“It wasn’t nostalgia I felt, it wasn’t even longing, it was something more immediate, a kind of stumbling encounter with someone too important to be forgotten but who had been forgotten nonetheless and was now leaning his weight on the door I had closed.”
-Bilal Tanweer, The Scatter Here is Too Great
Millions of people all over the world took to the streets over the past couple of weeks, showing solidarity with a magazine known for its trenchant satire, whose workforce was gutted by fanatics. There were also numerous documented cases of bigotry, perpetrated via social networks and television channels, by people ignorant enough to confuse said fanatics with an entire ethnicity of people.
A mindbogglingly heinous massacre in Peshawar last month plunged the entire world into shock. Visuals of mourning relatives (and others too devastated to register anything) were played endlessly over the world’s newsfeeds. The country’s political leaders put aside differences to unconditionally and unilaterally decry all forms of religious extremism. A small but vocal minority attempted to placate anguished parents by insisting their children had gone to heaven. The majority of the victims were between the ages of 5-16 years.
Dr Rahi Masoom Raza wrote a prescient portrait of religious tension in post-Independence India. Actually he wrote several, but the one I have read was called Topi Shukla, and it was equal parts bleakly funny allegory and love-letter to the circles (both social and intellectual) at Aligarh Muslim University just after Independence. The eponymous protagonist tries to reconcile the equanimity he feels with the animosity seen in his country, fails miserably, and kills himself. The novel blinks in and out of availability at eRetailers. Armchair conversations in our neighborhood continue pretty much along the lines it inscribed. The book came out in 1968.
The clan went south to usher in 2015 minus smog and single-digit temperatures. Two hours of our day in Cochin were spent navigating the seaside promenade, where we were mildly roasted, baffled by the lack of cars on Marine Drive, and slightly miffed at not having gone to the Fort area or Synagogue instead. On the final stretch, passing a small group of people draped on benches near an ice-cream cart, I finally slowed down long enough to watch the Marina transcend the sum of its parts.
Tourists descend upon a city seeking bright storefronts, distinctive architecture, touristy differences in culture. The heartbeat eludes them because it is fragile and built upon rhythm and routine and conversations where the city’s topography is casual participant rather than backdrop.
Talking about The Scatter Here is Too Great (because that’s what we’ve been doing), Bilal Tanweer traces out the heartbeat of Karachi more vividly than any map or historical account. His book contains multiple voices with multiple preoccupations, but they all retrace the same roads, cover the same ground. A bomb blast coalesces past, present and future even as it rips apart a busy intersection – and as with any grave injury, the heart beats faster, pumping blood out onto a pavement under the briny sun. We are horrified but unable to look away.
This brief review does not go into plot details because it’s a brief book – two hundred paperback pages, just enough for a long afternoon or a couple of shorter evenings. One mildly regrets reading the back cover because it carries more backstory than ideally needed – one of the pleasures of the narrative(s) is getting to join the dots.
Tanweer is immensely self-assured, comfortable juggling half a dozen POVs, and each story is a deftly constructed facet of a confused whole. The characters are set apart by the tics and mannerisms of their language, many of them having nothing in common except the setting. Their collective portrait of Karachi’s bylanes reminded me of the old Delhi of my childhood, the Marina not unlike the one at Cochin.
Torturous microcosms aside, a reader’s ambit can be limited to whether a book is worth recommending to his fellow reader – and if yes, why.
At a time when we seem to be choosing apathy over the sanctity of free expression, when writers across the board are being shunted into less unsettling modes (if not downright silenced), when rationality and a certain s-word are taken as farce at best and abuse at worst, it is refreshing to see a work which is unflinching in its portrayal of internal strife, and (when all is said and done) introduces us to people who share more sociolinguistic ground with us than trite campus romances or the more aloof inhabitants of Western literature.
Listen, as the writer’s fictional counterpart says again and again. Listen.
Then again, I have already made up your mind, one way or another.