisma and prove to be the main drivers of the story. However, no character is painted in the binary opposition of good and bad, as Javed shows that there can be a surprising code of ethics followed by the criminals and there can be questionable compromises made by apparently noble characters.
Javed structures the story in a number of chapters of short length. His commentary on many social issues is subtle, but there are certain dilemmas of our society which he brings out through detailed discussions between various characters. One such example is the problem of how to bring about social change. Can it be brought about only through social work, or is the political struggle important for a meaningful and thorough reform of society? Should social workers engage in the tactics of power politics if they decide to reform society through political processes, or should they remain committed to their principles? In a good example of fiction writing, Javed’s readers are allowed to form their own opinion regarding these questions.
The title of the novel captures the essence of the story by depicting an urban society where every character, in his or her own way, is searching for meaning in life and a sense of belongingness. Their circumstances show them various paths, their life experiences guide their choices and their actions consequently impact other characters. The exploration of this phenomenon also leads to the discovery of some darker aspects of our society where our base instincts, psychological pressures and violence interact.
Interestingly, Javed shows a penchant for painting a gripping story in his debut novel. His canvas is the society that lacks rule of law, his colours are the characters produced by such a society, and his strokes are the circumstances arising out of the interaction between these characters. Resultantly, we see a work of art that is rich in its composition and has multiple layers of meaning. In short, it is a good addition to contemporary Urdu fiction. I, for sure, look forward to reading more stories penned by Javed.
The reviewer is a civil servant and freelance writer
By Hassan Javed
Badalti Duniya, Islamabad
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 1st, 2019