Saad Shafqat is a leading neurologist at Karachi’s prestigious Aga Khan University Hospital and cricket columnist at Cricinfo. He speaks to Eos about his latest novel Rivals and what he’s working on next

For a neurologist, choosing to write fiction is unusual. What motivated you to go down this route?

I have always enjoyed narrating stories, so the motivation to produce fiction was really to just spin a good yarn that would engage and entertain the reader. Although you’re right that being a neurologist doesn’t intuitively align with writing fiction, it’s worth noting that Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a neurologist and even wrote a masterful thesis on tabes dorsalis, a late form of neurosyphilis. Other medical doctors, too, have been acclaimed fiction writers — Anton Chekhov, Somerset Maugham, Khaled Hosseini, Robin Cook and Michael Crichton among them. In fact, I grew up reading a lot of Robin Cook and that’s certainly been part of my inspiration.

There were some striking similarities between the location and workings of Avicenna Hospital and the one where you work in real life. How much of Rivals is inspired by your own experiences?

Well, actually, quite a bit. I suppose you write what you know. What I mean to say is that while writing fiction is a creative exercise, the raw material for it has to come from somewhere, and perhaps it’s only natural that it comes from one’s own real-life experiences. The English novelist P.D. James once famously observed that “all literature is largely autobiographical.” I should point out, however, that despite any similarities and parallels with my workplace, the story of Rivals is still very much a piece of fiction. I’ve made it all up.

Since the news cycle is so fast these days, it was almost nostalgic to read about Karachi from 10 years ago, where suicide bombings and terror attacks were a common occurrence. Was it a conscious decision to base the story in that turbulent chapter of the city’s past, or was the book written during that point in time?

I began writing this book in 2012 or 2013, when the horror of terrorism was still a relatively fresh memory for Karachiites. It certainly dominated my thoughts, as I’m sure it did for most of us in this city. But this book isn’t about terrorism. The suicide bombing comes early, in the second chapter, but I’ve used it primarily as a foothold to facilitate plot development. Mercifully, the terror incidents are now well behind us, hopefully permanently. But we can’t deny they have left a scar and, to this extent, it’s still something we can all relate to.

Rivals is billed as a medical thriller, a label I found misleading. Was this a decision on your part, or the publishers, since the book reads more like a drama set in a medical hospital?

You are absolutely correct. While Rivals is a fast-paced tale of the tussles and scuffles that take place in an academic university hospital, its tautness comes from interpersonal conflict with gender overtones between leading medical personalities, and not from the process of delivering medical care. So, in this sense, it’s more a drama of professional intrigue set in a hospital, as you have aptly put. And yes, the decision to cast it as a medical thriller came from my publisher, Bloomsbury.

Do you plan on writing more books in the Avicenna Hospital series?

It’s a very tempting idea. Hospitals, particularly teaching hospitals, are complex, multi-layered human ecosystems, where the pathos is endless and the stakes are no less than life and death itself. It’s highly fertile ground for storytelling. Although I’ve played around with a few non-medical plots in my head, I keep coming back to the hospital setting. On top of this, the Aga Khan University Hospital [on which Avicenna is loosely based] is not just my workplace of two decades and counting, but also my alma mater, so my connection with the institution is deep and textured. Channelling this into fiction has proved strangely fulfilling. So, yes, I would say there’s more to come.

What facets of Karachi do you think lend themselves well to thrillers?

Pretty much everything about the city, I feel, is a potential thriller waiting to be penned. Crime, social inequality, ethnic politics, gang wars, the water mafia, the beggar mafia, people with aspirations and dreams, people who make it big, people who get chewed up and spat out, people who play the rules, people who make the rules — you name it and it’s embedded here as a gripping plotline ready to be brought to life. I suppose this is quite inevitable, given the reality of Karachi as a developing world megalopolis populated by a turbulent society and situated in a geopolitically turbulent neighbourhood.

What sort of books do you like to read in your spare time?

My reading habits are erratic, but cover a wide range — fiction, both literary and commercial — non-fiction, mostly popular science, history and American politics, sports, mostly cricket biographies, and some Urdu literature. I’m currently reading a novel by the American writer Tommy Orange titled There There. It is a searing account of the anxieties of contemporary Native American society, a decaying population that hardly gets noticed, even within the United States.

In commercial fiction, you can’t go wrong with John Grisham, the undisputed grandmaster of thriller writing. The last book I finished was Burnt Sugar by the Indian writer Avni Doshi. It revolves around a complicated mother-daughter relationship and made last year’s Booker Prize shortlist. I also recently picked up Bano Qudsia’s Raja Gidh, but got distracted and hope to return to it. My nightstand is piled high with many partly read books that I hope to finish.

What are you working on next?

I’m about half-done with a book tentatively titled Twelfth Man. It’s a fictionalised account of a group of teenage boys growing up in Karachi and falling in love with cricket and girls.

Since you have written extensively on both medicine and cricket, any plans of combining the two in your next work?

That is a fantastic suggestion. You’ve instantly got me thinking of a plot. Let’s say a star international cricketer gets injured during a high profile tournament and is hospitalised. There’s a lot of storytelling potential from that starting premise.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 12th, 2021

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