FICTION: PROJECT PROMISED LAND

Published October 24, 2021
High-rise shopping malls, office buildings and sundry restaurants are now the dominating feature of modern-day Karachi’s coastline
High-rise shopping malls, office buildings and sundry restaurants are now the dominating feature of modern-day Karachi’s coastline

Zain Saeed, Habib University’s in-house professor of creative writing and literature, forays into a part-fiction, partly realistic world with his intriguing novel Little America that, ironically, is quintessentially Pakistani as opposed to American.

What is ‘Little America’ then, one might ask? Good question. It is a building project that the protagonist Sharif Barkati becomes closely involved in, that — like all liberal projects — has its roots in the release of repressed sentiment in Pakistan, along with a very human desire to experience pleasure and escape, if only temporarily, from the drudgery of everyday living.

The novel commences by informing us that Sharif is currently in prison for a crime he committed in relation to the building project; the latter involved the creation of a pyramidical structure on Karachi’s coastline, where alcohol would flow freely and people could shop, eat and relax to their hearts’ content. Dolmen Mall and sundry restaurants have now sprouted along the coast of modern-day Karachi, but some people will be reminded of a time when the abandoned casino was the only structure — aside from the more distant Manora — that dominated the waves lapping along Karachi’s famous beach.

Sharif recounts his life in a bildungsroman, picaresque tradition; this is where one can observe Saeed’s training in literature coming into play, albeit most likely this was not a conscious move on the author’s part. Saeed writes with elegance and fluency, and his sense of humour will be appreciated by virtually anyone who peruses the book.

For instance, there is a delightful moment where a woman on whom Sharif has a crush knocks on his door, and he recounts that his “Hello, come in” would have sounded like “Lotrimin” — the name of an antifungal cream — because of his having a mini-stroke from the excitement and arousal!

Zain Saeed’s quintessentially Pakistani, fast-paced debut novel written with elegance and humour will most certainly be appreciated by anyone who reads it

But I am getting ahead of myself because of my own excitement about the merits of the novel.

Sharif comes from a lower-income household in Mahmoodabad, although his father manages to place the boy in one of the toniest private schools in the city. Sharif recounts an incident when, as a child, he witnessed an on-screen kiss at the cinema, and then a part-religious, part-hypocritical audience’s outraged reaction to it, which resulted in a bullet destroying the screen, no less! Perhaps the seeds of his personal liberalism were sown then, for reality begins to meet fiction when he permits amorous couples to make out in his family car, which his father allows him to drive in his teen years.

A typically elite and good-looking schoolmate named Sikander uses Sharif in order to carry out his amorous trysts in secret with a classmate named Laila, on whom Sharif develops a deep and lustful crush. At that stage, she has no intentions of returning his affections, and Sharif’s beating at the hands of an enraged Sikander (on whom he takes revenge much later) leaves him broken, both mentally and physically, for a year. On recovering, he manages to get a service post at a pizza joint on Tariq Road — largely, he suspects, because of the influence of his only true school-friend, Afzal.

It is here that Sharif meets TJ, a wealthy young entrepreneur. And his life changes.

Suave, charming and elegantly predatory, with both illicit and personal funds at his disposal, TJ seduces Sharif into becoming his business partner in the construction of the Pyramid, a liberal, high-end, food and shopping area on the coast.

A caring son (especially when it comes to his gentle, domesticated mother), Sharif is pleased to be able to make money and move his parents out of their dingy, almost slum-like quarters, into a decent three-bedroom apartment in Dhoraji and then eventually into a spacious Defence palace complete with marble floors.

Enterprising and not lacking courage, he pursues several dead-end leads on TJ’s behalf in search of an alcohol supplier for the Pyramid, until finally he strikes gold with the deliciously named Mr Honey, who agrees to discreetly supply the project with as much booze as needed.

But the Pyramid itself is less discreet about many things. TJ encourages and requests visitors to engage freely in public displays of affection, and the gay Afzal responds to this by kissing his boyfriend in full view of everyone. Others follow suit, including a couple whom Sharif loyally protected from the police when they were caught making out in the Barkati family car in his school years.

Readers may wonder how much of this is parodical, satirical, or just plain farcical, but frankly it does not matter. The writing is enjoyable and Saeed’s way of giving voice to cultural repression is wonderfully creative. This is not to say that the Pyramid does not have to encounter nuisances from the police force barging in — a juncture at which TJ takes Sharif to task for flinching and showing fear.

Perhaps what helps dispel some of Sharif’s fear of life is a sexual, romantic involvement with a gorgeous American woman named Daria, who possesses grey eyes and obvious experience. A bit of a dil phaink [a man who wears his heart on his sleeve], Sharif falls for her as easily as he did for Laila. While the consequences of the American dalliance are not quite as disastrous, the reader gradually realises that here is a protagonist whose heart rules his head in more ways than one, and who may well be headed for disaster — evidenced when, at a pivotal moment in the story, Sharif is turned away from the gates of the promised land, if not exactly ignobly then certainly firmly.

In the inimitable Hollywood film Dead Poets’ Society, English teacher Mr Keating tells his student Charlie, that, “Sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.” This is exactly what happens when TJ expands the Pyramid’s social sphere to include part of the beach itself, and a burqa-clad woman — who throws off her outer garments to reveal a bikini — gets roughed up by an incensed crowd.

A burqa-clad Laila also waltzes back into Sharif’s life, and while I will not divulge more of the plot here, suffice to say that the encounter leads to disastrous consequences for Sharif and, eventually, the Pyramid itself.

It is impossible not to feel sympathetic towards Sharif, fool though he may be on some fronts. The novel’s various settings — ranging from Sharif’s schooldays, to the Pyramid, to his interaction with a prison inmate who lost a hand while executing a bomb attack — are all adeptly sketched.

In spite of the sheer amount of detail that Saeed manages to pack into a relatively tightly structured 300 pages, the novel is a fast, easy, and enjoyable read. Perhaps American culture and Pakistani life make for an ultimately failed marriage, although from Sharif’s perspective it is a love marriage with all the concomitant risks and tribulations. But going from pizza to Pyramid requires heroism of sorts, and Sharif Barkati is more heroic than most.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Little America
By Zain Saeed
Reverie, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9692352437
305pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 24th, 2021

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