The Return of Faraz Ali
By Aamina Ahmad
Riverhead, US
ISBN: 978-0593330180
352pp.

In British writer Aamina Ahmad’s debut novel The Return of Faraz Ali, set between the 1930s and ’70s, the titular character is a police officer posted to Tibbi Station in Lahore’s Walled City, to cover up the brutal murder of a girl named Sonia.

Pulling Faraz’s strings is Wajid, a high-level bureaucrat who is also his father, but both men keep this relationship a secret. We are told that Wajid “rescued [Faraz], a Kanjar from Shahi Mohalla, from the curse of a grim ancestry and an even grimmer future.”

Although having rarely met his son — Faraz was sent away to be raised by distant relatives — Wajid has told him not to contact his mother. This is something Faraz himself understands, because he’s ashamed of his origins in the red-light area.

From early on, the novel situates Faraz’s identity as a “Kanjar man” in a fatalistic manner: “Kanjari women were born to entertain men, and Kanjar men, if they did anything at all, did the selling. It had always been that way. And it would have been the same for Faraz were it not for Wajid.”

A debut novel frames its narrative as a detective story to explore power structures in Pakistan and the plight of sex workers amidst the narrow alleyways of Lahore’s Old City

Faraz, his mother Firdous and his sister Rozina seem trapped by this identity-linked fatalism and unable to imagine and summon new futures for themselves. It is only toward the end, when Faraz returns from India as a freed prisoner of war, that a shift happens in the characters’ trajectories.

Firdous dies, Rozina marries a doctor and moves to the United Kingdom and Faraz and his wife Musarrat finally have a moment of mutual recognition, signalling a positive shift in their relationship, perhaps. And we learn that Mina, Rozina’s daughter, has moved out of the Mohalla.

Faraz’s lack of agency as a police inspector is both frustrating and insightful to witness. He can walk into the homes of politicians, but the uniform guarantees little more than entry. However, he appears to be someone accustomed to brutality, to suppressing instincts of kindness towards others; for instance, in an early scene when he and his constables are assigned to take down protestors marching against Gen Ayub Khan’s rule, he hesitates only momentarily before performing his duty, which is to beat up the young protesters.

At first glance, framing the narrative as a detective story feels suitable for exploring the power structures in Pakistan and the plight of sex workers amidst the narrow alleyways of the Old City. The author pays much attention to evoking authentic details about life in the Old City between the 1940s and ’70s. She cites such books as Louise Brown’s The Dancing Girls of Lahore: Selling Love and Saving Dreams in Pakistan’s Pleasure District and Fouzia Saeed’s Taboo! The Hidden Culture of a Red Light Area as her source material.

However, those expecting a traditional detective story might be disappointed. Unlike, say, Thomas Pynchon’s darkly comic Inherent Vice or Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans — that also use the genre of the detective story to delve into the gory underbelly of a city in a different time period — The Return of Faraz Ali privileges clinical and journalistic images. The history and politics of the city mould and direct the novel much more than Faraz’s yearnings, or a transformative aesthetic frame, and I often craved for more drama in the book’s domestic spaces.

For instance, after Faraz sleeps with Sonia’s mother Mehru — in a scene that induces unease and thrills — no attempt is made to explore their relationship further. Later, when she introduces him to his niece Mina, the possible tensions and yearnings between Mehru and Faraz seem to have evaporated.

At the same time, the journalistic gaze rests for long periods on Ghazi, Wajid’s old friend from the war. Ghazi is the kind of despicable human one is most likely to encounter in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, but there is no Virgil or Dante here to guide us past men like him, to mediate their actions.

At certain moments, the camera pans to Ghazi and simply rests there. In such moments, it’s his point of view that the novel seems interested in, perhaps because as he climbs over various rungs of power, through him the ruthlessness of the state against the citizens can be best seen. But there is no new critique of Pakistani power structures here and it’s unsurprising to find out that Ghazi has risen to become a general in the army, and then the governor of Punjab.

The roofs of the houses in Lahore’s Walled City are a strong motif in Aamina Ahmad’s book, showing how the peculiar architecture moulds people’s lives
The roofs of the houses in Lahore’s Walled City are a strong motif in Aamina Ahmad’s book, showing how the peculiar architecture moulds people’s lives

It is in the scenes set in Dhaka that one realises the advantages of the journalistic gaze. As a Punjabi policeman posted to the East Pakistani city — punishment for disobeying orders in Lahore — Faraz, a mere spectator of the atrocities committed against Dhaka’s citizens, is a suitable lens. Here, his lack of agency is even welcome, because — as a result of his experiences in the Old City — he understands how the people in power are running the country and what they are capable of. He knows it’s useless to try to change the course of events already set in motion.

Ahmad’s novel is a rewarding but difficult read that often left me overwhelmed as I grappled with its train of unsavoury characters and events. It reminded me of William Faulkner’s bestselling novel Sanctuary, in which there is a dearth of characters for whom the reader can root and the unsavoury ones reveal through their actions the larger societal problems facing the American South.

The roof jumping scenes in Ahmad’s novel are perhaps my favourite. Roofs are a strong motif in the story and vaulting across them links the residents of Shahi Mohalla: early on, when Rozina urges a young Faraz to jump the roof to escape the people sent by Wajid’s family to take him away from Shahi Mohalla, the whole scene is observed by neighbours from their own roofs.

Roofs also give children and young girls mobility within the neighbourhood. Mina casually hops across a few to meet her lover — the murdered Sonia’s brother, Irfan — and I craved for more such moments and situations, where the peculiar architecture of Shahi Mohalla is seen moulding people’s lives.

A roof is also the setting for an important encounter between Rozina and Mina, where the girl pauses at the edge of one, just before jumping, and looks back to ask if Rozina is her real mother. As Mina waits for Rozina’s response, both the reader and Rozina wait with bated breath for Mina to jump to the next roof.

Although instructed by his father to not contact his mother and sister, Faraz yearns for them. He looks for them once he’s posted to Shahi Mohalla, but is never able to reunite with Firdous and we are left to wonder if he will ever meet Rozina again.

At the end, he tracks down Sonia’s family, unaware that Irfan is now married to Mina. Standing outside their house in a settlement near the Ferozwala village, Faraz realises that Mehru and Irfan have endured the murder of Sonia, that they have survived. The reunion between Faraz and Mina in Mehru and Irfan’s presence is the closest the novel comes to giving closure to the reader. I wished the reunion scenes went longer. I also wondered about Faraz’s reunion with Mehru, which is taking place, but not explored.

The novel is most moving when it chronicles the lives of Firdous, Rozina and Mina. They are sympathetic figures, capable of great cruelty but eventually human — worthy subjects for literature. Unlike Ghazi and Wajid, the women never veer into the territory of caricature and, through them, the weighty discourse of history, power, politics and crime flows seamlessly.

There is much in the book I was grateful for: the author’s pristine sentences and her unwavering ambition in exploring important political and historical themes; the portrait of Lollywood in the 1960s; the literary and political life of Lahore; and the unflinching vision of Pakistani bureaucracy and military. It is a welcome addition to the canon of Pakistani fiction in English.

The reviewer has an MFA from Purdue University and a PhD from Florida State University. He tweets @MunibAhmadKhan

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 13th, 2022

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