FICTION: SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL

11 Oct 2020

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There is very little that is endearing about Ahmad Hassan and Ali Mustafa, the two anti-heroes of Abdul Qadir’s debut novel, Vapour Trails. Street-smart, entitled and equipped with the requisite doses of insincerity and cocky self-assuredness, they are familiar specimens of urban sensibilities in Pakistan.

If the author means to use them to convey a sense of over-indulgence, stagnation and decay, then he succeeds in doing so. But at times his intentions are unclear. Moments of brilliance are undercut by what comes across as an infatuation with the details of drug-running, motorcycles and the consumption of drugs and alcohol, the result being that too much time is spent glorifying these clichés.

Ahmad and Ali are privileged denizens of Islamabad, a “town where the right people stayed discreet” and “invisible to everyone else with regards to their endeavours.” They deal drugs not because they need the money, but for the thrill and “exhilaration of the grab and the run.” They partake in illicit moneymaking schemes — “the occasional foray into felony, so long as the price was right” — because it “beat the 9 to 5 in every which way possible.” To them, “grit and hard work” is “the old way.”

These tendencies are part of a condition that, in the novel, plagues an entire generation.

Ahmad, Ali and their friends all appear to be in pursuit of one form of escapism or another, in a society that has a pharmaceutical ‘cure’ for every human feeling. It is a world in which music is “the perfect substitute for silence” and the mere thought of sobriety is unbearable. Ahmad reflects, “Where the power of prayer failed, the rum always succeeded.” Even when hospitalised after an accident, he insists on being given a higher-than-normal dose of painkillers.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the mirage of ‘going clean’ — its mere presence serving as a consolation of sorts. To the proverbial junkie, the prospect of quitting drugs is comforting enough; few ever dare to actually do it. For those who do, such as Ahmad, it means steering clear of the heavy stuff, but not the hash or a handful of “pharmaceutical opioids.” Throughout the novel, the omnipresent “joint” is only an arm’s length away, on the verge of being passed, usually, to him. Others, however, such as his friend Sadia, “emerge reborn” after “disappearing for a few months”, “her days of puking in the streets and riding in cars with loud music, randy boys and careless drivers were behind her.”

A debut novel that shows promise when focusing on the human condition rather than on clichéd themes of drug-running and terrorism, which only serve to undermine it

When Ahmad wakes up next to the corpse of a girl, “her body beautifully dead in his bed”, both he and Ali consider quitting the drug business as well as drug consumption (the latter, of course, within bounds of reason). The naked corpse of an attractive woman is a grim metaphor for the allure of the decadent high life. The pair’s newfound moral concerns do not, however, stop them from pinning the blame for the girl’s death on their friend Wasif (from whose house Ahmad had picked her up). Haunted by a sense of misplaced guilt, Wasif soon dies of a heroin overdose.

Ahmad is correct in thinking that “prayers were not going to save them”, especially in Pakistan, where the “unseen force” pulling the strings is the almighty military intelligence. We learn that the pair has been “under watch” for “the past eight months” and that the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) is well versed in the details of their personal lives, dead girl and all. The two have been on the radar because of their links to a drug trafficker named Ameer Khan, for whom they distribute. Khan is now expanding his operations to include guns, which automatically brings the matter within the ambit of the government’s National Action Plan to crack down on terrorism.

“We want you to help us bring him down,” Major Burhan, head of the IATF, tells Ali after having him picked up. In other words, Ali and Ahmad are now moles and will continue to run drugs for Khan, while reporting all his activities to the major. Once Khan is nailed, they will be set free and their slates wiped clean. If, however, they “refuse to play ball”, the alternative is a decade of buggery in Adiala Jail. The major doesn’t mince his words: “This is not a negotiation. This is not a choice. You are expendable.” Given the circumstances, Ahmad later reflects, the “bad guys were a lot more civil than the good guys.”

On the surface, Ameer Khan’s quiet charisma and rural simplicity run in stark contrast to the weasel-like antics of city-dwellers such as Ali, or Shoaib Naseer the coke fiend, or occasionally, even Ahmad. Yet, there lurks at all times a sense of menace and volatility beneath his smile. Khan’s sinister second-in-command, Ramzan, meanwhile, warns him about Ahmad: “He’s from the city. Those people should not be trusted.”

While there would be women for sale at the locales, the truckers sometimes preferred the boys. Boys couldn’t be knocked up. And boys could be jockeyed anywhere, with no consideration for a room and a bed, in the truck, by the side of the road, in the toilets — pretty much anywhere. The boys would sometimes be huffed up on solvents, some too young to be exposed to the repugnant realities of the truck stop... — Excerpt from the book

Terrorism creeps into the story — as it tends to do in many other novels — perhaps because as a theme, it is believed to be ‘relevant’ to the times, even though it has turned into another cliché. There is mention of a mysterious creature referred to as “the Limping Cleric”, an overlord of sorts, who is involved in Ameer Khan’s gun-running endeavours.

The author’s powers of observation and his ability to produce poetically resonant prose are evident when he focuses on the details of his characters’ lives and the way certain places and situations make us feel. At one point, Ahmad wakes up at an odd hour and does not know what time it is: “It was a weird hour of the day, or night, Ahmad realised as he looked around. He was off balance, sitting in the scary but temporary confusion brought about by waking up outside of daylight hours. The television provided shelter from the immediate paranoia, its warm glow filling the room with the illusion of company. He didn’t care to look at the time. All he knew was that it was dark.”

Some sentences stick with you. While attending a get-together at a friend’s house, Ahmad notices the deteriorating condition of the once-classy mansion, “the cracks in the wall smelling of old money and ill maintenance.”

During a road trip through Sindh with a trucker named Talal, Ahmad remarks that the law does not reach as far deep into the province, to which Talal retorts, “The law, Ahmad bhai? God doesn’t reach as far deep into Sindh.” Meanwhile, on a visit to Karachi, Ali observes, “the stale smell of the city was beautiful ... [Karachi] carried with it a blissful indifference ... The traffic was aggressive, the people were indifferent, the billboards massive, advertising everything from snake oil to gentle suggestions on whom to vote for in the elections that had ended months ago.”

On the technical side, though, Vapour Trails contains numerous typos: Daharki, a town in Sindh, is misspelled as “Dharaki”. There are several instances where the capital letter is left out at the start of a sentence and the font on at least two pages is inconsistent with that of the rest of the book. There are some other errors, too, such as when travelling through Sindh via the N-5 (National Highway), Ahmad and Talal drive through “Ranikot”. If this is a reference to Rannikot Fort, then it is another misspelling and the location inaccurate — Rannikot is nowhere near the N-5; it lies several miles west of the N-55 (Indus Highway).

The reviewer is a Karachi-based journalist who has written for local and international publications. His writings can be accessed at alibhutto.com

Vapour Trails
By Abdul Qadir
Vishwakarma, India
ISBN: 978-9389624441
277pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 11th, 2020