The Holy Quran asserts that the djinn — beings of a paranormal race that resides alongside ours — are made of smokeless fire. That is, they are an energy source that, like mankind (and unlike Islamic angels), possess free will.
In Islamic theology, the most famous djinn Iblees — more commonly known now as Shaitaan — was one of God’s most devoted worshippers; there was not an atom of creation where he had not bowed his head in reverence of the Almighty. His ultimate rebellion, though, was that he refused — even though the Almighty commanded it — to acknowledge mankind as his superior. It was a transgression for which he was indefinitely cast out of God’s favour. The hatred he developed for the human race manifested itself in his becoming the greatest adversary of humankind, a position he assiduously maintains to this very day.
But those readers who race towards A.A. Jafri’s text expecting to be regaled by a highly supernatural tale are bound to be disappointed, although there is plenty else to be admired in this book. Mansoor ul Haq, the son of an affluent and thoroughly Anglicised lawyer, is declared a djinn at birth by the maid who attends it, simply because he is quite literally too hot to handle when he is born. The baby cools down rapidly, but the maid Kaneez’s fear of him does not.
His parents — father Noor and mother Farhat — welcome the child’s arrival, especially since he has been safely delivered after 11 previous miscarriages. Jokingly referred to as the cricket game’s “12th man” by one of Noor’s closest friends, the boy has a perfectly ordinary childhood and youth. Nothing about him at that juncture denotes that he is a supernatural being to be feared.
Mansoor’s closest friends are well-developed characters; these include Kaneez’s daughter Mehrun, who is referred to as churrail [witch] again for no logical rhyme or reason whatsoever, and a Christian bhangi [sweeper] boy named Joseph Solomon. The significance of Joseph’s last name was not lost on me, since the Prophet Solomon could command the djinn at will, but aside from being an enterprising and ambitious child, there is nothing particularly magical about Joseph either.
Those expecting to be regaled by a highly supernatural tale are bound to be disappointed, but there is plenty else to be admired in this fine debut novel
Much of the novel grapples with how social superstition tends to affect the psyches of the weak-minded, although superstition is less of a persistent evil in the novel as opposed to the cruel and rampant elitism that Mansoor’s low-caste childhood companions consistently struggle against.
Mehrun is a clever and attractive girl whose deep desire to learn English, get educated and break free of her lowly social position is beautifully portrayed by Jafri. She does succeed in making her way in the world by means of a combination of book-smarts and street-smarts, although she exchanges one tragic position for another by ending up trapped in a loveless marriage to a wealthy homosexual.
Joseph exchanges his dreams of becoming a film star, like ‘Chocolate Hero’ Waheed Murad, for the great American dream, and we all applaud when he achieves his goals. His sojourns at Napier Road in Karachi and his frequenting of cinemas — which interject brief pornographic scenes in otherwise major classic films — are particularly entertaining.
But let us return to Mansoor. An obedient son and a caring friend, he is truly one of the most virtuous characters in the novel. An only child, he is often called upon to mediate between a liberal father whose anti-establishment views are outranked only by his heavy dependence on the likes of Chivas Regal, and a mother who becomes increasingly religious as the novel progresses.
Noor ul Haq’s friends include a spirited journalist, Haider; an Ahmadi academic, Sadiq, who is every bit as Anglicised as Mansoor’s father; and Zakir, who eventually becomes just as fanatical as the men who — much to Noor and his son’s dismay — impress Farhat Haq.
But the changes in their lives are gradual and Jafri does an admirable job of underscoring Mansoor’s bildungsroman against a political and social backdrop that ranges from the time of Gen Ayub Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto all the way to the ultimate assassination of Gen Ziaul Haq.
Noor’s tragedy is that, in his own way, he is as good a man as his son turns out to be. His career flourishes in a Pakistan that is not bogged down by dogmatic propaganda and extremism, but his liberated spirit obviously does not adapt well to the changes, especially when a close Ahmadi friend of his is brutally murdered.
Mansoor gets emotionally torn apart by loving sympathy for his mother on the one hand, and genuine respect for his intellectual and sophisticated father on the other. But that is not what ultimately causes his downfall. Or perhaps I should say Pyrrhic victory as opposed to downfall, since he goes out in a blaze of glory that is arguably the most supernatural occurrence in the book.
I do not wish to mar a reader’s experience of this engaging novel with spoilers; suffice to say that he ends up grappling with the machinations of a villain who is every bit as venal and low as Mansoor is noble-minded and pure of heart. The villain’s ugly murder of Mansoor’s beloved dog rivals that of Isabella’s hapless puppy at the hands of Wuthering Heights’s savage Heathcliff!
Speaking of Wuthering Heights, Western readers will be delighted by Jafri’s grasp over the Western canon in general and fine literature in particular. Of Smokeless Fire, although quintessentially Pakistani in nature, is peppered with highly informed allusions to brilliant classics such as Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, along with intricate references to Greek mythology, such as the tales of Lethe, Sisyphus and Eros.
Jafri’s portrayal of the salient features of post-Partition Karachi is remarkably authentic, and his writing style bespeaks a classical education that elegantly infuses the rhythms of his English prose with the type of literary grace that can only come from a long engagement and familiarity with fine books.
His, too, is a fine book and well worth the read, although I was a trifle surprised to find that there is no mention of a major Quranic feature regarding djinn phenomenon — they are separated from the realm of the angels by heavenly fire termed ‘Shahab’ in Arabic. But that may well be because, by means of his central character, Jafri wishes to implicitly portray that it is free will that makes humans and djinn alike susceptible to choices that map out their respective destinies.
Unlike the angels, Mansoor makes personal and professional choices over the course of the book that ultimately enable us to realise why he is both a heroic man, and finally also perhaps why Kaneez was not far from correct in terming him a djinn.
The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi
Of Smokeless Fire
By A.A. Jafri
Penguin Viking, India
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 29th, 2021