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

Shehr-i-Beymeher
By Hassan Javed
Badalti Duniya, Islamabad
ISBN: 978-9697753239
304pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 1st, 2019

Opinion

Wheat import and food security
22 Oct 2021

Wheat import and food security

Wheat is the only commodity which justifies government intervention as the poor strata cannot be left at the mercy of the market
Living with Covid
Updated 22 Oct 2021

Living with Covid

Mental health professionals have been warning that Covid has brought with it a depression crisis.
Cricket aggression
Updated 22 Oct 2021

Cricket aggression

Good thinking, good plans and good execution will create a quality institution that can produce great teams.
Markets and disinformation
Updated 21 Oct 2021

Markets and disinformation

Journalists should be allowed to work freely as Pakistan's weak investor sentiment can't bear burden of an avalanche of fake news.

Editorial

Spate of attacks
Updated 22 Oct 2021

Spate of attacks

Following a near-constant decline since 2016, the year 2021 has witnessed a precipitous rise in violence-related fatalities in KP.
22 Oct 2021

Libel suits

THE outcome of two libel cases recently decided by courts in England should be edifying for the government — if it...
22 Oct 2021

Education losses

A NEW report on the education losses suffered by Pakistani children due to pandemic-induced school closures sheds...
Not just cricket
Updated 21 Oct 2021

Not just cricket

Hype surrounding the match — sold out as soon as tickets sales opened — has overshadowed the other games, as well as other teams.
Local governance
21 Oct 2021

Local governance

The court ruling restoring local institutions in Punjab should go a long way in ensuring the continuation of grassroots democracy.
21 Oct 2021

Breast cancer awareness

LIKE so many other issues relating to women’s health in Pakistan, breast cancer is not a subject of serious...