Compared to a few decades ago, Pakistani literature is making huge strides these days, not only in the amount of content that Pakistani authors are producing, but also in the diversity of genres that they’re choosing to dabble in. While a majority of the books being written do have a certain narrow-minded focus on politics or religion — understandable in a country where so much of daily life is affected by these two factors — a number of writers are choosing to take a different path, veering into the lesser touched of the genres.
Amongst the best outcomes of this defiant risk-taking in Pakistani writing is the emerging interest in all things supernatural. With the joyous indulgence of Sami Shah’s Boy of Fire and Earth duology in all kinds of South Asian horror tropes, and Usman Tanweer Malik’s Bram Stoker Award-winning short stories, Pakistani writers are slowly gaining visibility in the marketplace, and the latest entry in this genre is Imran Kureshi’s In the Realm of Demons.
Combining historical fiction with a touch of both supernatural as well as horror, the author has managed to craft a pretty captivating story, given that this is only his debut novel. Starting off in pre-Partition India, we meet our hero as a young Rajput aristocrat in the royal palace of Hashtpur, an imaginary equivalent of a subcontinental princely state. Left with his widowed mother at the mercy of his uncle after his father’s untimely death, Mehran spends his days being unaware of the politics of the palace. Instead, he is too busy being enamoured with his young cousin, Koyel, the daughter produced as the result of a hasty love marriage in the nawab of Hashtpur’s youth, who is treated with as much disdain in the household as Mehran himself.
It is the curse on the nawab’s family — that each eldest child will be beheaded at the appearance of every red moon — that acts as a catalyst for our hero’s journey. On one balmy night in August 1945, a red moon appears and, while the nawab’s eldest son from his second marriage is hurriedly taken away for protection, his actual first child — his daughter Koyel — becomes a victim of the curse, carted off into oblivion by some unseen demon and never seen again.
A debut novel makes an impact as a captivating story, combining historical fiction with a touch of both supernatural as well as horror
Distraught at the disappearance of his cousin, Mehran grows up lonely but unable to focus on his misery given that Partition soon happens in the subcontinent — an event that affects not only the religious communities of the subcontinent, but also the princely states that dot the region. Moving into a decaying mansion in the newly created Pakistan with his mother, Mehran is forced to grow up quickly, handling finances and learning how to make adult decisions to keep his small family in respectable conditions. Kureishi does a good job in moments such as these of entwining the reality of living in that moment of history alongside the strands of the creepy and the unexplainable that run in his story. However, he never takes long to thread the story back into one where demons and djinns run amok, with spectres haunting nightmares and whispers in the dark that coalesce into mystical beings.
One of the most fascinating things about this book might be the fact that it actually does manage to create a pretty terrifying ambience for the reader, keeping the reader in a state of just enough heightened suspense to draw the scary parts into a moment where the heart starts to beat faster. It is the middle of the night when Mehran sees a vision of his young cousin Koyel, come to warn him that he is in danger. Galvanised by the thought of his cousin being alive, Mehran becomes obsessed with finding her, and it is this obsession that forms the majority of what we call the hero’s journey. From the pirs that he meets in his own city, to an exorcist with a demon for a wife that he bumps into at a wedding, Mehran becomes even more deeply intertwined in the mystery of his missing cousin as the book progresses.
This book manages to create a pretty terrifying ambience for the reader, keeping the reader in a state of just enough heightened suspense to draw the scary parts into a moment where the heart starts to beat faster.
Even beyond the fascinating multiple supernatural creatures that inhabit this book — from those in Mehran’s hometown, to the ones in Tibet where Mehran goes on a quest to find some answers, to a parallel demon-infested world with completely new and unique creatures — every aspect of the book feels like an author having fun with the world he is building. While the writing gets sketchy in a few places, with the dialogue placement becoming awkward and the sentences requiring some editing, there is still enough going on that can keep the reader hooked. Overall, there is definitely some odd phrasing in the book here and there, and the entire manuscript could have used a more deft editorial hand to clean out the awkwardness in the flow of the writing. But in some cases, it is the story that is more important than the means by which it is told, and Kureishi’s book might be a true example of this very phenomenon.
The novel also suffers slightly from the weak love story and the fact that Mehran is obsessed with a cousin he knew before he had even hit his teen years. While all stories which involve an epic journey require some reason for our protagonist to set out on his or her quest in the first place, in the case of this book it can stretch the reader’s disbelief a little that Mehran chooses to face such vicious, possibly life-threatening creatures, in the dark and alone, repeatedly, for someone he saw when he was so young. While it’s clear that the author had the more exciting aspects of the story planned out, a little forethought in this case would have served him well. As it is, though, it is the action and the suspense of the story that acts as the saving grace of the narrative, keeping us reading even when we must suspend disbelief in certain parts.
It is sad that Pakistan doesn’t have a booming film industry for books of this genre, because with the recent interest in all things supernatural, the possibility of an eager viewing audience for such stories is great. In the Realm of Demons might not win any awards for great literature, but it’s a quick-paced and fun read, worthy of a little time spent tucked in bed and reliving the way horror films make us feel. While we already have so many authors writing about the serious and alarming parts of living in Pakistan, it is authors such as Kureshi that need all the encouragement we can give them, to ensure that literature such as this continues to be produced in the same manner.
The reviewer is an editor of children’s fiction
In the Realm of Demons
By Imran Kureishi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 24th, 2019