Everyone, everywhere in the world, is the protagonist of a story. Some — one way or the other — bring their stories to fruition and put them to paper. In that vein, one character in the novel CPEC is the novelist himself, Shaheen Baranzai, and he comes up with such a story about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that readers could have hardly imagined.
A prolific, but publicity-shy writer, Baranzai has authored around 29 books — most of them in his native Brahui, one of the languages spoken by the Baloch people. Yet, he is very little known. As I review his novel, I have only now come across his contributions towards Brahui literature, despite being journalism friends for 10 years. In fact, as a working reporter, he introduced me to reporting.
To quickly recap the author’s journey of getting his debut Urdu novel published, Baranzai struggled for months to find the funds required to turn his story into book form. Finally, Haseena Malik, a lecturer of Farsi at the Government Girls Degree College, Mastung, and an enthusiast of Brahui literature, helped him produce 500 copies. Baranzai expresses his gratitude to the lady in the preface of the novel. Most copies he gave away for free, so he does not expect any royalty; he just wants his book to be read.
CPEC is set in Gwadar, the emerging port town in Pakistan. It follows the story of Waja Eido Baloch and his family. Baranzai writes of Waja: “despite all his peculiarities, he had one big technical defect from birth, which could never be removed: he was born a Baloch, which he was proud of.”
Waja Eido is a tribal elder and, following the Baloch tradition, has a large family. Apart from his various siblings — one sister is married in Gwadar, another in the neighbouring district of Turbat — he has two wives and numerous children and grandchildren. His immediate family, in a nutshell, comprises 19 members, but they are self-sufficient and prosperous. They do not seek handouts but, like other Pakistanis, Waja, too, is a born debtor of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But he believes in CPEC. Baranzai writes: [Waja’s] desire of becoming rich was on the rise, to the extent of his praying for [CPEC’s] success, to put the province on the path of success, to join the rich club.”
A fictional Urdu novella reflects the sentiments and fears of the people of Gwadar about their future
Here, it would be pertinent to mention that, although Baranzai titles his book as a “novel” on the cover, CPEC is actually shorter than a novella. In this brevity, we miss what could have been some interesting details about this large and extended family. And if novelists could be charged in the court of fictions for unjustly putting their characters to untimely and abrupt ends, I would have added Baranzai’s name to the list. He murders his characters out of nowhere, breaking up the sequence of the main story. For Waja Eido, for example, Baranzai writes that, when he died, all were sad. But how did he die? When? We don’t know. Nevertheless, he is buried in a graveyard in Gwadar — a detail that becomes important later on.
From Waja’s unexplained death, we jump directly to the second episode, which begins with his newly married son, Essa. In a reflection of his own journalistic background, Baranzai makes Essa, among other things, a columnist and an orator. Apart from writing adulatory pieces in the newspapers, Essa goes around the country proclaiming that CPEC is a game-changer. In his private discussions with Gwadaris from all walks of life, he assures them that all their woes — from the water crisis to the fishermen’s displacement — will disappear with CPEC. To anyone and everyone, his reply is the same: wait, success is imminent.
This depiction is somewhat true to reality. Ever since the announcement of CPEC in 2015, Gwadar — being the backbone of the project — has seen a manifold increase in its significance. It has made headlines in newspapers, on television, and its name is on everyone’s tongue. In the parts of Balochistan I’ve visited, I’ve found banners and signboards plastered by the locals everywhere, announcing ‘CPEC Tea Shop’, ‘CPEC Petrol Pump’, ‘CPEC Grocery’ and so on.
Unlike with Waja, Baranzai does a measure of justice to the character of Essa, properly showcasing his role as a backer of CPEC. Essa also gets a due death: after getting shot in Gwadar, he is taken to a hospital and news is sent out that he requires blood. Being a prominent personality, lots of his relatives show up to donate. However, many government officials have also descended upon the hospital to inquire after Essa’s health; their security details prevent Essa’s relatives from entering the premises and he succumbs to his injuries.
Baranzai then leaps into the future, to the years 2050, 2100 and 2150. Gwadar has changed. The descendents of Waja Eido Baloch hold menial jobs, such as repairing shoes or working as peons in corporate offices. They do not have the money or time to bury their dead, and neither do they have space in the graveyards. Waja’s last descendent in 2100 is Xi Shan Shao. The name is telling; Gwadar is now a Chinese state. When Xi Shan Shao, the poor cobbler descendant of the proud Baloch tribal dies, there is no place to bury him in the port town of his ancestors.
By 2150, the Baloch identity of Gwadar is extinct. All that exists of Baloch people and their culture are documentaries and films to be discussed and remembered by outsiders.
My biggest gripe with the novel is that it seems Baranzai was in a big hurry to complete it. Most characters have their stories wrapped up too quickly, which is disappointing for readers who might want to know more about, for example, Sudais — Xi Shan Shao’s father and the last of Waja Eido’s descendants to have a Baloch name. Another is the production value of the book; the quality of binding is poor and, as I read, the pages just started falling out. Of course, this is the fault of the publisher and not the writer and it shows just how little effort we are putting into producing literature in readable form.
Despite such shortcomings, however, Baranzai ably portrays the sentiments of his people, that even those in favour of CPEC will ultimately end up landless in their own land. It may not happen in the immediate future, he seems to say, but it will happen nonetheless. Baranzai writes that CPEC is his personal analysis of the current situation; if proven right, he will be deeply unhappy. If proven wrong, he will be “100 per cent happy.” This begs the question: do the policymakers in the country intend to disprove Baranzai’s analysis and include the apprehensive Gwadaris in the overall development of CPEC? Only time will tell.
CPEC: A Novel
By Shaheen Baranzai
The reviewer is a member of staff. He tweets @Akbar_notezai
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 13th, 2020