It is indeed a refreshing change to come across a contemporary piece of literary work which presents a flip-side to the current trends in depiction of the Pakistani culture. This story has an earthy feel of realism, despite the involvement of several mystical experiences. Its focus transcends the now-usual emphasis on urban issues such as drugs and wild parties, that most recent writings seem to center on.
Karim Asfar is visiting Pakistan from Boston for the first time. Although grounded in basic cultural/Islamic principles, Karim’s understanding of who he actually is, is not really very clear and BinaShah, the writer often uses the acronym of ABCD (American Born Confused Desi), to explain his feelings. (The fact stands steadfast that with the lessening of boundaries, exposure, and unfolding of life’s events in their own space and rhythm, most of us are more or less forced to deal with identity crises to make sense of what’s happening around us) Karim, reaching Pakistan faces the usual quagmire of confusing emotions. The lawlessness, traffic, dirt, misery…he sees it all and wants to escape back to America – escape from the reality that his parents homeland is all of this. Staying with his cousin Akbar’s family, he goes off to meet someone in a bank for a job interview but chickens out at the last minute and ends up getting a small job at Samandar, a local NGO. It is from here that events unfold that change his life forever. He falls in love with his colleague Nazli, thinks of a grand plan to ‘do’something about the pitiful state of affairs by reaching out to Abdullah – a street urchin he meet sat the shrine – and ends up getting everyone into a lot of mess.
Along with all this, he grows spiritually by becoming interested in Sufism. His interest dawns upon him gradually. It begins with his cousin taking him to a dhamal session at the Shrine of Ghazi Shah Baba. Is getting ‘drunk’ on the repetitive beats of the drum (if it is not a state of intoxication brought on by actual bhang), what Sufism is all about? Gradually, bit by bit he is led towards the answers as he discovers himself. The parts about Sufism later on border somewhat on the fantastical. There is the little mazar where Akbar is led to in times of a crisis, a photograph of the saint who appeared to have been seen at Ghazi Shah Baba’s shrine by Karim but who had actually died hundred years ago. But having used the word fantastical, it is hard to dismiss the esoteric happenings as a figment of someones imagination because if you believe in the world of the unseen, then a part of you has to believe in almost anything albeit how strange and unbelievable it may appear to be.
At this point Bina’s writes ‘ Karim looked out of the window at the now-familiar cityscape passing before his eyes. The trucks, the people, the summer sun striking the pavement, the trees that struggled for air, and above it all, the bright blue sky, a window that people reached for in between the busy moments of their lives. He knew suddenly why everyone put such faith in saints. It was their way of feeling they were in control, in a shiftless world. The shrines and their master, listening silently without disapproval or censure, provided a system that people felt they could depend on , when they could not rely on the police, the hospitals, the schools, the banks. And if God listened or did not listen, that was his choice, but at least the saints had done their job, as they had been doing for centuries. It was comfort, it was reassurance, it was security.’
All in all, Bina’s writing is vivid – the mood of the writing helps paint visuals and scenes in the minds eyes very easily; it is thought provoking – she is able to get to the heart of the matter on most issues that confuse the youth (or is it everyone), about the eternal question of who am I. Or rather who am I really? What are my belief’s? What is gained by praying at shrines? Can dead people intervene in the answering of prayers? The questions are profound and many. There are no really no pat answers – the only solace seeming to be that of God and pleas sent directly to him as Karim and Akbar both do so when faced with a life changing crises. Karachi is depicted as a city of changing moods withits dust and grime and cool evenings by the sea. Itseems to be a book specially aimed at understanding the youth of Pakistan and the multitude of emotions they deal with as they try hard to balance the East with the West in a struggle to achieve that elusive balance where one can enjoy the best of both cultures.With its blend of religion, spirituality, rock concerts, ABCD’s, and sprinklings of wit, the book is engaging reading!