Pakistani author Osman Haneef’s promising debut, The Verdict, is generating a fair amount of well-deserved buzz nowadays. This compact and slim book takes a deep dive into the phenomenon of religious extremism — specifically our infamous blasphemy law — and shines a bright light on the heavy toll it exacts on minority and marginalised communities in Pakistan.
This is a conversation we never seem to get around to, but one we very desperately need to have because our silence has consequences: the Centre for Social Justice reported recently that 200 blasphemy cases occurred in the last year — the highest number so far. Moreover, the trends seem to be changing. Most blasphemy charges were not levelled against other faiths, but against fellow Muslims.
The book starts off at a brisk pace: our protagonist, Sikander Ghaznavi, is a lawyer well settled in Boston. He returns home to Quetta to mourn the passing of his childhood nanny, Abhey, and finds a Pakistan that has disturbingly changed. Sikander runs into fellow lawyer and former flame Sanah, who is now married to his childhood nemesis Fazeel, a rough and tough military man and veteran of the Kargil War.
Sikander also meets Danesh, a bright and charming young boy and his sister Mena, from the Christian community, living the precarious life typical of minorities in Pakistan. There is also a soothsayer, Pir Paya, who features all too briefly, but whose hypnotic presence dominates the book.
Every character harbours secrets. Tensions simmer on every front, erupting cataclysmically when Danesh is accused of blasphemy and tossed in jail to face the death penalty. Sikander is finally forced to snap out of his escapist, self-centred worldview and confront squarely the ghosts that he thought he had left behind so many years ago.
In our part of the world, these types of tragedies tend to share a common template, well familiar to those who have followed the stories of Salamat Masih, Junaid Hafeez, Aasia Bibi etc. We have all the stock characters here: the mute and pitiful victim, the corrupt and self-righteous accusers, the crusading human rights lawyer, an ineffectual and compromised legal system and a tight-knit community thrown in disarray.
A taut and fast-paced debut novel shines a bright light on the marginalisation of the minority and poor communities of Pakistan
A restless public spectates from the sidelines, waiting for the slightest excuse to morph into a raging mob. And in the background looms the constant, silent shadow of the United States-led so-called war on terror and all of its uncomfortable contradictions, which have silently woven themselves into the fabric of daily lives. If there is one hard lesson we learn from this book, it is that choices have consequences.
The Verdict has been years in the making and it shows. It is a work of fiction, but solidly grounded in reality. One can discern the author’s own lived experience in the careful and meticulously detailed observations that make up Sikander’s daily experiences. In interviews, author Haneef has talked about putting the pieces together during his free time from his day job as a technology entrepreneur. He also talks about the extensive research he undertook, how he actually consulted lawyers regarding the legal arguments made in the book, how he sifted through legal cases himself and actually sat through courtroom proceedings in Quetta to get a feel for the atmosphere.
The Verdict is not without its flaws, though. For one, it attempts to be lots of things: a social critique, a legal thriller, a hero-returns-home-to-his-roots story, a love triangle and it is very difficult, if not downright impossible, to succeed in all ambitions at once. The writing is expressive and fluid, with a luminescent, haunting quality in places — especially in the descriptions of Quetta — but occasionally there is an awkward turn of phrase or two. This is a problem that bedevils most non-native English writers.
It also seems as if the story ends a bit too soon, when there is quite a bit of life left in the characters. It would have been very interesting to follow them for a little longer. And the much harder question hangs unspoken in the air at the end: how does one build anew after tragedy?
But the positives far dominate the negatives. Apart from highlighting the plight of minorities, the book also emphasises — with bold, stark strokes — the lived experience of the poor and the disenfranchised. In Pakistan Studies classes in school, we may scorn the Hindu caste system with its fundamental inequities, but we are quite casual with the pervasive caste systems in our own house.
In a moment of poignant depth, victim Danesh launches into a cry not unfamiliar to us: “What is my crime? That I was born a Christian? Does that make me any less human? Don’t I have hands, feet, a heart, a brain and feelings just like everyone else? I feel pain. I feel hurt. I eat the same daal. I enjoy a funny joke. I’m like everyone else... Yet, I get bullied and called a choora and treated like I’m not even a person. I don’t understand it. Why am I being punished? For a religion I didn’t even choose?”
The blurb on the cover of the book draws comparisons to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which is certainly apt for this theme, but the taut pace and the intrigue have far more in common with a John Grisham thriller. The myriad twists and turns would also adapt very naturally to the big screen, but can such a film be made in Pakistan today?
This is why we desperately need more such books and stories. Literature is one of the most powerful tools we have to humanise the ‘other’ — the stranger and the foreigner — to connect with their reality, and to truly recognise them on their own terms. Such books start conversations, they change people. Social commentary of this sort is precious, rare and most urgently needed. Let us celebrate it when we find it.
The reviewer is an assistant professor at the NUST School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
By Osman Haneef
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 11th, 2021