Ode to Karachi

Ode to Karachi
Every now and then comes along a book that needs to be savoured in detail, a book whose language flows like fine poetry and whose metaphors create a world unseen. Bilal Tanweer’s literary debut, The Scatter Here Is Too Great is a book of this kind.

Tanweer begins by creating an image before you, that of a bullet-smashed windscreen, where “the hole at the centre throws a sharp clean web around itself and becomes crowded with tiny crystals”. This is how he will show you his city — Karachi, “broken, beautiful and born of tremendous violence”. And when he says to you, “Listen,” you do, spelbound.

The narration is done by different voices, speaking of the experiences of different people which make the book seem like a collection of short stories, but with all of them converge at a single event: a bomb blast at a station in the heart of the city. Tanweer keeps the poetic but combines it with the grotesque, creating a shocking mixture.

A little boy who gets teased for his teeth and who spews abuses that he cannot recall later; Comrade Sukhansaz, an old communist poet who’s harassed on a bus; Sadeq, the man whose job is to snatch cars from people that have defaulted on their bank loans; Asma, the young girl who spins tales for her little brother to conceal her own heartbreak; Akbar, the ambulance driver who has seen two men at the blast site that nobody else noticed — men that he is sure are Gog and Magog, the two fiends mentioned in the Quran who will appear on Judgement Day.

There are stories within stories, and they bring a certain ethereal quality to the writing. It hangs like a cloud — seemingly surreal but the keeper of promises to the earth. The promise that Tanweer upholds here is of making the reader see the violence in Karachi — indeed, the violence for which Pakistan is so in the news — from an angle that the newspapers and headlines wouldn’t ever be able to show.

“One way to give you this account is to ‘name the streets and number the dead’. Another is to give you this scatter I have gathered… read the crystal design on the broken screen.” That’s Tanweer’s promise to you and that is what he does. He takes you beyond the blast of a bomb going off, into the silences in the crevices around it — “These stories, I realised, were lost. Nobody was going to know that part of the city but as a place where a bomb went off. The bomb was going to become the story of this city.”

Not if he has his way. This book is Tanweer’s ode to Karachi, a love letter signed in blood. It is his ode to the people, their folklore, their beliefs, their struggles, their sufferings, their loves and their joys. Stories, he says, “were reasons that allowed us to connect ourselves to the world, to compose ourselves in ways that others could read”. You are listening, he says. Yes, we are.

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